Note lengths – Whole notes, half notes, quarter notes and much more

Note lengths

Note lengths are important in music: a note can be played (very) short, (very) long and everything in between.

You can measure note lengths in number of beats; but this can also be in fractions of a beat.

But, what is exactly a beat?

What is a beat?

A beat could be defined as the basic rhythmic unit in music.

When you clap your hands or tap your toes when you listen to a piece of music, you do that normally on every beat.

Notation of note lengths in the staff

Whole note, half note and quarter note

Some basic note lengths (or note values) are the whole note, the half note and the quarter note. You can see them displayed in the staff below.

whole note half note quarter note

The whole note has a duration of 4 beats. In 4/4 time, this corresponds to a whole measure, from where ‘whole note’ has its name. The duration of a half tone is half of that of a whole tone, so 2 beats. And, logically, a quarter note has a duration of 1 beat.

Listen to a sound sample of the whole note, half note and 2 quarter notes as in the staff above. The metronome clicks every beat. You will hear the metronome count 4 beats before it starts.

Remark: whole note and half note have nothing to do with whole tone and half tone. The first 2 are durations, the last 2 are intervals.

The stem of a note (the little vertical bar) can be pointed upwards (as in our previous examples), but also downwards. Generally spoken, the stem is upwards for notes in the lower half of the staff, and downwards in the upper half. See the next figure for an example.

note stem up down

Eighths notes and sixteenths notes

An eighth note has a duration half of that of the quarter note, which means a half beat. You can thus have two eighth notes in one beat. The note symbol for an eighth note is:

eighth note

A sixteenths note is again half as long as an eighth note. You can have 4 sixteenths notes in one beat.

The note symbol for a sixteenth note is:

sixteenth note

When 2 or more eighths or sixteenths notes are played after each other, you can make beamed notes as follows:

 

Combinations are also possible:

beamed notes combination

Look at the next combination of quarter notes, eighth notes and sixteenths notes and listen to the corresponding sound sample. The metronome starts with 4 beats before it begins.

quarter eighth sixteenth note

Other note lengths

By adding extra flags to the stem (little vertical bar on the note), we can make thirty-second notes (8 in a beat), sixty-fourth notes (16 in a beat), etcetera.

thirty-second sixty-fourth notes

We can augment the note length by 50% by adding a dot after the note, for example:

  • 1 + ½ = 1½ beats:       quarter note with dot
  • 2 + 1 = 3 beats:           half note with dot
  • ½ + ¼ = ¾ beats:        eighth note with dot

 

Remark: a ¾ beat note followed by a sixteenth note (¼ beat) can be notated as beamed notes, as follows:

eighth with dot sixteenth note

Example: look at the next combination of notes and listen to the corresponding sound sample. As always, the metronome starts with 4 beats before it begins.

notes with dots

What to do if we want a note with a duration of –let’s say- 2½ beats? We can do this by linking a half note (2 beats) and an eighth note (½ beat) together:

notes linked together

 

Make sure to master your knowledge of note lengths by doing the exercises that are available via the 2 links below:

 

Whole note, half note, quarter note. Choose the right staff with the audio

Half note, quarter note, eighth note. Choose the right staff with the audio

 

 

Please let us know what you think of this lesson by leaving a comment below.

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Martin Cohen
 

Martin Cohen is a science and piano teacher. He is also a jazz musician and composer.

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