Musical Note Durations: Understanding Note Values

Without rhythm music is meaningless, and it’s impossible to read rhythm without understanding note values. From sheet music to guitar tabs, all music requires rhythm.

The good news is, the musical concept of note duration is surprisingly straightforward.

Let’s take a look at the different types of notes you’ll find in music; the parenthesized terms are the British terminologies for the same thing so, for example, “semibreve” is synonymous with “whole note.”

Whole Note (Semibreve)

The whole note is the longest-lasting note in music. All other notes’ durations are based on that of the whole note.

In musical notation, the whole note is drawn as an open horizontal oval. When writing a whole note, make sure not to color in the middle.

A whole note

The whole note’s duration, like that of all other notes, depends on the time signature. You can read more about this in our guide to time signature.

Half Note (Minim)

As its name suggests, the half note has half the duration of a whole note. If a whole note is four beats long, a half note will be two.

To look at things differently, two half notes have the same duration as one whole note.

Half notes are drawn in the same way as whole notes, but with a stem attached to the right or left side of the note. Once again, make sure not to fill in the center. If you do, this will change the value of the note.

A half note

Stem Placement

If you’re uncertain which side the stem should go on, or which direction it should point, here’s a general rule:

If the note is on the middle (third) line of the musical staff, the stem of the note should point down and should be drawn on the left side.

If the note is below the middle line of the staff, the stem should be on the right side and point up. See the examples below for further guidance.

Stem placement of half notes

Quarter Note (Crotchet)

The next up in the hierarchy of note durations, the quarter note has a fourth of the duration of the whole note.

If a whole note lasts for four beats according to the time signature, a quarter note lasts one.

Conversely, four quarter notes hold the same combined duration as a single whole note.

It follows, then, that two quarter notes make up a half note.

A quarter note is drawn in the same way as a half note, but the center is colored in.

A quarter note

The stem should be placed following the same guidelines we used for half notes.

Eighth Note (Quaver)

Moving on down the line, you could probably guess that an eight note is:

  • An eighth of the length of a whole note
  • A quarter of the length of a half note
  • Half the length of a quarter note

In other words, there are eight eighth notes in a whole note.

Eighth notes are drawn in the exact same way as quarter notes, and with the same stem rules.

The only difference is a “flag” that’s added to the stem of the note.

An eighth note

When a series of eighth notes are drawn side by side, their flags are typically connected. This doesn’t change their value; two connected eighth notes still hold the combined value of one quarter note.

Two connected eighth notes

Sixteenth Note (Semiquaver)

Sixteenth notes are the smallest note duration that’s common. You’re unlikely to find anything shorter in the large majority of music.

A sixteenth note, of course, lasts a sixteenth of the duration of a whole note.

To draw a sixteenth note, simply draw an eighth note and add one more flag.

A sixteenth note

As with eighth notes, sixteenth notes are also frequently grouped together using their stem, with two beams instead of one.

A pair of sixteenth notes

Thirty-Second Notes (Demisemiquavers) and Beyond

This system could technically go on forever, dividing in two indefinitely.

The good news is, it usually doesn’t. As we mentioned before, sixteenth notes are usually the smallest you’ll see.

In some classical music, thirty-second notes (half of a sixteenth note) are occasionally found, but they’re a rarity rather than the norm.

The truth is, once you get into notes this short, it’s difficult to keep rhythm since they happen so quickly. Even so, they’re worth mentioning.

To draw a thirty-second note or beyond, just add one flag per halving, starting off with the eighth note.

By this system, a 32nd note has three flags. A 64th note will have four, an 128th note five, and (God forbid) a 256th note six.

You’ll probably never use these notes, but if nothing else, it’s at least an interesting trivia fact.

As you can see, these notes get convoluted pretty quickly.

Dotted Notes

Last but not least come dotted notes. Any note can be a dotted note; the dot simply tells you to hold the note for one-and-a-half times the normal value.

For instance, a dotted whole note would last the length of three half notes. If the whole note’s duration was four beats, the dotted whole note would last six beats.

A simple way to think about a dotted note is that it’s worth three of the next-shortest note. For instance…

  • A dotted whole note is worth three half notes
  • A dotted half note is worth three quarter notes
  • A dotted quarter note is worth three eighth notes

…and so on, and so forth.

Dotted notes provide a convenient and neat way to write durations that would usually require tied notes.

Conclusion

We hope you found this guide to the different kinds of musical notes and their lengths helpful. Understanding this simple concept will open the door to both reading and writing music.

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