How to Read Quarter Notes, Half Notes, and Whole Notes

In order to play the keyboard, you need to be able to read music. All notes aren’t created equal. If they were, music would be very boring, with no rhythm or interest to get you tapping your toes and nodding your head — or whatever you do when the music moves you.

The most basic notes are held for full counts or beats. The first note is the whole note, which is held for four counts. (In common time — four beats is the full measure. Hence, the name whole note.)

The second note in is called the half note and held for two counts — half a whole note. Notice it has a stem attached to it. This stem may be sticking up from the right side or down from the left side, depending on how far up the staff the note is.

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The quarter note is the third note; it looks like a filled-in half note, with the same stem attached. You hold it for one full count, which is a quarter of a whole note. Now the design of the time signature makes full sense; in 4/4 time, the quarter note gets one full beat, and the measure has four beats before reaching the bar line!

These three notes are the easiest to read and play because you hold them for full counts. You can play it with one finger on the keyboard or just clapping the rhythm while counting out loud.

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When you’re learning a new song, it is recommended to work on the rhythm this way — just clapping or playing a single note while reading the rhythm, not worrying about pitches at first.

You can also try the same rhythm applied to a melody with different pitches. You can try to play it by pecking at the keys with just your right hand index finger or by put your right hand thumb on middle C and trying to play the melody by using all five fingers. Just be sure to count the notes properly.

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You may wonder, “Why aren’t any of the notes held for three beats?” Wonder no more! If you add a dot after the note head, you add half of the note value to the base note. So a dotted half note is held for two counts plus one more count (half of two), for a total of three beats.

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Here is a similar concepts to the time signature of 3/4. Here you have three beats per measure, and the quarter note still gets one beat. You don’t use the whole note in 3/4 because you only count to three before the bar line/end of the measure. So the dotted half note becomes the full measure note.

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