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Musical Note Values

7 of 9 in Series: The Essentials of Reading Piano Music

When you listen to piano music, or music from any other instrument, you hear notes of different lengths. The melody of a song is defined as much by its rhythm — its combination of long-, short-, and medium-length notes — as by the actual pitches. Melody without rhythm is just a nondescript series of musical tones. Rhythm without melody is, well, a drum solo.

Each note you play lasts for a certain number of beats or a certain fraction of a beat. Don’t worry —the fractions you use in music are no more complex than the fractions you use when you carve up a fresh pie. The composer tells you at the beginning of the music how many equal pieces to cut each measure into.

Quarter notes: One piece at a time

In most pieces of music the composer asks you to cut each measure into four equal pieces. When you divide a measure into four parts, you get quarter notes.

A quarter note is represented by a black rounded notehead with one long stem. Because it’s so common, the quarter note has become the most popular — and, hence, most recognizable — note of all musicdom.

A quarter note gets one beat. You can tap your foot to the beat at a tempo of one tap per second. Count out loud “1, 2, 3, 4.”

Counting quarter notes.
Counting quarter notes.

Half notes: Half the pie

If you divide a measure of music into four beats and play a note that lasts for two beats, you can surmise that the two beats equal a half note. A half note looks similar to a quarter note with its rounded notehead and long stem, but the half note’s notehead is open (hollow) instead of closed (filled in).

A hollow half note equals two filled in quarter notes.
A hollow half note equals two filled in quarter notes.

Whole notes: The whole pie

If you play a note that lasts for all four beats of the measure, you’re playing a whole note. Like the half note, the whole note’s notehead is hollow, but its shape is slightly different — more oval than round.

Whole notes hold out for all four counts.
Whole notes hold out for all four counts.

Even smaller notes

You mostly see and play quarter, half, and whole notes, but quarter notes can be divided into eighth notes, sixteenth notes, and on and on — although you can keep dividing notes to oblivion. Two eighth notes equal one beat, or one quarter note, and two sixteenth notes equal one eighth note, so it takes four sixteenth notes to equal one quarter note.

You can write eighth notes in two different ways: By itself, one eighth looks like a quarter note with a flag. When two or more eighth notes are present, the flag becomes a beam connecting the notes. This beam groups the eighth notes, making it much easier to spot each beat.

Flags on eighth notes become beams.
Flags on eighth notes become beams.

One sixteenth note alone gets two flags, while grouped sixteenth notes use two beams. Most often you see four sixteenth notes “beamed” together because four sixteenth notes equal one beat. And frequently, you see one eighth note beamed to two sixteenth notes, also because that combination equals one beat.

Sixteenth notes with a couple of eighths as well.
Sixteenth notes with a couple of eighths as well.

To count sixteenth notes, divide the beat by saying “1-e-and-a, 2-e-and-a,” and so on. You say the numbers on a downward tap; the “and” is on an upward tap, and the “e” and “a” are in between. In a measure with a combination of eighths and sixteenths, you should count it all in sixteenth notes.

Sixteenth notes aren’t so difficult to play at a slow ballad tempo, but try pounding out sixteenth notes in a fast song and you sound like Jerry Lee Lewis — and that’s a good thing!

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