Music Theory For Dummies
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Reading music notes means understanding the value of each note (that is, how long each note lasts) and how notes fit together in sheet music. To know how to read music notes, you'll need to learn the different types of notes and their timing. How note values fit against each other in a piece of music is as important as their musical pitches because if you change the note values in a piece of music, you end up with completely different music.

Music notes indicate exactly how long a specific pitch should be held by the voice or instrument. The time value of notes determines what kind of rhythm the resulting piece of music will have, whether it will run along very quickly and cheerfully, or slowly and somberly, or in some other way.

As you may remember from school or music lessons, notes come in different flavors, each with its own note value. The value of a half note is half that of a whole note, the value of a quarter note is a quarter that of a whole note, and so on. Each level of the “tree of notes” is equal to the others.

Each row of this note tree takes up an identical amount of time.
Each row of this note tree takes up an identical amount of time.

From top to bottom, this image shows a whole note, 2 half notes, 4 quarter notes, 8 eighth notes, and 16 sixteenth notes. You can continue this sequence by adding one more flag and doubling the number of notes: 32 thirty-second notes (three flags) and 64 sixty-fourth notes (four flags) each last the same length as a single whole note.

Depending on the time signature of the piece of music, the number of beats per note varies. In the most common time signature, 4/4 time, also called common time, a whole note is held for four beats, a half note is held for two, and a quarter note lasts one beat. An eighth note lasts half a beat and a sixteenth note just a quarter of a beat in 4/4 time.

Although the note lengths may vary in their relationship to the beat, they do not change in their relationships to each other. One beat of music could indicate the length of a whole note, a sixteenth note, or anywhere in between, but two quarter notes will always be twice as fast as a half note, and two eighth notes will be twice as fast as a quarter note, and so on.

About This Article

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About the book authors:

Michael Pilhofer has worked as a professional musician for more than 20 years and teaches music theory. He is the coauthor of all editions of Music Theory For Dummies and Music Composition For Dummies. Holly Day is the coauthor of Music Theory For Dummies and Music Composition For Dummies. Her articles have appeared in publications across the globe.

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