How To Work Out Note Lengths
Let’s explore the most common note lengths – whole notes, half notes, quarter note, eighth notes and sixteenth notes.
When learning how to read sheet music you need to ask yourself 3 questions about a note’s appearance in order to work out its length….
- Is the notehead filled in?
- Does the note have a stem?
- Does the stem have a tail?
These 3 variables combine to tell you how long a note should be held for. Let’s have a look at the most common note lengths.
Whole Note or Semibreve
The whole note (or semibreve) is the simplest note to write in music as it is a notehead with no stem/tail and it is not filled in:
You will often hear it said that a whole note or semibreve is worth “4 beats”.
Whilst this is true in time signatures such as 4/4, 2/4 and 3/4 it is not always correct – e.g. in compound time.
You need to be careful not to assume that note durations are always linked to beats so clearly as this depends on what time signature a piece of music is written in.
Half Note or Minim
A half note (or minim) is half the value of a whole note. Therefore, 2 half notes add up to the same length as one whole note.
The half notes symbol is a notehead with a stem:
Quarter Note or Crotchet
A quarter note (or crotchet) is a quarter of the value of a whole note. Therefore, 4 quarter notes add up to one whole note.
Here is the symbol for the quarter note/crotchet. You can see that the notehead is filled in:
Eighth Note or Quaver
Eighth notes (or quavers) are half the value of a quarter note. As a result, 8 eighth notes are equivalent to 1 whole note.
The symbol for an Eighth note is a quarter note with an added tail:
Sixteenth Note or Semiquaver
Sixteenth notes or semiquavers are half the value of the eight notes and so there are 16 of them in a whole note.
Their symbol has 2 tails:
You may also come across notes with 3 tails (hemidemisemiquavers), but these are very rare!
Note Lengths Summary
Here is a summary table of the note lengths and how they relate to each other:
You can see that the quarter note (crotchet) has a filled notehead, a stem, but no tail. If you un-fill the notehead and remove the stem the note length gets longer. If you add more tails to the stem, the note gets progressively shorter.
Note Stems up or down
Note length symbols with stems can be written with the stems going up or down depending on where they are placed on the stave:
If a note is above the middle line of the stave then the stems are drawn down from the note (starting on the left hand side of the notehead).
If a note is below the middle line of the stave then the stems are written upwards from the note (starting on the right hand side of the notehead).
If a note is on the middle line then the stem can be drawn either upwards or downwards depending on the surrounding notes and whether they have predominantly upwards/downwards stems.
What about Notes With Beams?
Many of my students get confused over beamed notes – the good news is that they are actually very simple. If you put 2 eighth notes (quavers) next to each other, instead of writing 2 separate notes with 2 tails you join the tails together to make a beam. So, all the notes in the score below are the same length….
You can do the same with 2 sixteenth notes (semiquavers) by joining both the pairs of tails together to make 2 beams….
You can even mix and match….
There are a few guidelines about beaming notes in traditional music notation.
For example, eighth notes should not be beamed together across the middle of a bar of 4/4 whilst shorter notes are beamed together in beats.