Note Durations

Musical notes are not all held for the same duration (length). There are long notes and short ones, and all others in between. Composers need a way of telling performers how long to hold each note. By making each note look a little different, this can be easily communicated.

Whole notes, half notes, and quarter notes

Here is a whole note, a note you've probably seen before, sitting on a line:


Of course, the whole note is not normally found sitting on a line like this. It usually sits on a staff. For this lesson, however, it has been placed on a line to help you visualize its length. This diagram is showing that one whole note takes up the entire line. If we divide the line into two equal parts, a whole note would be too big to fit in it. We need notes of shorter duration. These are called half notes:


You can tell with this diagram that it takes two half notes to make a whole note. Let's keep going. The next smaller note value is called a quarter note:


It takes four quarters to make a whole note. Also, you can tell that it takes two quarter notes to make one half note.

Eighth notes and sixteenth notes

There are notes of even shorter value than a quarter note. They are called eighth notes. They look very much like quarter notes, but they have a little "flag" off the top of the stem. The flag shows that the note value is cut in half, so two eighth notes equals one quarter note.


Eight eighth notes equals one whole note. It also equals two half notes. Just think of the combination of possibilities!

There's just one more note we're going to learn about in this lesson. It is called a sixteenth note.

This is what it looks like:

Remember the eighth note? Without the flag, it would look like a quarter note - one beat. By adding the flag it becomes a note of half that value - an eighth note. By adding another flag, it becomes half as long as an eighth note - a sixteenth note.

It takes two sixteenth notes to equal one eighth note. It takes four sixteenth notes to equal one quarter note. How many sixteenth notes does it take to make one half note? Eight! One whole note? Sixteen!

Let's see how eighth notes and
sixteenth notes can be made easier to read

Many times when two or more eighth notes are written side-by-side, the flag is replaced with a beam: These two beamed eighths are exactly the same as if the writer had written:

Same thing for sixteenths: is the same as:

Using the beam in place of the flags simply makes it look a little "tidier", and a little easier for a performer to read.

Summary of note durations

Let's look at all the diagrams placed together. You can see the relationships between note lengths very clearly:


If you think about it, there is a lot of math involved in reading music. Counting is an important activity in a musician's life. After seeing how a combination of notes can be equal to another note or notes, here's an equation that should make some sense to you: It shows that two quarter notes equal one half note in length.

Here's another one: This may look a little complicated, but take your time and figure it out. If you add together the lengths of one half note, two eighth notes and one quarter note, you will get one whole note. It's just the same as the following arithmetic equation: 2 + + + 1 = 4

No problem!


Dotted notes look exactly as you might think. They have a dot right after the note. When you add a dot to a note, you add half of its value to the note. Let's take a quarter note which equals one beat: What's half of one? Your answer should be . If you add that to the quarter, you get a note that is 1 beats long. There is a note that equals 1 beats. It is called a dotted quarter note and it looks like this: The dot shows that it is half again as long as a quarter note. (1 + ) = 1

It can also been seen that a dotted quarter note is three eighth notes long. (One quarter note is two eighth notes, so a dot adds one eighth to the equation: + + = 1

Here is an easier way to understand the value of a dotted quarter note:

  = 1
   = 1
 + +  = 1

Let's try a different dotted note. Here is a dotted half note: It is one half note (2 beats) plus half of a half note (one beat). A dotted half note, therefore, is three beats long. (2 + 1 = 3)

  = 3
   = 3
 1 + 1 + 1  = 3

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Some lesson material used
by permission of Gary Ewer ©1998

Some music images used with permission of
SKDesigns copyright © 1996-1999