Music is made up of two fundamental aspects: sounds and silences. In the first two lessons of this course, we learn how to accurately measure these sounds and silences. This is essential because the exact duration of musical notes determines the character of the music. (For an example, sing a melody you know and change some of its notes’ durations at random… it’s not quite the same melody, is it?)
What's in this Lesson
Note values are the basic symbols that indicate how long or short a musical note is. These symbols can consist of up to 3 parts: the head, the stem and the flag:
By changing any of the three parts of this symbol we can notate different durations, which are better known in music as note values. For example, this is the Whole Note (also known in British English terminology as the Semibreve):
It has neither a stem nor a flag, and its head is left empty rather than filled in. Relative to all other note values, this is the longest. The exact amount of time it will be played for, however, depends on various other factors, which we learn about later on in this course. For now we are only concerned with the relative value of every note – that is, the duration of a note in comparison to all others.
In fact, all other note values derive their names in relation to the whole note.
This is the half note (also known in British English as the minim) and its duration is half the whole note.
This means that the duration of 2 half notes is equal to 1 whole note.
Next is the quarter note (in British known as the crotchet). The symbol is similar to the half note except that the head is filled in. Its value is of a quarter of a whole note:
And so the duration of 4 quarter notes are equal to the duration of 1 whole note.
Next comes the eighth note (also known as the quaver). Its relative duration is that of an eighth of a whole note. The symbol is similar to the quarter note with the addition of the flag.
And of course, 8 eighth notes are equal to one whole note.
Next comes the sixteenth note (also known as the semiquaver). Its relative duration is that of a sixteenth of a whole note. It looks similar to the quarter note except for the addition of a second flag:
And 16 sixteenth notes are equal in duration to 1 whole note.
Now in theory this pattern can go on indefinitely. If we were to discuss the next note, it would be half the duration of previous one and the symbol would have an added flag. The note after that would be half yet again and its symbol would have yet another flag and so on and on.
Whatever happens in the music, the proportions between the note values never changes. As the note value tree below shows, the whole note is worth 2 half notes; one half note is equal to 2 quarter notes and so on. This also means that 4 quarter notes make 1 whole note and so do 8 eighth notes.
No matter what goes on in the music these proportions are always the same. These are the foundations of rhythm:
In theory, this pattern can go on and on. After 8 eighth notes we’d have 16 sixteenth notes, 32 thirty-second notes, 64 sixty-fourth notes and so on. But in practice, notes smaller than the 32nd note are not as commonly used as the other note values.
The rhythm dot is used to increase the duration of a basic note value by one half of its original value. So for example, the dotted half note is equal to three quarter notes: two from the original half note and one from its dot.
What about the dotted quarter note? The quarter note alone is worth 2 eighth notes. The dot adds half of that, 1 eighth note. So in total, the dotted quarter note is equal to 3 eighth notes.
We can apply this very same formula to any dotted note value. For example the dotted eighth note is equal to three sixteenth notes.
And the dotted whole note is equal to three half notes. Now remember that the relationship between note values never changes. So that same dotted whole note is also equal to 6 quarter notes.
Rests: the Sound of Silence
For every note value that represents a duration in sound, we have a symbol that represents an equal duration in silence. These symbols are known as rests and they’re important because musicians must know not only what to play but also when to stop and for how long.
Here is a table of the note values and their equivalent rests.
Don’t worry if these symbols are completely new to you. You don’t have to memorize them all at once – use this table as reference and go through the workbook. You’ll get used to them in no time at all!
And just like note values, the pattern for rests can go on and on. The next symbol would be that of the sixty-fourth and the rest would have yet another flag.
Also keep in mind that the dot applies to rests just the same as it does to notes:
That’s part 1 of the Read Music in 20 minutes Crash Course. Quite straightforward, right? Now get some practice by downloading the workbook below. When you’re ready go to the part 2: How Rhythm Really Works!