One of the major challenges about learning to read music as a beginner is what everything means. Not only are there the notes, but the timings. Likewise, there are other instances where symbols alter what is happening and how the notes are played.
To learn how to read music correctly, there are some types of musical notes you need to know. And, of course, how they all work. Let’s make a start by looking at the names of the notes and their timings.
Note Names and Time Values
You will be able to look at a piece of music and recognize a “C’ or a ‘G,’ but there is a bit more to it than that. How long do you play a note for? Does it interact with anything else going on around it?
The composer gives the musician this information through a series of written instructions on the music score. It is just a matter of deciphering what they mean. Let’s start by looking at how notes are written and what they mean.
Semibreve or Whole Note
This is often seen in music and is written down like this –
This is shown as just the note head and has no stem. The semibreve means you play the note for four beats. Or more simply count up to four while holding the note.
Minim or Half Note
You will see that the note head is the same as the Semibreve. But the Minim has a line extended from the side of the note head. This is known as the Stem. We shall look at those more closely a bit later. It is written like this –
The stem causes the note to have half the timing value. This means the Minim is played for two beats. Or by counting “one, two.” Half as long as a semibreve.
Crotchet or Quarter Note
This might be the most familiar note to some. This halves the value of the Minim, and therefore, has a time value of just one beat. You would play one note for each beat.
It looks like a Minim visually but has the note head filled in –
Quaver or Eighth Note
The Crochet looks like a Minim but has a visual “halving” of the value of the note. This was shown by filling the note head. With the Quaver, the Crotchet value is halved again. This time the “halving” of the value is shown by adding a tail from the stem. This is sometimes called a hook or a flag.
The tail halves the value, as I said, making the Quaver worth half of a beat. Half of a Crochet.
Semiquaver or Sixteenth Note
You will have begun to see a pattern by now. Each new note has a visual addition that indicates a message from the composer to the musician. The semiquaver is half the value of the quaver. That makes its value one-quarter of a beat. It is written as shown below –
Two tails from the stem indicate that the value of the note is half that of a quaver.
Some Extra Notes
Those are what you might call the most prevalent of the notes. These are the most important written notes you should know. That applies to recognizing them and also being able to apply them to the music.
There are some others that you may come across, and we should take a brief look at what they are and offer basic descriptions.
Demisemiquaver or Thirty-second Note
Written as –
Note the three tails from the stem, following the same pattern to distinguish them. This has half the value of the Semiquaver.
Hemidemisemiquaver or Sixty-fourth Note
This is written as –
Three tails from the stem indicate another halving of the value. This is now half of the Demisemiquaver. Not a note you will see very often.
Breve or Double Whole Note
Again not a value you will come across very often. We have included it for two reasons; first, because you need to be aware that it exists in case you ever need to play it.
But also because it is certain to form a part of a question in a music exam somewhere. It is written like this and is twice as long as a Breve covering eight beats –
Let’s go back to looking at the importance of music note stems. Stems can point either up or down. There are some rules for music note stems.
When the stem points upward, it must come from the right side of the note head. In a downward direction from the left. As shown below –
Notes with a stem; that is, minims, crotchets, quavers, and semiquavers follow these rules. When the note is positioned below the middle of the stave, it must point up from the right side. When the note is above the middle of the stave, it must point down from the left side.
Who can see the problem here?
There are five lines to the stave. One is in the middle, so it is neither up nor down. So which do you choose? It doesn’t matter you can choose either, both are correct. There are some other rules about the direction of stems when you are “beaming” notes. But we will deal with those later.
You would be forgiven for thinking that the same rules might apply to the Note tails. Guess what? They don’t! Note tails operate differently. The tails for quavers, semiquavers, etc., will always come out of the right side of the stem. It doesn’t matter whether they are pointing down or up. As you can see below –
I mentioned Beaming Notes earlier so let’s take a look at that procedure. To make life a little easier for musicians, we have beams. Where you get two or more notes that have a tail next to each other, we “beam” them together, for example, where you might get quavers and semiquavers.
To beam notes together, we use the note tails to join the stems. Below is an example of two quavers beamed together –
The same principle applies, but because semiquavers have two tails, then there are two beams, like so –
To take it a step further, you can also combine quavers and semiquavers and beam them together. Ensuring that the correct number of beams are above the relevant notes –
Here you can see the “double beam” over the semiquaver notes that would have two tails. The single quaver with one tail has just one beam.
There are some rules for beaming music notes that are in different time signatures. We have no space for that here, but it is recommended you do some reading on the matter.
What are Dotted Notes
You will sometimes come across a dot after a note as below –
A composer will use this symbol to extend the particular note beyond its base value. The effect it has is to extend the note by half of its value. A minim with a dot will equal a minim plus a crotchet. It looks like this –
A minim with a dot equals a minim plus a crotchet. However, you cannot have a dotted note cross over a bar line. If you need that to happen, you use a “Tied Note.” Let’s take a look at those.
Tied notes are visible by a curved line joining them together. They must be adjacent to each other and must have the same pitch. For example, if you tie two minims, the result in value is a semibreve. Or a minim times two in value. It would look like this –
As we said, two minims tied equals a semibreve. Two crotchets tied will equal a minim. The notes do not have to have the same time value. You can tie a minim to a crochet, or a crotchet to a quaver.
When to Play and Not to Play – That is the Question
Sometimes not playing but leaving a break can have a great impact. There are ways of denoting this in the music. These are called “Rests.” And they make up another important aspect of the types of musical notes you need to know.
What is a Rest?
A symbol the composer uses to tell the musician not to play for that note or section. Each of the notes we have looked at has a rest symbol that corresponds to the same time value.
Semibreve or Whole Note Rest
It resembles a small rectangle that is drawn under the second line of the stave. Just as the semibreve has a value of four beats, the semibreve rest also lasts for four beats.
Minim Rest or Half Note Rest
Another small rectangle shape describes this rest. But this one is positioned on the bottom of the middle stave. The rest has a value of two beats as per the minim note.
Crotchet or Quarter Note Rest
Not easy to draw or describe, it resembles a letter ‘z’ but with a tail. You will find it between the top and bottom staves. As per the Crotchet, it has a value of one beat rest.
There are also rests for quavers and semiquaver. Given that the rests cover such short periods, you will not see them very often.
It would make sense that since there are dotted notes, then there should be dotted rests. They do the same thing as they do for notes and make the rest longer by half the value of the note.
As for positioning, you should be aware that the dot for the rests is always placed in between the second and third lines of the stave. Furthermore, whilst you can tie notes together, you cannot tie rests together. Therefore, if you need more “rest,” you need to use another rest symbol.
Rest for a full measure or bar
The composer should always use the semibreve rest if they want a full bar of no playing at all. Additionally, this applies to both 2/4 and 4/4 time signatures.
Triplets and Duplets
Quite a common type of note you will come across is the Triplet. This is a single note subdivided into three equal parts. It uses the number 3 over the beam, as shown in the image below –
Duplets are similar but instead, you play two notes arranged in the timing of three. To help you develop your skills in this area, these instruction tools might be useful.
- Music Theory: From Beginner to Expert
- Music in Theory and Practice Volume 1
- and Music Theory and Composition: A Practical Approach
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Types Of Musical Notes You Need To Know – Final Thoughts
For you to come to terms with music and studying the theory, you need to fully understand what we discussed here. It is like most things. You need to work at it and practice it. But it is like reading a book. When you have read for a while, you don’t actually “read” most of the words anymore. We “recognize” them. The same applies to music.
After enough practice, we begin to recognize the notes and all the visual instructions that go with them. We don’t have to think about them anymore. It will be time well spent.
Until next time, let your music play.