Lesson 4: Note Durations

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

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

The whole note is not normally found sitting on a line like this, of course. It's been placed there 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.

We could keep going, theoretically, forever! However, let's just do one more for now. Here are notes of even shorter value, called eighth notes. They look like quarter notes with flags:

So eight eighths equals one whole. It also equals two halfs. It also ....

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


Here's an equation that should now 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, assuming that we give the half note a value of 2:

2 +  + 1 = 4

No problem!


You know that in many time signatures a quarter note quarter note  equals one beat. When you add a dot to a note, you add half of its value to the note. What's half of one? .  If you add that to the quarter, you get a note that is 1 beats long (That is assuming that the quarter note equals one beat. There are time signatures where this is not the case- you'll learn more about that in Lessons 13 and 14)

A dotted quarter note looks like this:   The dot makes the note half again as long as a quarter note. (1 + ) = 1
Here is a dotted half note:   It is one half note plus half of a half note (one quarter). A dotted half note, therefore, is three quarter notes long. (2 + 1 = 3)

Try the quiz. If you have any problems, come back to this page and study it again.

*British equivalents for these North American note values: Whole note = semibreve; Half note = minim; Quarter note = crochet; Eighth note = quaver


To take the quiz, click here, then print the resulting page and complete it

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