How To Read Music

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How To Read Music

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Types of Music Notes

Composers use different music notes to identify how long each one is to be played.

This chapter will explain the most common notes used in sheet music, as well as identify how dots and ties are used to extend the length of a note.

The Most Common Music Notes

Let’s take a look at the different notes used on the staff:

Whole Note
whole note

A whole note has the longest duration in modern music. A whole note is the equivalent of four beats in 4/4 time.

Half Note
half note

A half note is worth two beats. Two half notes take up the same amount of time as one whole note.

Quarter Note
quarter note

A quarter note is assigned one beat and has a duration of a fourth of a whole note, hence its name. Two quarter notes make up one half note.

Eighth Note
eighth note

By now you’ve probably picked up on the pattern – there are eight eighth notes in a whole note and two eighth notes will make up one quarter note.

Sixteenth Note
sixteenth note

There are sixteen sixteenth notes in a whole note, and two sixteenth notes in an eighth note.

Music notes continue to divide from here. After sixteenth notes you’ll find thirty-second notes (which are rare), and then sixty-fourth notes (which are extremely rare), and so forth.

Going off note value alone, there are some things we can’t do. If a whole note is the longest note available, what happens if you want to hold a note for eight beats? If everything divides from a whole note into a half note and then quarter notes, how do you hold a note for three beats? There are some neat tricks we can use to accomplish these things.

Ties and Dots

Composers use special notation to modify a note’s duration. These are augmentation dots (or just “dots”) and tenuto ties (or just “ties”).

two quarter notes tied together and dotted half note

How Dots Work
Dots add half of a note’s value onto itself.

If you add a dot after a half note, fifty percent of a half note’s value – a quarter note – is added to the half note.

Shown visually, here’s what that looks like:

dotted half note equals half note plus quarter note

A dotted half note is held for three beats.

Likewise, adding a dot after a quarter note will add an eighth note to the duration. Here’s what that looks like visually:

dotted quarter note equals quarter note plus eighth note

This note is held for one and a half beats.

How Ties Work
Ties combine multiple notes together, increasing their duration by the value of the notes in the tie. Composers use ties when the duration of a note will cross a bar line, otherwise they will tend to use a dot.

This tie will be held for two beats:

two quarter notes tied together on staff

When using ties the two notes must be of the same pitch, otherwise it becomes a slur and means something completely different.

Triplets and Other Unequal Divisions

So far everything we’ve talked about regarding note value has involved equally dividing notes by two (i.e. a whole note is made up of two half notes). Notes do not necessarily have to be divided this way.

If you were to divide a note into three parts you would make a triplet. The most common triplet is the eighth note triplet, which occurs when you split a quarter note into three even parts.

Here’s what an eighth note triplet looks like:

eighth note triplet

You can also divide notes into five, seven, or even eleven parts. The number above the grouped notes tells you how it has been divided.

Recapping Music Notes

In this chapter you have learned the relationship between musical notes and have seen how whole notes get divided by half to create first half notes, then quarter notes, then eighth notes, and so on.

You have also learned how composers make non-standard note lengths using dots and ties, and learned about unequal divisions like triplets.

Now that you’ve mastered this section we’re going to move on to rests – periods when you will not play.