One of the first places to start when studying music is to learn about all the types of musical notes there are. Knowing the names of all these notes, as well as their time values, how to draw them and what the parts of the notes are called is key to being able to read music well.
In this post, we’ll cover all these notes in depth to help you on your way to learning how to read music. Let’s get started.
Music note names and their time v
When playing music a musician needs to know how long to play each sound for.
Composers tell them by using different note symbols. Let’s take a look at some of the music note types you definitely need to know about when learning to read music.
Semibreve (whole note)
The first note is called a semibreve or in the US it’s called a ‘whole note’.
It’s like a small oval shaped zero or letter O which is a good way to think of it when you first begin writing music.
We call this oval-shaped part of a note ‘the note head’.
A semibreve has a value of four beats.
That means when we play a semibreve we count to four whilst holding the note.
Minim (half note)
The second note we’ll look at is called a minim or ‘half note’.
It’s similar to a semibreve but has a line coming out of the right-hand side of its note head.
This line is called a stem.
The stem halves the value of the note and so a minim has a value of two beats.
That means that we count to two when playing a minim, half as long as a semibreve.
Crotchet (quarter note)
Next, we have a crotchet or ‘quarter note‘.
It’s like a minim but, it has its note head filled in black.
This halves the value of the note again and so a crotchet has a value of one beat, half as long as a minim.
Quaver (eighth note)
This note is a quaver or ‘eighth note.’
It’s like a crotchet but, it also has a tail coming out of the side of its stem.
The note tail is also referred to as a flag or a hook.
The tail halves the value of the note again and so a quaver has a value of half a beat, half as long as a crotchet.
Semiquaver (16th note)
Up next, we have a semiquaver or ‘sixteenth note.’
It’s like a quaver but has two tails coming out of its stem.
This means that it’s half the value of quaver and so is worth one-quarter of a beat.
Demisemiquaver (32nd note)
Here we have a demisemiquaver or ‘32nd note’. You can see it has three tails (one more than a semiquaver).
A demisemiquaver is worth half the value of a semiquaver and so is worth one-eighth of a crotchet beat.
Those are the main notes you’ll come across and use in musical notation but you can get shorter and longer notes too.
Hemidemisemiquaver (64th note)
A hemidemisemiquaver (I know it’s a bit of a mouthful) or in the US it’s referred to as a ‘64th note‘ is just like a demisemiquaver but with an additional tail.
It’s very uncommon though so don’t worry about it too much!
Breve (double whole note)
You can also have a note called a breve or ‘double whole note’ which is worth eight beats, twice as long as a semibreve.
It’s quite uncommon as well but you will need to know about it for a grade 5 music theory exam.
Musical notes chart
Here’s a handy chart of all the different types of common musical notes with their US and UK names, an image and then the number of crotchet beats that they are worth.
|Musical Notes Chart|
|Name (UK)||Name (US)||Symbol||Beats|
|breve||double whole note||8 beats|
|semibreve||whole note||4 beats|
|minim||half note||2 beats|
|crotchet||quarter note||1 beat|
|quaver||eighth note||1/2 beat|
|semiquaver||16th note||1/4 beat|
|demisemiquaver||32nd note||1/8 beat|
The music note tree
Sometimes you’ll see the note values represented as a tree or pyramid. This is called the music note tree and is a great way to visualise the relationship between all the note values.
As well as the stems of notes being able to point upwards they can also point downwards. When a note’s stem points upwards, it comes out of the right-hand side of the note head.
But, when a note’s stem points downwards, it comes out of the left-hand side of the note head.
There are some rules to know about to determine which way the stems should point though. I cover some of the basics in this post here about notes on the stave.
The most important thing, however, is to always have the stem on the correct side of the note head.
Note tails work a little differently from notes that have tails like quavers and semiquavers.
Note’s tails always come out of the right-hand side of the stem, no matter whether or not they’re pointing up or down.
The way to remember this is that tails always follow the direction of the music. In other words, we read music from left to right. So the note tails always point in the direction of the music…
To the right.
Beaming notes together
When we have two or more notes with a tail (like quavers and semiquavers) next to each other, we join their tails together with a beam between the tops of their stems.
This is to help make it easier for musicians to read the notes.
Let’s look at how to beam quavers.
Beaming quavers (eighth notes)
When we beam quavers together we join the stems together using their note tails.
For example two quavers on their own become:
There are lots of rules and conventions about how many quavers we can beam together. But I’ll cover those in another post on grouping notes in different time signatures.
Beaming semiquavers (sixteenth notes)
It works the same with semiquavers but instead of having one beam between their stems we use two beams.
This is because they have two tails.
For demisemiquavers and
Combinations of quavers and semiquavers
We can also have different combinations of quavers and semiquavers beamed together.
There are some rules about how to beam and group notes in different time signatures that we’ll cover in another lesson too.
Sometimes when writing music a composer might want to make a note last longer than a note’s value. When this is the case we can use a dotted note to extend the duration of the note.
This dot after the note head makes the note longer by half its value. For example, a dotted minim has the same time value as a minim plus a crotchet:
Or a dotted quaver is equal to a quaver plus a semiquaver.
We can’t have a dotted note go across a bar line though. If we want a note to go over a bar line then we use a tied note which we’re going to have a look at next.
A tie is a sloped line that joins together two notes that are next to each other and have the same pitch. It looks like this line below.
When you see a tie it means that the time values of the notes are added together to create a longer note. For example, two minims tied together have the same value as a semibreve:
Two crotchets tied together have the same value as a minim:
They don’t have to be the same time value either, you could have a crotchet tied to a quaver, or a minim tied to a crotchet etc…
Read more in my guide to tied notes here.
Rests and when not to play
Music isn’t all about sound, sometimes not playing a note is just as important. All the different types of musical notes we’ve learnt above have a corresponding symbol telling the musician not to play and to be silent.
We call these symbols rests. You can read more about the different music rest symbols here.
What are ornaments?
Musical ornaments are a shorthand way of writing more complicated musical devices but with a simple symbol.
They’re used to embellish music and make it more interesting with decoration and character.
There are lots of different types like turns, trills, acciaccaturas plus a few others. I cover a lot of the common ones in this post on musical ornaments here if you want to read more about them.
What are triplets?
Another type of musical note that you might see is a group of notes with a number three over the top. These notes with a number three over them are a type of tuplet called triplets. We use triplets to subdivide notes into three equal parts.
To read more about them check out my in-depth guide to triplets where I go into more detail about how to draw them with loads of examples.
What are duplets?
You can also get another type of tuplet (irregular time division) called a duplet. A dulpet works like a triplet but it’s a way of playing two notes in the time of three.
To read more about them check out our post on how to play musical duplets here.
Wrapping up on music notes
That’s it for now, hopefully this post has helped you to understand how to read and write music a little better. Most people will focus on memorising all the notes and think that they have to know them all before starting to play music. That couldn’t be further from the truth.
I find the best way to really learn how to read music and learn all the notes is to do it as much as possible. The more you practice reading notes the more natural recognising them will become.
If you have any questions about anything that I’ve covered in this post just leave a comment below and I’ll get back to you. If you want to keep learning, check out my other free music theory lessons here.