Pop Music Theory


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38: Note Lengths

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Lesson 38: Note Lengths

This lesson teaches how we show how long a note lasts. You need this to read the rhythms in written music.

Before taking this lesson, you should understand:
In written music, we show how long a note lasts (how many beats it gets) with "decorations" on the note:
  • Whether it's white (hollow) or black (filled in)
  • Whether it has a stem
  • Whether it has flag(s) or beam(s)

(Disclaimer: Everything I say below about how many beats each note type gets is actually only true if the music is written in "4/4 time". But the vast majority of pop music is in 4/4 time, so to keep this lesson simple I'm going to assume this.)

So, let's learn the different note lengths:

The Whole Note

The whole note lasts for a "whole measure" (in 4/4 time), which means it lasts for 4 beats. The whole note is "white" (hollow) with no stem. It looks like this:

The Half Note

The half note lasts half as long as a whole note, so it gets 2 beats. The half note is white, like the whole note, but with a stem. Here are a couple of half notes:

The Quarter Note

The quarter note gets 1 beat. The quarter note looks like the half note except it's black. Here are a couple of quarter notes:

The Eighth Note

The eighth note gets half a beat. A single eighth note looks like a quarter note, but with a flag. Here are a couple of single eighth notes:

However, when we have multiple eighth notes in a row, we can use a beam instead of flags. Here are two eighth notes drawn using a beam:

Counting Eighth Notes

It's important to count the beats when you're playing notes, so now that we have half-beat notes, you may ask: how do we count half-beats? The answer is: we say the word "and" between the beat numbers, like this:

| 1 and 2 and 3 and 4 and | 1 and 2 and ...

When we show the counts along with the music, we write "+" instead of "and", although we still say "and". Here's an example:

1 + 2 + 3 + 4 +

The Sixteenth Note

The sixteenth note gets 1/4 of a beat. We draw sixteenth notes with 2 flags or 2 beams, like this:

To count sixteenth notes, we have to count quarter-beats. We do this by inserting the letters e (pronounced "ee") and a (pronounced "uh" or "ah") between the beats and the "ands", like this:

| 1 e + a 2 e + a 3 e + a 4 e + a | 1 e + a ...


To get to where you can understand a rhythm by just looking at it, you need to practice reading and playing (or singing) lots of written music. Most people need help from a music teacher, at least occasionally, to make sure they're "on the right track".

Next: There's more you need to know to read rhythms; learn how we write "odd-length" (e.g. 2½- or 3-beat) notes in Lesson 39: Tied & Dotted Notes.


1: Introduction
2: Practicing Songwriting
3: Pitch Names
4: Letters Game
5: Sharps & Flats
6: Half-Steps & Whole-Steps
7: Steps Game
8: Scales
9: Major Scale 1-2-3
10: Major 1-2-3 Games
11: Major Scale 1-5
12: Major 1-5 Games
13: Chords: Major Triads
14: Major Triad Games
15: Minor Triads
16: Minor Triad Games
17: Major Scale 1-8
18: Major Scale Games
19: Keys
20: Roman Numeral Chords
21: Scales Above 8
22: Diatonic Triads
23: Using Diatonics
24: Tonic Function
25: Subdominant & Dominant
26: Diatonic Function Analysis
27: Natural Minor Scale
28: Natural Minor Games
29: Minor Key Triads
30: 7th Chords
31: 7ths Games
32: Suspended-4th Chords
33: Time: Beats & Measures
34: Starting a Song: Hook Chords
35: Melody: Chord Tones
36: Treble Staff
37: Treble Staff Game
38: Note Lengths
39: Tied & Dotted Notes
40: Rhythm: Rests
41: Key Signatures
42: Syncopation
43: Pentatonic Scales
44: Hook Melodies
45: Hook to Chorus: Rolling Stone
46: Melody Rhythm: Rolling Stone
47: Non-Root-Bass Chords
48: Embellishing Tones
49: Diatonic 7ths
50: Pitch & Frequency

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