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38: Note Lengths
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Lesson 38: Note LengthsThis 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:
(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:
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.