Music Theory Fun, part 2: How Long Do You Hold This Note?

Pitches, as we learned last week, are one big part of music notation. After all, you can’t write down a melody if you don’t know which notes are written where! But the other big part of music notation is rhythm–how long is each note in the melody held? That’s what we’re going to look at today.

A Note Held for One Beat: The Quarter Note

quarternote When you see this symbol (a filled-in circle with just a solid line going either up or down from it), it means that this particular pitch is held for one beat of music. This is called a quarter note.

To mimic what this sounds like, count out loud, “1, 2, 3, 4,” but only clap when you say “1.” The sound of your clap is a quarter-note long.

A Note Held for Two Beats: The Half Note

halfnote When you see that the note symbol’s circle is not filled in, like the note to the left here, it means that this pitch should be held for two beats of music. This symbol is called a half note.

It’s hard to mimic a half note with claps, so instead, try this: Count in your head “1, 2, 3, 4,” and hum through beats 1 and 2. Your hum will then be a half-note long.

A Note Held for Three Beats: The Dotted Half Note

dottedhalfnote This symbol looks almost identical to a half note–but see the little dot out to the right of it? That dot tells us musicians that we need to add half of the preceding note’s time value (how many beats it is) to the existing note. In this case, the half note is 2 beats, so the dot tells us to add 1 more beat, making it 3 beats long.

Trying the humming exercise again, count those four beats in your head again, and hum through beats 1, 2, and 3. You’ve just hummed a dotted half note rhythm!

A Note Held for Four Beats: The Whole Note

wholenote Unlike the other three notes we’ve studied so far, which were made up of circles and lines, this one looks very, very different. This donut-shaped note, called a whole note, means that you hold this pitch for four beats.

This time, when you count in your head “1, 2, 3, 4,” hum through all four beats to hear what a whole note sounds like.

Notes Smaller Than One Beat: Yes, They Exist!

Melodies are not just made up of notes that are one beat long and larger–there are plenty of note time values that are fractions of one beat. Here are two of the most prevalent “fraction” notes:

eighthnote This note, called an eighth note, is half of one beat, half of a quarter note’s length. The little flag on the top of the note helps differentiate it from the quarter note–I think of the flag as a reminder to pay attention because this note is shorter. 🙂

To hear how short this note is, count out loud, “1 and 2 and 3 and 4 and” (that’s not a typo), and only clap on the “and” that follows 1. Your clap will be an eighth note long.

sixteenthnote This little note (and I do mean little) has two flags on it, telling you that it’s different from the eighth note. This note is half of an eighth note, meaning that it is 1/4 of a beat. It’s a really quick little note, barely struck or sung before you have to stop!

Try hearing this note’s rhythm by counting out loud, “1 ee and a 2 ee and a 3 ee and a 4 ee and a.” (Looks and sounds strange, I know, but this is how us musicians count these very quick rhythms–it preserves sanity when you’re working with rhythms as short as these. LOL) As you count this rhythm, clap only on the “ee” that follows 1. This will show you how a sixteenth note sounds within the framework of “1, 2, 3, 4.”

Hooray! You’ve Learned All the Basic Notes!

If you know these six note types, you can start to understand most of the musical rhythms that are put in front of you. (There are other note types, of course, but they are not used as often.)

Next Week: Time Signatures, the Rhythmic Frames Around Songs

Next time, we’re going to look at different time signatures–they affect how music is measured, which beats are strong, which beats are weak, etc. Pitches and rhythms fit within time signatures like paintings fit in frames, providing a basis for a melody you can dance or clap to. 🙂

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