## Note lengths

• Each note has a duration which is specified by its appearance when it is written down (see below)

• This duration is not an absolute one (it does not define how many seconds it should last), but is relative to the speed of the beats
• The duration will always be closely related to the speed of the beats such as:
• a whole number of beats
• a simple fraction like a half or a quarter of a beat
• an additive combination of the above two
• You do not get a note which lasts for 7/16 of a beat or 1.46 of a beat
• As will be seen below, the notation tends to limit the possible durations that can be written, but in traditional music, this is not a problem

• The most basic note is a circular shape which sits on a five-line stave:
• In printed music, it is sometimes more of an oval than a circle
• It is of a size so that when it sits between two lines of a stave, it just touches both lines
• This is usually called the head of the note

• The pitch of a note is given by its vertical position on the stave

• The duration of a note is given by its appearance:
• whether the circle is hollow or filled in
• whether the circle has a stem or not
• whether the stem has a curly tail or a straight beam
• how many tails or beams the stem has
• (rarely) whether the circle has one or two lines each side
• Whether it is followed by one or more dots.
• Whether it is tied to the next note (of the same pitch).

• Although the horizontal dimension of a stave represents the passing of time, this representation is not meant to be accurate or to scale, so the horizontal distance between different notes on a stave should not be used to judge the length of a note.
• It can sometimes be a useful guide, but it is not to be relied upon

• There are eight different durations of basic note which have a specific name
• The relative durations are all powers of two, i.e. the length is doubled or halved to get the next durations

• The names of the different lengths of notes are listed here with at least two examples on a stave:

Semibreve or Whole note - Hollow circle
Minim or Half note - Semibreve with a stem
Crotchet or Quarter note - Minim with filled circle
Quaver or Eighth note - Crotchet with one beam or tail
Semiquaver or Sixteenth note - Crotchet with two beams or tails
Demisemiquaver or Thirty-second note - Crotchet with three beams or tails
Hemidemisemiquaver or Sixty-fourth note - Crotchet with four beams or tails
Breve or Double whole note - Semibreve with one or two vertical lines each side

• The following table also gives a duration which is the number of seconds that one note would last relative to a semibreve of 64 time units (e.g. seconds).
English note nameUSA note name ExampleDuration
SemibreveWhole note 64
MinimHalf note 32
CrotchetQuarter note 16
QuaverEighth note 8
SemiquaverSixteenth note 4
DemisemiquaverThirty-second note 2
HemidemisemiquaverSixty-fourth note 1
BreveDouble whole note 128

• In a normal piece of music, the basic time unit is the beat, as specified by the time signature.
The beat is normally a reasonable counting speed, somewhere between 40 and 200 per minute (in other words, from less than one per second to more than 2 per second) - see metronome markings. The time signature also specifies what length of note the beat is (usually crotchet or quaver, but sometimes minim) so this then governs the relative lengths of all other notes in the piece.

• In the example below, the metronome marking says that there 120 beats per minute (two per second). The time signature says there are three beats per bar, and that those beats are crotchets. So each crotchet should last (sound) for half a second, and each quaver should last (sound) for a quarter of a second.

In practise, a musician does not work out the length of each notes in seconds. He/she would establish the speed of the beats and the numbers of beats in a bar in their head (by counting "1, 2, 3, 1, 2, 3 ..." evenly, with a slight emphasise on each "1") at approximately the correct speed, each count taking about half a second in this case.

He/she would then look at the music, and judge where each beat occurs, by looking at the length of each note in turn from left to right, and then fit the notes into that counted rhythm. In the example below, I have written the beats numbers under where each beat falls.

When learning rhythms and note lengths, it is common to count the beats, and say "and" where there is a half-beat division. So the rhythm of the first bar could be said as "1, 2 and 3", bearing in mind that the "and" has to be tucked in exactly half-way between the 2 and 3 so that the speed of the beats does not change.

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