Note Duration – The Different Types of Musical Notes (Music Theory Lesson)

Music notation has two main parts. These are pitch and rhythm.

Pitch is how high or low a note is, and is notated by the position on the musical staff (the five lines).

Rhythm is notated by the different note values. These tell us how long to hold each note, and how the notes related to each other in time.

In this article, you’ll learn all about the music theory concepts of note duration and note values.

The Notes Values: Note Duration from Big to Small

We can think of note values as a pizza.  We can cut it in half, then in half again. We can keep cutting each slice in half to make smaller and smaller pieces. And each slice has a direct proportion to the others.

Let’s start with the whole pie.

The Whole Note gets 4 beats

whole notes in music

Whole notes in music notation. Whole notes get 4 beats.

The whole note is a circle. In normal music notation, this will be a black circle with a white center. We can say that the center is empty.

When we count this, we count 1,2,3,4. When we play it, we hold the note for 4 full beats at the chosen speed (tempo). Clapping and counting the music is useful in studying rhythm and learning new pieces of music.

The Half Note gets 2 beats

half notes in music

Half notes get 2 beats.

A half note is half the time of a whole note (like cutting the pizza in half). So a half note gets 2 beats. Two half notes last as long as one whole note.

When counting, we count this 1,2. And we hold this note for the full two beats.

Visually, we add a stem to the circle. This stem can either point up or down. Notes higher on the staff usually point the stem down, and vice versa. This keeps the music tidier on the page. But both stem directions are correct.

The Quarter Note gets 1 beat

quarter notes in music

Quarter notes get 1 beat.

The quarter note gets one beat, or half of a half note. And four of these add up to the time of one whole note.

We count these 1,1,1,1. Or we can count them by the placement in a measure of music. 1, 2, 3, 4. We hold each quarter note for one beat only.

quarter notes

The stems of notes can go up or down. This does not affect the duration. Stem direction may be chosen to organize the music on the page or to denote different musical parts.

We can recognize a quarter note as a black (filled) notehead with a stem.  The direction of the stem does not change the value of the note.

The Eighth Note gets 1/2 of a beat

8th notes in music

Eighth notes get half of one beat. Two 8ths equal the duration of a quarter note.

The eighth note is half of a quarter note. Two eighths equal the duration of a quarter.

We count a beat of eighth notes “1-and.” The note on a main beat in the music gets the number of that beat, and the next gets “and.”

8ths in music theory

Single 8th notes have a flag. Multiple 8th notes may have connected flags.

To notate eighths, we add a flag to a quarter note. And when we have more than one, we can tie the flags together (beams).

The Sixteenth Note gets 1/4 of a beat

16ths in music

16th notes get 1/4 of a beat. 4 16ths equal the duration of a quarter note.

Keeping in the same pattern as notes above, we again slice the previous note in half. 2 sixteenths make an eighth. 4 sixteenths make a quarter. 8 sixteenths make a half note. And 16 sixteenths make a whole note. Basic fractions.

Sixteenths get two flags. And we count a beat of sixteenths as 1-e-&-a. “one-eee-and-ahh.”

32nds, 64ths, and beyond

32nds and 64ths

For 32nds, 64ths, and beyond, we continue to add flags to the note stem.

We can continue to divide each note value in half to create 32nds, 64ths, 128ths, 256ths, and beyond to infinity. But we rarely see anything past a 64th (which is rare in itself). Usually, it would be easier to just double the written tempo (speed) of the music and write it using 8ths or 16ths.

And for each note value, we add another flag.


Many thanks to for some of the images above. 

Allen Mathews

Hi, I’m Allen Mathews. 

I started as a folk guitarist, then fell in love with classical guitar in my 20’s. Despite a lot of practice and schooling, I still couldn’t get my music to flow well. I struggled with excess tension. My music sounded forced. And my hands and body were often sore. I got frustrated, and couldn’t see the way forward. Then, over the next decade, I studied with two other stellar teachers – one focused on the technical movements, and one on the musical (he was a concert pianist). In time, I came to discover a new set of formulas and movements. These brought new life and vitality to my practice. Now I help guitarists find more comfort and flow in their music, so they play more beautifully.
Click here for a sample formula.

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