Note and Rest Values

When you're reading music, you'll notice that all of the notes and rests are not of the same length or value. They can vary from note to note and from rest to rest.

Since there are such a variety, it can sometimes be a bit daunting to try to decipher them all.

So, for your viewing and learning pleasure, I've written this magic little guide to reading the value of musical notation.

There are a variety of note values that make up the broad spectrum of musical notation and written music.

To start, I'm going to cover a subject now that is a very important one: The Time Signature.

The Time Signature is a fairly simple thing to understand. To put it simply, the Time Signature is a pair of numbers (or in some cases, a symbol) that are responsible for letting the musicians know what the beat and time of the music is. This is different from Tempo (Basically, think of Tempo as the speed of the music). The top number has to do with how many beats there are in each bar or measure, and the bottom number tells you what each beat is worth (note wise).

To understand this concept, lets take a look at a common, 4/4 Time signature.

Here is what that time signature looks like:

4/4 Time Signature

It is, by far, the most common time signature that you'll run into.

As stated before, the top number tells you how many beats there are in a bar. If the top number is a 4, then you count for four beats (1-2-3-4). If the top number is a 3, then you count three beats (1-2-3). This just has to do with the number of beats, not the type of beats themselves, so get used to thinking of the two numbers in the time signature differently.

The bottom number deals with the kind of note that is worth one beat. (In the case of what they call a "Compound Time Signature", this is a different kind of division. We aren't dealing with these right now, so don't worry about them).

Whenever you see a 4, that means that you count one quarter note for each beat. If you see a 2, that means that you count one half note for each beat. An 8 means that you count an eighth note for each beat.

For example, if you see 4/4, that means that you count four quarter notes per bar. If you see 3/8, you count three eighth notes per bar.

In some more complex pieces, you might see something like a 12/16, but that is a bit too much for right now since they are counted in a different way (with dotted notes). Don't worry about those right now. You almost never run into them in real life :)

That's what pure evil looks like! :)

That's really it for time signatures.

Now, you know what a Time Signature is, but what are the Note Values?

Note Values are always worth the same thing relative to each other, but it's the combination of them (based on the rhythmic combination and time signature) that make the music "feel" different.

The largest note value that you'll encounter on a regular basis is the Whole note.

Whole Note

The whole note is always worth 4 beats.

If you divide a whole note in half, you get the next largest note value, the Half Note. A Half Note is always worth 2 beats.

Half Note

Keep dividing the notes and you'll get the quarter note (worth one beat or half of a Half note).

One more division, and the eighth note comes up (worth half of a Quarter note).

If you divide an eighth note again, you get a 16th note.

Here is a diagram that shows the note values in relation to each other.

Rests have the same values as notes, but they look much different. You'll never confuse a note with a rest!

Here is a comparison of both rests and notes in relation to each other:

There are a few things that you can do to a note, however, that change the duration of the note. One of those things is to "dot" the note and turn it into a "Dotted note". A dotted note is worth the full value of the original note plus another half (i.e. A Dotted Half note is worth a half note AND a quarter note, effectively becoming worth three beats).

Here is an example of a dotted note:

Another thing that can change the way a note is played is either the Staccato or Legato marking. The Staccato marking is a small dot that is placed above or below a note (depending on where the note is on the staff) that effectively shortens the note to about half of what it is normally worth without actually changing the written value of the note. Therefore, a quarter note is still a quarter note, but cut off a bit earlier as to give the impression of being a shorter note.

A Legato marking is a long bar-like figure placed in the same way that a Staccato marking is that does the very opposite of the staccato; It makes it so that the note is played for it's full value and as long as possible without making it go longer than it is notated for.

Here is what they look like:

I hope that this was able to give you a better idea of what the value of the various notes and rests was. As well, you should be able to understand what the time signatures mean too.

If you're having an issue with these ideas, you'll encounter them again, so don't worry about it too much. Just keep going and it will make more sense to you later on.

Continue on to my Next Lesson to learn more about Reading Music.

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