How do we write down notes? What do these notes tell us?

One way to indicate pitches is to write them down. There are a few ways to write them, but the standard that has emerged and evolved in the West (adopted by most of humanity) is to use a staff, clefs, and proportional note values (which apply to rests also). A great advantage of this standard notation is that it allows to indicate several important details at a glance — really, most, if not all, of the aspects of a note that we could possibly describe or care about — all in one place.

Let’s reflect on those aspects again.

Notes have a length (or duration), which is both absolute (meaning comparable to other standard measures of time, such as seconds or minutes) and relative (meaning comparable to other notes, usually as simple proportions, such as “double” or “half”);

notes have a pitch (expressed as one of the 12 notes I mentioned before, and within a certain octave — more later), which is both absolute (meaning measurable in Hertz) and relative (meaning higher or lower than other notes, depending on the letter-name and octave of each);

notes have a volume (called dynamics officially), which is expressed usually only in a relative way, using two basic categories of “loud” (written f — for the Italian word forte, meaning “strong”) and “quiet” (written p — for the Italian word piano, meaning “soft”) and their offshoots (more later);

and notes have an articulation, which is expressed with a few symbols that mean, for example, “smooth,” “short,” or “punchy” (more later). Technically, articulations are just adjustments to a note’s length and/or volume, but it’s more practical to describe these changes as articulations, as we’ll see soon.

[A related concept is that of ornaments, which could arguably be described as “pitch articulations,” but you can make all kinds of progress as a pianist without concerning yourself with ornaments for a long time. They’re pretty advanced and unnecessary for beginners, but I want you to be aware of them.]

So, again . . . those aspects include length, pitch, volume, and articulation. And all these can be marked down on a page (or screen), using standard Western music notation.

Let’s now rank these aspects in terms of importance and practicality, so we can avoid overwhelm!

By far, the two most important aspects of any note are its duration and its pitch. In other words, we need to know how long and how high each note is. And to break this down further, we should actually ask how long first. Why? Well, music exists in time, and you could say that it doesn’t matter how many beautiful notes we have if we don’t have a time to put them in. Time is the “canvas” of music, you could say.

Okay, so we’ll start with length (or duration, as I also called it). How long can notes be?

Recall that I mentioned both absolute and relative lengths of notes. Let’s deal with the relative lengths first.

We need a basic kind of note-length — a note we can look at and think “one.” One “what” are we talking about?  One beat (or “count” — they are interchangeable terms).  Well, we have a note like that: It’s called the quarter-note. The quarter-note usually “gets” one beat.  (Not always; more on that later.)  Now, I know that might be weird to think of “quarter” as “one,” but stay with me. It’ll make more sense soon.

Look more closely. We see an oval, filled in, called a notehead; and we see a vertical line, called a stem. If the stem goes up from the notehead, it attaches on the right side; if it goes down, it’s from the left.  (By the way, the stem direction doesn’t affect the length of the note.  It actually has to do with pitch, but that comes later.)

Now, here’s a rule for you:  As you add ink to notes, they get “smaller” (shorter in duration).  Likewise, as you take away ink, they get “bigger.”  Let’s start with making them bigger.  Let’s take away some ink — so the notehead is no longer filled in.  We now have the half-note.  Take a look.

Notice that we doubled the note-value — another way of referring to the duration (or length) of a note.  So, when I said that less ink = more time, I meant specifically double the time.  Get it?

Let’s keep going.  We’ll now remove even the stem from this notehead, and double the value again.  This is called a whole-note.  Enjoy:

So far, so good.  Let’s rank all these in a little chart, from “heaviest” to “lightest”:

See the pattern?  Cut in half as you move down; double as you move up.  Easy.

We can also continue cutting note-values in half, going smaller than the quarter-note. If you add a flag to a quarter-note, it becomes an eighth-note, worth 1/2 a count.  Notice that the flag always “folds” to the right of the note, whether the stem goes up/right or down/left.

I bet you can guess what’s next:  the sixteenth-note.  It’s worth half the value of an eighth-note, therefore 1/4 count, and it adds one more flag, for a total of two flags per note.  Observe:

If I’m reading your mind correctly, the answer is “yes”:  These note-types do keep shrinking and shrinking, to 32nd-notes, 64th-notes, 128th-notes, and so on; you just add more flags.  The problem is that they’re impractical.  They’re hard to read, hard to play, and hard to make any sense of while listening.  So yes, you’ll occasionally see these (the longer, the more likely), but they’re rare, and by the time you’re ready to play any of them, you’ll already know how to handle them as a result of learning these basic 5 note-types first.

So that’s it!  Five basic note-types.  Not too much to ask.  And they’re logical, too.

There’s an important point to add here:  For 8th-notes, 16th-notes, and anything shorter (in case you run into them), they can be written using a shared beam instead of flags, provided there are 2 or more in a row.  Isn’t this . . .

. . . easier to read than this?:

I agree.  Likewise, this . . .

. . . seems better than this, doesn’t it?:

Therefore, we can update our chart accordingly:

Can I guess your next question?  I bet it’s, “What about notes longer than a whole-note?”  The answer includes two handy little items we’ll be discussing now.

This object . . .

. . . (or this one) . . .

. . . is called a tie.  As its name implies, it “ties” two consecutive notes together, to form one note that lasts as long as the sum of the value of the original two notes.  In other words, it adds the value of two consecutive notes.  For example, what’s 2+1?  It’s 3, of course.  Likewise, a half-note added to a quarter will produce one note that is equal to the total duration of both notes.

If 2 + 1 = 3, then . . .

+

=

Ties can be used to combine any number of notes, each of any length, into one.  Need a note that lasts for nineteen 16th-notes’ worth of time?  No problem.

One whole-note will knock out sixteen of those 16th-notes:

One eighth-note will knock out two more:

And now there’s only one left:

When we tie them together, we’ll have one note of the correct duration:

What about the other item I mentioned above — before talking about ties?  Well, it’s a similar concept to the tie, but it’s a little weird.

This object . . .

. . . is called the dot.  (See it up there?)  Great name, right?  What does the dot do?  Simply put, it means “times 1.5”.  Let me explain:

. . . is a common enough rhythm.  It’s nice and simple to read, and nice and simple to play.  Okay.  Now, another common thing to do with rhythms is to make one note “crowd” another note, by taking a little longer than usual, forcing the next note to be a little shorter than usual.  Let’s apply that to the first two notes above.

Since the first one is a quarter-note, worth 1 count, we can make it longer by adding a dot to it.

becomes

The second note will have to “scoot over,” so it will be closer (in time) to the third note.  The way to do that is to shrink it from being a quarter-note to being an eighth-note.  So far, the first two notes have gone from . . .

. . . to

Let’s just keep the final two notes the same.  So the whole thing has gone from this . . .

. . . to this:

So what?  Well, initially, I said that a dot means “times 1.5”; we can now see that the first quarter-note was “stretched” from just 1 count to 1 1/2 counts, while the second note was “squeezed” from 1 count to just 1/2 a count.  Is it making more sense?  The point of the dot is give us a convenient way of indicating this common rhythmic adjustment without having to use ties.  To be clear, you never really need a dot, but it’s handy.  To prove the point, compare these two rhythms:

OR

Whether you find the second notation a little more elegant or not, it is the standard way of notating the rhythm, and these two are equivalent rhythms.

So again, a dot means “times 1.5”, or to put it another way, it means “add half.”  This applies to any kind of note we’ve already seen (I’m leaving out down-stemmed notes to save room):

Please notice that, in both numerical columns above, the numbers still double as you move up and cut in half as you move down — even in the “dotted” column.  A dotted quarter-note is worth half the value of a dotted half-note, just as a regular quarter-note is also worth half the value of a regular half-note.

We’ve now looked at piles of different (relative) note-length possibilities, but you may have noticed — we haven’t named every possibility.

First, let me say that we don’t need every possibility, for any pressing reason.  The notes we’ve looked at will cover more than enough ground for thousands of musical “situations” you might find yourself in.  But, we might as well be thorough, and yes, there are also common enough rhythms we haven’t yet addressed.  (There will be even more on this later when we get to the subject of meter.)

Here’s the deal:  You can notate any length of note you can think of — often in a few different ways — but that doesn’t mean you (or anyone else) would have a practical, let alone enjoyable, way of playing that kind of note.  There are easy rhythms and hard rhythms.  (Remember:  Rhythm simply refers to different note-durations.)  Sometimes, you’ll even run into one rhythm that is simple — combined with another, simple rhythm — but putting them together makes the whole thing very difficult.  (This often happens with polyrhythm, which we’ll get to later.)

So, in those situations when we do — for whatever reason(s) — want notes of a different length than all the ones we’ve considered above . . . how do we do so?

The overall tool we need is the tuplet.

Tuplets include triplets, pentuplets, sextuplets, septuplets, and any other division of time you can think of (indicated simply with the number of notes you’re “cramming” into one chunk of time), but by far, the most useful of these (most likely and most practical) is the triplet.

As the name suggests, a triplet is a group of three notes . . . which fit evenly into a count (or set of counts) normally divided into two.  In other words, a triplet is “three in the space of two.”  Have a look:

The first quarter-note here can be split into two 8th-notes:

But we could, instead, split it into three “8th-triplets”, like this:

Notice that this rhythm is actually different than all three of these:

OR

OR EVEN

There’s simply no way to turn fourths into thirds, now is there?  Not really; we can only approximate, unless we use actual triplets.

So do we have more options than simply “8th-triplets”?  Yep.  Here they all are, nice and consistent, even if they’re rare and strange (again, using only up-stemmed notes):

Pentuplets are “five in the space of four.”

Sextuplets are “six in the space of four,” but these can always be written as pairs of triplets.  Which way you choose depends on practicality and personal preference.

Septuplets are “seven in the space of four.”

Going beyond these “splits” means getting into the rarest of rare territories, and only computers and very unusual, picky people will bother to try to play them correctly.  If you see a “10” or higher in the bracket, the simple advice is . . . “do your best.”  At some point, no one knows the difference, no one cares, and worrying about it is ridiculous . . . especially when you consider these two points:

1          Normal human “error” (or the “life” of a performance — meaning subtle fluctuations in volume and tempo which bring “life” to playing music) can result in a bigger rhythmic change than, for example, the difference between splitting some time into 13 segments instead of 12; and . . .

2          All of these actual note lengths are determined by the absolute values we’ve assigned them (which we mentioned above, but which we haven’t examined yet — see below, after rests), and any human player will — again — fluctuate in keeping a steady beat.  We, as listeners, neither know nor care about many of these fluctuations; in fact, we encourage them, precisely because they don’t sound “robotic.”

[If you’re going for a jog, do you really care if your pace changes every now and then?  Do you really care if I explain music in some certain way, while someone else will explain it some other way?  We want some precision in life, for sure, but there are limits on how precise it matters to be.]

Let’s not forget that music also breathes, doesn’t it?  There are pauses, breaks, gaps, in music — and for good reason.  Just as this paragraph includes lots of punctuation, to keep the words clear and organized, so does music offer lots of different note-lengths and different silence-lengths.  In other words, we need a way of indicating not only notes of any duration, but also chunks of silence.  The word for this is a rest.

Every single, different type of note-length we’ve discussed (and that really means anything you can think of, and a lot of things you don’t want to think of) . . . comes with an equivalent rest-length.  It’s easy:  All you have to do is say one of the normal proportions (such as “whole” or “triplet-16”) and then the word “rest.”  Now you’ve got the same amount of time, but with silence instead of musical sound.

The chart below should make it plain.  Again, there are only up-stems, and I’m just showing the 5 basic types, but all tuplets and dots do apply to rests, too.  (Ties do not; there’s no need to “connect” one portion of silence to another portion immediately following; simply place the correct number of rests in order to make up whatever amount of time you need.)  Here’s the chart:

So . . .

. . . there are all the ways to account for different relative lengths of notes.  To be clear — and as a reminder — relative note durations mean “how long a note lasts compared to other notes in the same piece of music.”  But we don’t know exactly how long any of these notes lasts without assigning an absolute value to — at least — one of the notes.  In fact, once we’ve assigned a value to one of them, all the rest will “fall in line.”

Here are two fun analogies you may have already though of:

1          An actual “meter” (as used for measuring physical distances) is based on an iron bar, with two marks on it, kept in Paris.  (Yes, the story goes back further than that.)  Having established this actual distance — called “one meter” — we can now have a blast talking about all kinds of different measurements derived from (or “relative to”) . . . one meter.  But we wouldn’t know any of those measurements without defining a “meter.”

2          Think about a dollar.  What does “dollar” really mean?  Well, it means “four quarters”; but it also means “ten dimes”; and it means “twenty nickels” and “a hundred pennies” and “two half-dollars”; while we’re at it, it also means “a fifth of a five-dollar bill” and “a twentieth of a twenty-dollar bill” and all the rest of that.  But until we know that one dollar will buy us cold can of soda from a gas station (or whatever else), we don’t have any external, referential value for it.  A can of soda is absolute, but a dollar is just . . . relative.

Here’s something less relative:  time itself.  Yes, as a physicist will tell you, time can bend along with matter (for example, if you travel far from Earth, apparently), but for all of us Earth-dwellers, synchronizing your smartphone’s clock with someone else’s is insanely reliable, thanks to our incredibly predictable ways of measuring time.

And that brings us to clocks themselves, which give music its grounding in reality, so to speak.

As we mentioned a while ago, a clock can (and should) tick 60 times each minute, and if it does, each of those ticks lasts 1 second.  We can use this (actual) clock to define one absolute note value, and then, in turn, define many (in fact, an infinite number of) other note values, relative to that single note.  The easiest example (again, as mentioned above) is to define the quarter-note as lasting for “one sixtieth of a minute” or “one second”; and if we do this, we can easily figure out that a half-note would then last for two seconds, a whole-note would last for four seconds, an eighth-note for half a second, a sixteenth for a quarter of a second, and so on.

But we don’t really care about all those definitions, as long as we have one definition for one note.  This one note will “rule” all the others.

The name for this concept is tempo.  The tempo of a piece of music is like the speed of the “clock” we’re using to organize all the counts in the piece.  If we “wind up” the clock faster, we’ll have a faster piece; and vice versa.  Every tempo indication needs two ingredients:  a note, and a number.  (Okay, it also needs an equals-sign and “bpm”.)  Take a look:

. . . means, “Sixty quarter-notes will go by every minute.”

. . . means, “Seventy-two half-notes will go by every minute.”

. . . means, “132 eighth-notes will go by every minute.”

Pretty straightforward, right?  It took a while, but it’s hopefully clear enough.  Feel free to look back at this page any time you need a review.  But now, it’s almost time to move on.  Let’s “zoom out” on what we’ve done:

Now that we know how long we can make a note (or silence) last, . . .

. . . we need to know how high or low we can make notes.

To answer that question, we’ll need to use the musical alphabet, as mentioned on the “What is Pitch?” page.  But before we get more fully into the whole alphabet, let’s pick just one note out of it:  the single, most important note of music. . . .