Basic Durational Symbols

Rhythm in music is generated by varying the amount of time a note lasts, its duration. If a note lasts for a long time, it is perceived as slow, if a note lasts for a short amount of time, it is perceived as fast. In our current system of notation, the whole note is the most basic unit of time and lasts for four counts, or beats.

If you play the whole note example, you should be able to hear that the note begins on the first beat (in this case a click from a metronome), and holds the note for the full length of all four beats, then cuts off just before a fifth beat is heard.

Play an example of a whole note

Play a whole note

Now let's look at what a few different durational symbols look like. The whole note should already look familiar. Whole notes are just an empty oval-shaped notehead, with no additional features.

A half note is the next logical step, and lasts for two beats. The symbol changes slightly: a vertical line called a stem is added to the oval notehead. Since half notes are worth two counts each, we need two to fill the four counts above. When notes have stems, the stems can go either up or down (we will learn rules for this later).

Quarter notes last for one beat each, and the symbol changes slightly in comparison to the half note, the difference is that the notehead becomes filled-in. Since a quarter note lasts for one count, this means we can fit four quarter notes in the same amount of time previously occupied by one whole, or two halves.

So far, we have seen each durational symbol change slightly with each shorter duration: we began with the whole note, which was just an oval-shaped notehead, the half note added a stem, the quarter note had its notehead filled-in. For our next durational symbol, the eighth note (shown below), we essentially have a quarter note symbol with one additional change: a curved line attached to the stem called a flag. All durations shorter than an eighth will have flags. Each consecutive shorter duration simply adds a flag, so eighth notes have 1 flag, then sixteenth notes have 2 flags, thirty-second notes have 3 flags, and so on.

An eighth note is half the length of a quarter note, so where we had 4 quarter notes before, we now have 8 eighth notes.

Play some eighth notes

Many notes with flags can be difficult for the eye to keep track of. Therefore, we often replace flags with beams when possible. Click the button above to beam the notes. Often beamed notes are grouped into sets (above they are grouped into sets of 2 eighths). There will always be an equal number of beams to flags, so if a note has 1 flag, it will be replaced with 1 beam, if a note has 2 flags, they will be replaced with 2 beams, and so forth.

Chart of basic durational symbols

Hopefully the chart above will help you visualize the relative durations of the notes. Notice the whole note gets the entire four beats, while half notes get 2, quarter notes get 1, eighth notes are 1/2 (two per beat), and sixteenth notes are a 1/4 beat (four per beat). Save a PDF of the chart.

Click any of the following links to hear some notes played at each relative duration. Or for fun, hear them all at once!

Play a whole note

Play some half notes

Play some quarter notes

Play some eighth notes

Play some sixteenth notes

Play all

Here is a video walkthrough of what to expect in the duration exercises.