Each music note written on the stave has a duration (length) as well as pitch. It is the design of the note that tells you its duration, in the same way as the position on the staff tells you the pitch. So each music note on a stave gives you two pieces of information, pitch and duration. This page focuses on the duration of each note.
The Rhythm Tree
In order to fully understand note lengths become familiar with the rhythm tree. Click here to learn more about the rhythm tree before continuing. The rhythm tree shows how the notes are related to each other.
Double Whole Note (Breve)
Although the whole note is the longest note we generally use today, as is hinted at by the UK name there used be a note called a Breve. This is known as a Double Whole note in the US. The double whole note (breve) divides into 2 whole notes (semibreves) following the pattern of the other notes in the Rhythm Tree. The Double Whole note (Breve) is therefore worth 8 quarter notes (crotchets). The Double Whole note (Breve) fell out of use as smaller value notes were invented by composers. It can be notated as an open rectangle or a whole note with bars either side.
Whole Note (Semibreve)
The Whole note is the longest music note in general use today. It is an open note with no stem. I always say to my students it looks like a hole…so it is easy to remember! The duration of the whole note is 4 quarter notes.
Half Note (Minim)
The Half note duration is 2 quarter notes. It differs from the whole note in that it has a stem, although it is still open. For students I liken this stem to the line in the middle of the ½. This also helps them remember that 1 half note is worth 2 beats (in 4/4 timing, which is what they are usually working in when learning this).
Quarter Note (Crotchet)
The quarter note has become the de facto standard 1 beat music note. This has happened as the 4/4 time signature is the most popular (with 3/4 and 2/4 following close behind) and quarter notes have a duration of 1 in these time signatures. It is also roughly in the middle of the most used notes in the Rhythm Tree, making the quarter note the ideal candidate for ensuring whole notes don’t become too long to count, and shorter, popular notes such as eighth and sixteenth notes aren’t impossible to count in terms of them being fractions of a note. The quarter note changes from the half note as it is filled in, as opposed to empty.
Eighth Note (Quaver)
The eighth note is worth ½ of a Quarter note. It may also be considered as a one beat note in 3/8 and similar timings, the 8 on the bottom of the time signature giving the clue that you are counting in eighth notes. This is the first note in the rhythm tree to have a flag. The flag is the name for the ‘tail’ added to the eighth note. Eighth notes may be a single as shown on the left, or joined together with beams.
It is common to see eighth notes joined into sets of 2 to make one beat. Eighth notes may also be grouped in 3s, 4s, 5s, or even 6s depending on the time signature. Remember, however, that no matter how many eighth notes are joined, each one is worth half a quarter note.
Sixteenth note (Semiquaver)
The Sixteenth note is worth ¼ of a Quarter note. It may be beamed together in the same way as the eighth note. It changes from the eighth note by having an additional flag. Look at the picture and you see a double flag at the top of the stem. This is how you tell a note is a sixteenth note.
Sixteenth notes may be beamed together in the same way as Eighth notes. When you see sixteenth notes beamed together each note has a double flag. Here is an example of 4 Sixteenth notes beamed together, they are also common in groups of 2.
Thirty Second Note (Demisemiquaver)
This is the point at which it becomes more fun to learn the UK music note terminology! The thirty-second note has 3 flags and may also be beamed together in the same way as the Eighth and Sixteenth notes.
Sixty Fourth Note (Hemidemisemiquaver)
As a young music student I never tired of the name hemidemisemiquaver, and for this, if nothing else, I am glad I learned the UK version of the note names rather than the US version. Hemidemisemiquaver just sounds so much more fun than Sixty-fourth note! The Sixty-fourth note has 4 flags and is the shortest note in general notational use. It may also be beamed together. The name hemidemisemiquaver actually makes sense if you look at it. Each part of the name is the word for ‘half’ in Greek (hem), French (Demi) and Latin (Semi). So a hemidemisemiquaver is half of a half of a half of a quaver (eighth note)… i.e., a Sixty-fourth note!
Curled From: Essential Music Theory