Basic Note Values

You know that part of what makes music is the pitch of the notes, or high or low they sound. The pitch of the notes is indicated by which line or space of the treble clef staff or bass clef staff the note is located on. What you should also learn about in order to be able to play piano sheet music is that the duration of the note (how long you should hold the note) is indicated by the shape of the note, or what kind of note it is. We call this aspect of a note its note value. The note value is what indicates to the performer whether the note will be held a long time, or simply be pressed and let go quickly.

To understand how the note value of a note shows a musician how long to hold the note, you need to know that there are several parts of a note. The oval-shaped part of the note is called the note head. The note head can either be filled in, or left open, and this difference tells us a few things about the note on its own. Attached to the note head, you have a straight line that is called the stem of the note. The stem of the note can point up or down, depending on the situation. Notes above the middle line of the staff generally have stems that point down, while notes below the middle line of the staff usually have stems that point down. Notes on the middle line of the staff can have stems that point up or down. The last part that appears on some types of notes is a shorter, curved line called the flag. One or more flags can appear on the right side of the stem, starting at the end of the stem, and adding flags as needed toward the note head. Flags on a note indicate a shorter duration than notes without piano

Now that you know the basic parts of a note, practice recognizing these notes by taking a look at a piece of sheet music written for piano (or for any other instrument) and find the differences between the notes. Which notes have stems? Which have flags? Are the note heads all the same? What other symbols can you find above, below, or beside the notes?

When you are learning to read basic note values, it is easier to start with the most simple note types and gradually progress to learning more complex note values. The easiest note to recognize is a whole note, because its note head looks like an oval that is not filled in. It does not have a stem or any flags. A whole note is held for four counts. If you see a whole note on your sheet music on the space for the note A, and you press the key down while you count to 4, you have played a whole note. If you add a stem to a whole note, it becomes a half note. Half notes are named because they receive half the number of counts as a whole note, two counts. You can play two half notes in the same amount of time it takes to play one whole note.

The next basic note value is the quarter note. A quarter note looks just like a half note except the note head is colored black. Can you guess why it is called a quarter note? It is because it gets a quarter of the value that a whole note gets, or one count. You can play four quarter notes in the same amount of time as you could play one whole note. Try playing a whole note with your left hand and four quarter notes with your right hand.

There are other more complicated ways to change note values, like adding dots beside the note head, and adding flags to the stem. Any good method book will cover these as you learn more about reading basic note values. There are also ways to combine the notes to make them longer than four counts, by connecting two notes together with a curved line. This line, called a tie, adds the note values of both notes together. So for example, if you drew a tie between two whole notes, the performer would know that you wanted them to play a note that was eight counts long. Using note values, any combination of duration that you could ever want is possible.

If you are interested in reading sheet music you should check out the reading piano music or the beginner piano lessons found in the piano articles on the main page after you have read through this one. There, you will also find the best way to practice piano.

Learn more about basic note values by visiting the homepage of, or by reading through some of the other piano lesson articles we've posted on this web site.

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