Learn how to read and interpret the symbols of musical notes on sheet music below
Obtaining fluency in music can take years of devoted practice. It’s similar to obtaining fluency in a language. For example, when you’ve been studying a new language for a few months you may be able to carry on a basic conversation, order food, and navigate your way around a large city, but can you discuss politics, hire a plumber, or read a newspaper article? There are so many topics to become familiar with when learning a language, and it’s very similar when learning music. Becoming fluent in music includes learning to improvise, read sheet music, play difficult rhythms, develop technical skills, notate or play music that you hear, and so much more. In this article, you’ll learn how to read and interpret music note symbols and rests on sheet music, a key component of music fluency.
Parts of a musical note
Notehead – The rounded part of the music note that either fits in-between two lines (creating a space note) or has a line drawn directly in through the middle of it (creating a line note). All notes have some form of a notehead. Some noteheads are shaded in and some are empty. We’ll get into more of what these differences mean in the following paragraphs.
Stem – The stem is the line that extends out from the notehead. Unlike most notes, the whole note does not have a stem. Stems can point up or down without changing the value or pitch of the note, but sometimes the direction of the stem can help differentiate between which hand is intended to play the note in piano music.
Beam – The beam is the line that connects stems of two or more notes. Music notes can have one beam (in the case of two or more eighth notes) or you may see two beams (in the case of four sixteenth notes) or more beams!
Flag – In the case of eighth notes and sixteenth notes that are written individually, you will see them adorned with flags instead of beams. Eighth rests and sixteenth rests will also appear with flags.
Dots – Notes can have a dot immediately to the right of the notehead. These are simply called dotted notes, such as “dotted half notes” or “dotted quarter notes.” Rests can also be adorned with dots.
Musical note names and the time values
Noteheads, stems, beams/flags, and dots can help a musician tell one type of music note value from another.
Whole note – The whole note is worth 4 beats and is represented by an unfilled notehead without a stem.
Half note – The half note is worth 2 beats, which means that it takes two half notes to equal one whole note. The half note is represented by an unfilled notehead attached to a stem.
Quarter note – The quarter note is represented by a filled notehead attached to a stem. It is worth 1 beat, which means that it takes four quarter notes to equal one whole note.
Eighth note – The eighth note is worth ½ of a beat and is represented by a filled notehead attached to a single stem with a flag. When two eighth notes are side-by-side, they are attached with a beam in place of the flag and together equal 1 beat. It takes 8 eighth notes to equal one whole note.
Sixteenth note – The sixteenth note is worth ¼ of a beat and is represented by a filled notehead attached to a stem and two flags. When two or more sixteenth notes are side-by-side, they are attached with two beams in place of two flags and four all together equal 1 beat. It takes sixteen sixteenth notes to equal one whole note.
Music note symbols for dotted notes and tied notes
Simple rule to remember: Every time a note adds something (the notehead becomes shaded in, adds a stem, or a beam/flag), then the note’s duration becomes shorter.
The exemption to this rule: If a dot is added to the note, it lengthens the duration of the note.
Dotted whole notes – A whole note alone is worth 4 beats. Half of 4 is 2, so the dotted whole note is worth 6 beats.
Dotted half notes – The dotted half note is a half note that is followed by a dot. A half note alone is worth 2 beats. Half of 2 is 1, so the dotted half note is worth 3 beats.
Dotted quarter notes – A quarter note alone is worth 1 beat. Half of 1 is ½, so the dotted quarter note is worth 1 ½ beats.
Dotted eighth notes – An eighth note alone is worth ½ beat. Half of ½ is ¼, so the dotted eighth note is worth ¾ of a beat.
Ties and slurs look very similar, but are performed very differently:
A tie is a curved line that connects two musical notes of the same pitch. These two notes are then treated as one longer note that is equal to the combined duration of the two original notes. Ties can be used within a measure or even over barlines. You may also see more than two notes tied together (such as three whole notes) but there would need to be a separate tie between each pair of notes.
A slur is a curved line that connects two or more notes of different pitches. These notes are all meant to be performed seamlessly, with no separation between them. Slurs can be short or they can be long and extend over several barlines.
Now that you know more about reading the values and symbols of musical notes you are even closer to being completely fluent in the language of music. You are ready to apply this knowledge to your practice! Have fun and happy playing!
Download these handy reference guides to help you remember how to read music notes and rhythms: