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Duration: Notes and Rests

Module by: Catherine Schmidt-Jones. E-mail the author

Summary: On a musical staff, the duration of a particular note or rest is defined by how long it lasts compared to a whole note.

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A note stands for a single musical sound. The two most important things a written piece of music needs to tell you about a note are its pitch - how high or low it is - and its duration - how long it lasts.

To find out the pitch of a note, you look at the clef and the key signature, then see what line or space the note is on. The higher a note sits on the staff, the higher it sounds. To find out the duration of the note, you look at the tempo and the time signature and then see what the note looks like.

Figure 1
The Parts of a Note
The Parts of a Note (23a.gif)

All notes have a head; the head is the part that is centered on a particular line or space, giving the note its pitch. The head can be filled in or not. It may have a stem pointing up or down (more about stems below). If it has a stem, it may also have one or more flags. The flags can belong to an individual note, or they may become bars that connect similar notes. Any note may also have a dot to the right of the head. All of these things affect how long the note lasts.

Figure 2
Figure 2 (23q.gif)

The simplest-looking note, with no stems or flags, is a whole note. All other note lengths are defined by how long they last compared to a whole note. A note that lasts half as long as a whole note is a half note. A note that lasts a quarter as long as a whole note is a quarter note, and so on.

Figure 3: If flagged notes are next to each other, the flags can be replaced by beams connecting the notes into easier-to-read groups.
Figure 3 (23b.gif)

The note lengths sound like fractions in arithmetic, and they work just like fractions, too: two half notes will be equal to (last as long as) one whole note; four eighth notes will be the same length as one half note; and so on.

Figure 4
Figure 4 (23i.gif)

Exercise 1

Draw the missing notes and fill in the blanks to make each side the same duration.

Figure 5
Figure 5 (23j.gif)


Figure 6
Figure 6 (23k.gif)

So how long does each of these notes actually last? That depends on the time signature and the tempo. A quarter note in one piece of music can be a different length, and even a different number of beats, than a quarter note in another piece.


A rest stands for a silence in music. For each kind of note, there is a written rest of the same length.

Figure 7
Figure 7 (23c.gif)

Exercise 2

For each note on the first line, write a rest of the same length on the second line.

Figure 8
Figure 8 (23l.gif)


Figure 9
Figure 9 (23m.gif)

Dots, Ties, and Unusual Lengths

What if you want a note or rest length that is not one of those listed above? One way to get a different length is by dotting the note or rest. A dotted note is one-and-a-half times the length of the same note without the dot. In other words, the note keeps its original length and adds another half of that original length because of the dot. So a dotted half note, for example, would last as long as a half note plus a quarter note, or three quarters of a whole note.

Figure 10: The dot acts as if it is adding another note half the length of the original note. A dotted quarter note, for example, would be the length of a quarter plus an eighth, because an eighth note is half the length of a quarter note.
Figure 10 (23e.gif)

Exercise 3

Put only one note or rest, dotted or not, to make groups of equal length on each side.

Figure 11
Figure 11 (23n.gif)


Figure 12
Figure 12 (23o.gif)

You can add more dots if you like. Each dot adds half the length that the dot before it added.

Figure 13: When a note has more than one dot, each dot is worth half of the dot before it.
Figure 13 (23f.gif)

A dotted half lasts as long as a half note plus a quarter note. The same length may be written as a half note and a quarter note tied together. Tied notes are written with a curved line connecting two notes that are on the same line or the same space in the staff. Notes of any length may be tied together, and more than two notes may be tied together. The sound they stand for will be a single note that is the length of all the tied notes added together. This is another way to make notes of different lengths, as well as notes that stretch from one measure to the next.

Figure 14: When these eight notes are played as written, only five notes are heard by the audience: one note the length of two whole notes; then a dotted half note; then another note the same length as the dotted half note; then a note the same length as a whole note plus a quarter note.
Figure 14 (23p.gif)

Dots and ties give you much freedom to write notes of varying lengths, but so far you can only include note lengths that are halves of other note lengths. If you want to divide a note length into anything other than halve, thirds or fifths for exanple, you must write the number of the division over the notes. These unusual subdivisions, called borrowed divisions sound like they belong to a different meter altogether. They can be difficult to count correctly. The only one that is commonly used is triplets, which divides a note length into equal thirds.

Figure 15: Any common note length can be divided into an unusual number of equal-length notes and rests. The notes are labeled with the appropriate number. If there might be any question of which notes are involved, a bracket is placed above them. The various triplets are the only "borrowed divisions" commonly seen. Jazz or blues with a "swing" rhythm assumes that all divisions are triplets. The swung triplets may be written out or they may simply be written as "straight" rhythms with the "swing" triplet implied.
Some Unusual Note Lengths
Some Unusual Note Lengths (23g.gif)

More about Stems

Whether a stem points up or down does not affect the note length at all. Usually notes with heads below the middle of the staff are stem up; notes on or above the middle line of the staff tend to be stem down. There are many exceptions to this rule, however. For example, if parts for two different people are written on the same staff, one part will be stem up and the other part stem down.

Figure 16
Figure 16 (23h.gif)

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