Musical Notes on Sheet Music: The Complete Guide

Musical Notes on Sheet Music- The Complete Guide Cover
Musical Notes on Sheet Music- The Complete Guide Cover

Understanding Musical Notes

One of the most fundamental skills a beginner musician and artist needs to have is the ability to read, write and play musical notes.

They are the building blocks of music, with each different note representing a particular duration and pitch. 

Musical notes allow musicians to communicate their ideas and read compositions from others. 

The world of sheet music and musical notes can be overwhelming when you’re starting out, so we’re breaking down everything you need to know in this article. Let’s jump right in.

The Importance of Musical Notes

Musical notes shape an entire song’s foundation, and understanding them is one of the most crucial skills that all musicians need to spend time on.

Different Musical Notes

Different Symbols for Different Musical Notes

Without this skill, you couldn’t play along with a particular melody with a piece of music. You wouldn’t be able to understand basic concepts such as the length and velocity of the notes in the music.

Musical notes are also essential for keeping with the intended rhythm of a song, as you need to know the relationships between each note as they sit on the staff lines.

Mastering musical notes will allow you to interpret sheet music, collaborate with other musicians, and build your own song arrangements

The Basics of Musical Notes and Their Values

At the most foundational level of playing an instrument (or singing), musicians need to understand how long to play each note. 

Songwriters and composers instruct them by using a combination of different note symbols on the musical staff. This is can be thought of as the same relationship that MIDI notes have with a particular virtual instrument. 

These different notes are an ‘input’ that defines the length, velocity, and method of how that particular pitch is played. The musician (or virtual instrument) reads these notes and creates an ‘output’ of sound. 

Let’s look at some of the most common music notes that you’ll come across on your journey to becoming a musician or artist. 

Semibreve – Whole Note

Semibreve - Whole Note - Musical Notation

Semibreve Music Note

A semibreve, or whole note, is a note that lasts for 4 beats. 

Visually, it appears as an open, oval-shaped notehead without a stem. 

In a standard 4/4 time signature, a semibreve takes up an entire measure. Meaning you will play this note for a full 4 beats.

It is the longest note value in common use and one you’ll come across frequently.

Minim – Half Note (1/2)

Half note Minim - Musical Notes

Minim Music Note

Next up we have the minim, or half note, which is a note that lasts for 2 beats. 

On sheet music, it is represented by an open, oval-shaped note head with a stem. The stem can point either upwards or downwards, depending on the position of the note head on the staff. 

It lasts for half the length as the semibreve, meaning when you play it, you’ll count 2 bars. 

Taking the same 4/4 time example as before, two minims can fit within a single measure.

Crotchet – Quarter Note (1/4)

Quarter Note Crotchet - Musical Notes

Crotchet Music Note

A crotchet, or quarter note, is a note that lasts for a single beat. 

It is represented by a filled-in, oval-shaped note head with a stem. Like the minim, the stem can point either up or down. 

In 4/4 time, four crotchets can fit within a single measure. So when you’re playing the quarter note, you’re just counting 1 beat. 

Crotchets are arguably the most common note value used in sheet music, especially used for melody in music.

Quaver – Eighth Note (8th)

Quaver 1/8th Note - Musical Notes

Quaver Music Note

Next up we have the quaver (or eighth note). It’s a note that lasts for half a beat.

 It is visually represented by a filled-in, oval-shaped notehead with a stem and a single tail (flag). The tail can be on either side of the stem, depending on the stem’s direction. 

In 4/4 time, eight quavers can fit within a single measure, so. When there are multiple quavers that are to be played consecutively, they’re usually beamed together for easier reading.

We’ll cover note beaming later, but here’s an example of what beamed notes look like:

Example of Beamed Notes

Semiquaver – Sixteenth Note (16th)

Semiquaver - Sixteenth Note (16th) - Music Note

Semiquaver Music Note

A semiquaver, or sixteenth note, is a note that lasts for a quarter of a beat. 

On sheet music, it appears as a filled-in, oval-shaped note head with a stem and two tails (or flags). The tails can be on either side of the stem, depending on the stem’s direction. 

In 4/4 time, 16 semiquavers can fit within a single measure. Its fast nature makes it perfect for techniques such as arpeggio, to create exciting melodies.

Semiquavers, similarly to quavers, are often beamed together in groups of four when played one after another.

Demisemiquaver – Thirty-Second Note (32nd)

Demisemiquaver - Thirty-Second Note (32nd)

Demisemiquaver Music Note

And finally, we have the demisemiquaver, or, thirty-second note, which is a note that lasts for an eighth of a beat. 

They are less common than the quaver and semiquaver but still used in many different genres. 

It is notated by a filled-in, oval-shaped notehead with a stem and three tails (or flags). The tails can also be on either side of the stem, depending on the stem’s direction. 

In 4/4 time, thirty-two of these notes can fit within a single measure. 32nd notes, again, are typically beamed together in groups of 8 when played consecutively.

Other Musical Notes

The 6 notes covered above make up the most common musical notes you’ll come across when reading music. 

However, there are some others that we also want to bring to your attention, albeit less frequently used.

Breve – Double Whole Note

Breve - Double Whole Note - Musical Notes

Breve Music Note

A breve, or double whole note, is a note that lasts for eight beats. As you may have guessed, this is twice the length of the semibreve or whole note we covered above.

It is visually represented by a rectangular-shaped notehead with no stem. 

In 4/4 time, a breve takes up two measures, so when you play this, you count 8 beats.

Breves are less common than other note values but can still be occasionally found, particularly in older compositions or slower-tempo music.

Hemidemisemiquaver – Sixty-Fourth Note (64th)

Hemidemisemiquaver - Sixty-Fourth Note (64th) - Musical Note

Hemidemisemiquaver Music Note

And the last note we want to look at is the hemidemisemiquaver, often called a sixty-fourth note. It lasts for a sixteenth of a beat. 

On sheet music, its represented with a filled-in, oval-shaped head, but it features four tails (or flags). Like the other quavers on this list, the trails can be on either side of the stem, direction dependant. 

In 4/4 time, 64 of these notes can fit within a single measure (which is extremely fast). 

They are relatively rare in most musical styles, only really appearing in very fast or complex passages. When they are used, they’re also beamed together when used consecutively.

Musical Notes by Beat Count

We have also put together this useful chart as a single, go-to resource to reference when you are practicing different note types and their beat length. 

Technical NameNameBeat Count
BreveDouble Whole Note8 Beats
SemibreveWhole Note4 Beats
MinimHalf Note2 Beats
CrotchetQuarter Note1 Beat
QuaverEighth Note1/2 Beat
SemiquaverSixteenth Note1/4 Beat
DemisemiquaverThirty Second Note1/8 Beat
HemidemisemiquaverSixty Fourth Note1/16 Beat

Musical Notes – Stems, Tails, Beams, and More

Understanding the types (and durations) of each musical note is only a piece of the puzzle.

As a musician or artist, it’s important you explore the other components and symbols that support the musical notes on sheet music. 

These visual prompts for the musical notes not only provide more clarity to you, but they exist to give you guidance on how the notes should be played (and how they’re connected).

Whilst there are many of these supporting symbols, we are going to focus on the most common components that you will come across in sheet music. 

Note Stems

Note Stems - Musical Notes

Note Stems

The stem is the vertical line attached to the note head. 

It can extend either up or down, depending on the position of the note head on the staff. The direction of the stem can affect the overall look of a piece of sheet music.

There are some rules that define which way stems should point, but for a beginner, the most important thing is that the stem is on the right side of the note’s head.

Note Tails

Note Tails - Musical Notes

Note Tails (Flags)

Next, we have note tails, which can also be called note flags.

They look like small hooks that are attached to the end of a note stem. 

Tails indicate the duration of the note, with more tails meaning shorter note values. From quavers to hemidemisemiquavers, these tails are the only visual indicator available to you that defines the duration.

The tail will always come from the right side of the stem, and these tails can also point upwards or downwards, but will always follow the direction of the music. 

Beaming Notes Together

Beamed Notes - Musical Notes

Beamed Notes

Notes that are beamed together are easier to read and understand for musicians.

Beaming is the process of connecting notes with the same durations to make the sheet music easier to read. 

The ‘Beams’ are horizontal lines that connect the stems of notes. They’re often used within the quaver family when multiple notes are being played one after another. 

Beaming is often used for notes that share the same duration, but there are also times when different types of quaver notes are beamed together. The duration of these notes is defined by their tail, even when beamed, like in the example below:

Beamed Notes with Different Durations - Musical Notes

Beamed Notes with Different Durations

Dotted Notes

Dotted Notes - Musical Notes

Dotted Notes

Dotted notes are used when the note should be played longer than its original value. Some composers use this to add variation to a song arrangement.

The dot next to a note increases its length by half its original value (50%). 

So, a dotted quarter note would now last for 1 ½ beats. Or a dotted minim would be the same value as a minim and a crotchet.

Keep in mind that as a rule, dotted notes cannot go through the bar line in musical notation.

Tied Notes

Tied Notes - Musical Notation

Tied Notes

Tied notes are another way that composers and songwriters add extra flavor and variety to a song.

The tie is used to connect two notes of the same pitch together. This results in their durations being added together, playing a longer, more sustained note.

For example, you could tie two half notes to create a sustained, full note.

On top of this, each note can be a different musical note (like a half note to a quarter note), as long as they share the same pitch.


Rest Notes - Musical Notation

Rests in Music – Semibreve Rest, Minim Rest and Crotchet Rest

And finally, we have rests

They are symbols that indicate a period of silence in the music, often used to build a more compelling musical composition and to build anticipation. 

There are different types of rests (as shown above), that represent different durations that the silence should last for.

Reading Musical Notes – Additional Elements

There is a handful of other important topics when reading sheet music than just understanding the different types of musical notes (and their supporting symbols).

As you dive further into the world of music, it’s important that you understand the broader context that shapes how you read and play musical notes. 

If your goal is to be able to read sheet music, you’ll want to take the time to learn the following topics:

Notes and Scales

Understanding both the different notes (or pitches) and their relationship within a given scale is one of the most fundamental skills you can develop as a musician.

There are 7 natural notes that are represented across sheet music, often referred to as the musical alphabet. The musical alphabet consists of seven letters: A, B, C, D, E, F, and G, with each letter representing different pitches. Each note can also have accidentals, which are sharp or flat versions of the natural note.

C Major Scale on Musical Notation

C Major Scale on Musical Notation

Major scales and minor scales are the two most commonly found scales you will come across when learning to read sheet music. Scales represent the relationship between different notes within the chromatic scale.

Keep in mind there as less commonly used scales that many advanced musicians and composers work with, including the 7 different musical modes.

The musical note symbols covered earlier are placed at specific lines on sheet music which defines the duration for which that pitch should be played.

The Staff and Clefs

The lines that the musical notes sit on or between are called the staff (or stave). Musical notes can be placed on the lines or between the spaces. 

Certain instrumentalists or solo singers will likely read musical notes on a singular staff, whereas other instrumentalists (such as key-based instrument players) and groups of musicians will read from the grand staff.

C Major Scale on Grand Staff

C Major Scale – Grand Staff with Treble and Bass Clef

Clefs are the symbol at the beginning of sheet music, and they define the pitch range for the musical notes that follow. The most common clefs are the treble clef, used for higher-pitched instruments, and bass clef, used for lower-pitched instruments. 

Key and Time Signatures

Finally, the key and time signatures not only indicate the scale at which your musical notes are being played but also set the rhythm of the music piece.

Both key signatures and time signatures are found after the clef, but before the notes, and play an important job of ensuring you are reading sheet music correctly.

C Sharp Major Key Signature

C Sharp (C#) Major Scale – Key Signature

44 Time Signature on Staff Example

4/4 Time Signature

Summary – Mastering the Musical Notes

And there you have it, our comprehensive guide on musical notes in sheet music!

Learning musical notes and how to read sheet music is a skill that musicians and artists develop over time, and requires practice and patience.

Musicians that master this skill will see significant improvements in both their reading and composing abilities.

Use this guide to improve and build upon your ability to read and write musical notes, and unlock a new way to communicate and articulate your songwriting.

Thomas Smith
Thomas Smith
As Visionary and Chief Editor of 122BPM, Thomas is dedicated to inspiring the next generation of music pioneers. With a degree in Music and 10 years industry experience, Thomas is now shaping 122BPM as the central hub for music and audio education.
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