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So you know how to read the notes of the Bass and Treble Clef, but you want to know more standard notation so you can actually start reading music? You’ve come to the right place! (If this doesn’t sound like you, go check out my earlier article Reading Music 101! And then come back here.)

While knowing the names of notes is crucial to reading music, this is only the first step of many. After all, there isn’t much point in knowing what notes are supposed to be played when you don’t know the rhythm in which to play them. Let’s remedy that.

Essentially, the most basic note you will encounter is the quarter note, pictured here:

This note earns its name by being played for a quarter of the amount of time that a whole note is played. In the same vein, there is a half note that is equal to half the value of a whole note, as you may guess.

This naming convention holds for notes with smaller values as well. Eighth notes are, again, an eighth of the value of a whole note, though they are remembered more as being half the value of a quarter note. The reason why is pretty self-explanatory. You’ll notice eighth notes look just like quarter notes with a flag added to them.

Flags are used as a convention to identify notes with values smaller than a quarter note, and represent halving the value of the note. So, a note with one flag has half the value of a quarter note and is named an eighth note, a note with two flags has a fourth of the value of a quarter note and is a sixteenth note, a note with three flags has an eighth of the value of a quarter note and is a thirty-second note… you get the gist.

When you have multiple flagged notes next to each other, they are linked by beams. The number of beams that are present signify the number of flags those notes would have if they were separated.

Another common symbol you will see associated with notes is the dot. A dot next to a note means that you should hold it for the value of the note plus an additional half of the value. So, a dotted half note is equivalent to three quarter notes (three-fourths of a whole note), a dotted quarter note has the value of a quarter note plus an eighth note, and so on.

Each note has an equivalent rest to show a break in the music with the same time value as the note, as shown below:

Just remember that, even though you aren’t playing during rests, make sure to let them last for as much time as their note counterparts.

With this knowledge, we can start putting some things together. Going back to the staff, you’ll notice that written music has numbers stacked on top of each other, mostly at the beginning of lines.

These are known as time signatures. The top number indicates how many beats are in each measure, and the bottom indicates which type of note gets counted as one beat. So, for the example above, eighth notes count as one beat and the measure is equivalent to the value of six eighth notes. Measures are separated by vertical lines called bar lines that cut through the staff, with two vertical lines on a staff (known as the double bar line) signifying the end of a piece of music.

The most common time signature is four-four time, where there are four beats in a measure and a quarter note represents one beat. This is such a standard time signature that it is also called common time, and is written as a large “C” at the beginning of the line.

Another important time signature is three-four time, with three beats per each measure and the quarter note counting as one beat.

With this knowledge, you know enough to start reading some music! So, go forth and let this introduction to notation take you to new musical heights! Even though this is far from an exhaustive delve into music theory, it’s a start down the path to reaching your musical goals. Just remember, if you get stuck on anything, there is a massive internet out there that can and will go into much more detail than this article. Good luck, and have fun!


Images: Cover, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11

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