Music Theory I: Note Duration

This is the first in what I suspect will be a long series of online music theory lessons here at! We will be starting from the most basic level (note duration), assuming that you have absolutely no musical training whatsoever. That said, if you have any suggestions, questions, ideas, or need some help, don’t hesitate to email me at or leave a comment below!

In this lesson I will teach you all about rhythmic values of musical notes, otherwise known as note duration. You’ve probably encountered them in your day-to-day life, but perhaps you weren’t even aware of it! Below you can see various kinds of notes:

Musical Notes

Music is to language what notes are to the alphabet

By the end of your second online theory lesson, you will know what each of these notes is called and what it means! Think of music as a language just like English, French, or Spanish. In English we represent sounds with different letters of the alphabet. Music is no different. A musical sound is represented by notes (like the ones above) the same way the word cat is spelled with the letters C-A-T. Here’s a good example. You are probably familiar with the melody Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, right? Below you can listen to an audio clip of the Twinkle melody while following along with the musical notes below it.

Twinkle Twinkle Little Star (Click The Play Button to Hear Twinkle Twinkle Little Star)

Twinkle Twinkle Little Star

Unless you are the keenest of observers, you may not have noticed one important detail from the above audio clip and written notation: there are as many sounds in the audio clip as there are notes written in the music above. If you didn’t catch that listen again and count how many notes you hear in the recording. When you have done that count how many notes are written in the music above. You should count seven notes in both cases. This is because each written note corresponds to a single note played in the audio clip. It’s just like counting aloud the following written numbers: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5. You will make five sounds because there are five numbers (symbols) telling you to count out loud. If you understand this concept congratulations, you’re ready to continue on!

A brief look at some musical notes

Now we will get into the details of what a note means rhythmically (note duration), which is what this lesson is really all about. In the image below there is a whole note:

 Whole Note

Whole notes are held for a total of four beats. We’ll get into the concept of beats and their relationship to music later on, for now just know that a whole note’s duration (or value) is four beats. If a whole note’s value is four, can you guess what a half note’s duration must be? If you guess that it would be equal to half of the value of a whole note, then way to go! A half note is exactly half the duration of a whole note, which means it has a duration of two. You can see what a half note looks like in the image below:

Half Note

So, you now know that a whole note’s duration is four, and a half note’s duration is two, so what then would you expect the duration of a quarter note to be? If you think it would be one quarter the duration of a whole note, or a total duration of one, then congratulations, you’re exactly right! Below is an image of a quarter note:

Quarter Note

What is note duration? The value of a note…

I see a pattern emerging here, how about you? A quarter note is one quarter the duration of a whole note, and a half note is one half the duration of a whole note. Are all notes named according to their relationship with a whole note? You bet! An eighth note has 1/8 the duration of a whole note, and a sixteenth note has 1/16th the duration of a whole note (we will wait to cover eighth notes and sixteenth notes in the next lesson). But, what does this really mean? What is note duration anyway? I think we’re finally ready to answer that question!

Note Duration Relationships

I created the image above as a reference for you to look back upon in case you need to be reminded how a note relates to another note in terms of duration. Now, the question we were left with was: what exactly does duration mean? Well, let’s imagine for a moment that I’ve given you a dollar.

One U.S. Dollar

That dollar has a value of one whole dollar, right? So, how many quarters does it take to make one whole dollar? You will hopefully know that it takes four quarters to equal one dollar. This is the same for notes. A whole note is like a dollar, and quarter notes are like quarters. It takes four quarter notes to equal one whole note’s duration.

Dollar To Note Comparison

In other words, you will play four quarter notes in exactly the same amount of time that you would play one whole note. Below are three audio clips which illustrate this point:

Whole Notes

Quarter Notes

Whole and Quarter Notes Together

In the above audio clips you first heard a whole note played by itself repeatedly. In the second clip you heard quarter notes played repeatedly by themselves. Finally, in the third clip you heard both the quarter notes and the whole notes played together for comparison. Note that I intentionally chose different pitches for the whole and quarter notes (one sounds higher, the other sounds lower) so that you could hear the difference between them. Did you notice that four quarter notes were played in the same amount of time that it took to play one whole note? Can you guess what will happen with half notes when played against whole notes?

Whole Notes

Half Notes

Whole and Half Notes Together

If you had guessed that the half notes would sound like they happened twice as fast as the whole notes then congratulations, you’re done with this lesson and ready to move on! In our next lesson you’ll review whole, half, and quarter notes, but you’ll also learn about some others types of notes and what they all look like. Way to go! If you feel ready then take the quiz below!

Music Theory I: Note Duration Quiz

This is the quiz for Music Theory I: Note Duration. If you’re feeling ready then click on the ‘Start Quiz’ button below. Otherwise feel free to look back over the lesson above until you’re ready to take the quiz. Good luck!

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