Music Note Symbols: Note Values

Music is an organized combination of sounds and silences. Music note symbols are used to write sounds, and silences use symbols called rests.

Music Note Symbols

FTC Disclosure:  If you make a purchase via a link on this site, I may receive a small commission on the transaction - at no added cost to you. Learn more.

What Does a Musical Note Tell Us?

A musical note can in itself show only how long or short a sound is. The same goes for musical rests, or silences.

But when placed on a musical staff notes can also show pitch- or how high or low they should sound, simply by placing the note higher or lower.

So, with note symbols you can show music pitch and note duration (or note values). Or to put it simpler; a musical note on a staff shows both:

  • How long the note is.
  • How high or low pitch it has.

Here we will take a look at the different note symbols used to show how long or short (duration or note value) a note or rest is.

Music Note Symbols: Note Values

Whole note and rest:

Music notes always have a note head. It is the note heads’ placement on the staff that tells us what pitch to play, or sing:

Whole note and rest

Half note and rest:

Only the whole note (above) has no stem. All other note values have stems. The pitch doesn’t change, but adding a stem divides the note value by half:

Half note and rest

Quarter note and rest:

By filling in the note head, the note value is divided by half again:

Quarter note and rest

Eight note and rest:

By adding a little “flag”, the note value is cut in half once more:

Eight note and rest

Sixteenth note and rest:

Adding another “flag”, cuts it in half again:

…and so it continues.

Sixteenth note and rest

Direction of the Stem

The direction of the stem can be either up or down:

Note stems

This is how you know in what direction the stems should be written:

  • Notes that are on the lower part of the staff, under the middle line, generally have their stems up.
  • Notes on the top half, above the middle line have the stems down.
  • On the middle line the stems go either up or down, depending on the note before or after.

However, in groups of notes the stems are pulled where it makes most sense so that the stems in the group all have the same direction.

All Those Musical Symbols...

There are many note symbols used when writing music.

Music is so subjective and has so many means of expression that trying to write exactly how music should be played makes the use of many different symbols a necessity.

But, by understanding the logic behind the music note symbols that are used in the western musical notation, it is actually not so hard to learn.

You might even find it fascinating, as I do, with the clever way that people have developed a system to “describe” something as abstract as music! 

You might like these

  • Piano Theory for Beginners

    Want to learn piano theory? Here are many free lessons in basic music theory from beginner to more advanced.

  • What is a Whole Tone in Music?

    The whole tone and semitone are the two smallest intervals in western musical tradition. But small is not insignificant! Learn more about the whole tone here.

  • The Music Bar Line

    The music bar line is a vertical line that divide the notes in a score into groups. The lines show us the most strong beats; the first beat after each.