Note and Rest Values

In this music theory lesson for beginners we will focus on note and rest values.

You will learn how long or short notes and their rests are, how the musical symbols for note values are written, and the logic behind it!


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What Does a Musical Note Tell Us?

Learn about notes and rests.

Music is an organized combination of sounds and silences. 

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 and rest 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 note and rest values, or how long or short (duration or note value) a note or rest is.

Note and Rest Values

Learn about note and rest 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! 

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