It is easy for a musician such as myself to take for granted those truths about music that I have known since childhood, and forget that many people are just now entering the world of music, and are not familiar with many of the basic facts of life concerning music.
When I take my car to a mechanic I expect the mechanic to speak to my level of knowledge about cars – not his level of knowledge – and it’s annoying when they talk over my head about things they falsely assume I know.
Yet I am guilty of exactly the same “sin” when it comes to music – I often assume too much.
And so for those precious people who are not familiar with basic musical terms, I am going to write the next few articles about the basics of music, assuming nothing.
(Musicians will want to skip this article)
Notes are the musical notation representing a fixed pitch. While the word strictly refers to the physical notation of a pitch, it’s more commonly used to refer to both the pitch and the notation. When we’re trying to figure out a piece of music, we rarely ask which pitches are being played; we always ask which notes are being played. But if we try to describe a song as having the same note in several places, we’re technically wrong. Considering that each note is a separate notation, even if the pitch is the same, it’s impossible to have the same note in several places.
Notes are named after the first seven letters in the alphabet — A, B, C, D, E, F, and G — and keep the same letter value regardless of the octave. But since there are twelve notes in a diatonic scale (a “normal” scale we are all used to – there are other kinds, but they are way beyond the scope of this article), the seven notes can be altered. To get the extra five notes, we sharp (raise by a half-step) and flat (lower by a half-step); the sharp and flat notes are the black keys on a piano. (White keys can be raised and lowered also, but again, that is beyond the scope of this article.)
The types of notes and their values are based on the amount of time they take up in a song.
Whole notes (in the language of music theory they are known as “semi-breve” notes) are four beats, which is equal to one measure in 4/4 time. They are represented by a hollow, oval note with no stem.
Half notes (also known as “minim” notes) are half of a whole note, or two beats. They are written as a hollow note with a stem that points up when placed below the middle of the staff, up when placed above it.
Quarter notes (or “crochet” notes) represent a quarter of a whole note, or one beat in 4/4 time. They are the most recognizable note: a solid black note with a stem.
Eighth notes (or “quaver” notes) are one-eighth of a whole note and are written exactly like a quarter note, but with a flag attached to the stem. When more than one eighth note is placed side by side, a solid beam connects the adjacent notes.
Sixteenth notes (or “demi-quaver” notes) are one-sixteenth of a whole note and represented as an eighth note with two flags or two solid beams.
Thirty-second and sixty-fourth notes represent the section of a whole note indicated by their names; they are drawn as eighth or sixteenth notes with an additional flags.
A 32nd note is known as a demi-semi-quaver.
And believe it or not, a 64th note is known as a hemi-demi-semi-quaver.
It’s also important to mention that a note’s value can be changed by adding a dot. Dotted notes represent the value of the original note, plus one half. For instance, dotted half notes are held for three beats, dotted quarter notes for a beat and one half, and so on.
(For you musicians who shouldn’t be reading this anyway, yes – I am well aware that I made some generalities in this article, but it is for beginners.)
For more detail on types of notes, go to Wikipedia on Note Values.