How to understand notes?
Musical pieces are made up of notes. Strictly speaking, notes are marks placed on the staff, which provide information about the pitch and duration of the sound.
The pitch of the sound is read from the position of the head of the note on the staff relative to the key. It is very important to keep in mind the entire previous sentence. Without the key, we don’t know what the pitch of the notes on the staff is. The same note can be read differently depending on what key appears in front of it. The key is essential to deciphering the musical code.
The relative duration of the sound depends on the shape of the note: a longer note is divided into two shorter ones, these two notes into four, and so on. But why “relative”? Because the longer one lasts as long as two shorter ones, but how much exactly - we don’t know. It depends on the tempo. At a moderate pace, a half-note lasts a second, a quarter note - half a second, which gives 120 quarter notes per minute. The metronome comes in very useful here. The duration of the notes is modified by a dot, triplet, fermata, and sometimes an arc.
Thus, a whole note lasts as much as two half-notes, and one half note - two quarter notes. Quarter notes are divided into eighth notes, eighth notes into sixteenth notes, and so on. Theoretically, you can go on forever. In slow tempos, you can play five hundred and twelfth notes, maybe even a thousand and twenty fourth notes, but these values are never used because the notes would be so complex that they would be illegible.
The whole note is a hollow oval, called the head. Because the note is not filled, we call it white. The half note also includes a vertical line, called a stem. If the stem is directed upwards, it is written on the right side of the head, and if down, we write the stem on the left. The stems are directed upwards if the notes are below the third line of the staff, and downwards if the notes are written from the third line upwards. But this situation only occurs in one-part music. When we write two parts on one staff, the upper voice has stems always directed upwards (although it is usually over the third line!) and the bottom voice has stems always directed downwards. This is easier to read. If a third voice appears, a middle voice, well… we must somehow manage. Generally, we avoid writing more than two voices on one staff, but sometimes you might see up to four voices on one staff.
A quarter note has a black head and stem, and an eighth note has a stem with a tail. If there are two consecutive eighth notes after each other, they are connected by a beam. From that point on, subsequent rhythmic values differ only in the number of tails/beams: sixteenth notes have two, thirty-second notes - three, sixty-fourth notes - four, one-hundred-and-twenty-eighth notes - five, two hundred-and-fifty-sixth notes - six, five-hundred-and-twelfth notes - seven, one-thousand-and-twenty-fourth notes - eight. You see? It’s impossible to read! In general, values requiring more than five beams are not used.
How many eights make up a half-note?
The easiest way to imagine the whole note is as a pizza: it has thickened edges and a lot of mozzarella in the middle, which is why it is white in the middle. The pizza is cut into eight parts: vertically, horizontally and diagonally. So one piece of pizza is an eighth. But sometimes it sticks to a neighbouring slice and we take two pieces instead of one, so we take a quarter in one go. A half - that’s easy - has two quarters and four eighths. Three quarters - six eighths, and the whole pizza is, of course, a whole note: it has eight eighths.
There is another note, very rarely used, called a brevis. It’s a funny note which looks a bit like a rectangle with its short sides extended. The reason it’s funny is primarily because its name means “short” in Latin, meanwhile it is twice as long as a whole note! It does not fit into any of the commonly used bars, so it can only appear in music in which the composer didn’t use bars or rarely used metres, such as 4/2, then brevis fills up a whole bar.
The brevis comes from the 16th century. In mensural notation there was also an even longer note - a longa. The brevis was shorter than the longa, and the hole note was then called a semibrevis - half a short note. And here’s where we stop, with a double bar line: 𝄁
Try to read the notes of your favourite song. This will help you understand the language of notes, which can be fun once you get the hang of it.