Quarter, half and whole notes represent the duration of a musical tone. Music is a language, and like all languages it uses a set of characters and symbols to communicate meaning. To be able to read music and confidently transfer it to the piano, you will need to be able to look at a song in the same way that you look at a book or a magazine.
So let’s get started and take a look at the first part of Mozart’s Sonata No.11.
The small round shapes that you can see are called notes. Each note tells us two very important things:
1. Which key on the piano to press.
Knowing which key to press for each note is all about looking at where the note is on the lines. For more information on this, head over to the Beginner Theory: Sight Reading course.
2. How long to hold it for. Knowing how long to hold a note down for is done by looking at the shape of the actual note itself.
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Let’s looks at some of the most common notes on a piano:
A Quarter note is played and held for 1 count, and is the most common note length in music.
The round shape you see in the picture is called the ‘note head’. In a quarter note, the note head is black.
The line attached to the note head is called the ‘stem’.
So whenever you see a note with a black note head and a stem, it is a Quarter note.
🎹 Choose any key on your keyboard. To play the Quarter note, press the key as you say “1”, and lift it up as you say “2”. This method of counting whilst you play helps you to keep your notes perfectly in time.
A Half note is held for 2 counts, which means it lasts for twice as long as a quarter note.
A Half note has a stem and a white note head (remember the quarter note has a black note head).
🎹 Play a half note. Count from 1 up to 3. Play the half note whilst counting two counts and release the key as you say “3”. This makes the note last exactly 2 counts.
A whole note is held for 4 counts, and lasts for twice as long as a half note.
You recognize the whole note by the white note head. Whole notes have no stem.
🎹 Play a whole note accurately, you will need to count from 1 up to 4. Release the key after you said the word ‘four’.
Recap quarter, half and whole notes
Let’s recap on the duration and look of the notes:
Duration: 4 counts
Look: white note head
Duration: 2 counts
Look: white note head & stem
Duration: 1 count
Look: black note head & stem
Feeling confident in playing all of these different notes? Great! Now let’s put them into practice…
This first example involves playing 4 quarter notes one after the other.
🎹 Play each quarter note correctly and in time, you are going to count from 1 up to 4. Play the key on each count.
How was that? Let’s try another!
This next example combines quarter notes and half notes.
🎹 Just like the example before, play the first two quarter notes on the first two counts. On count 3 and 4 you play the Half note.
Lets now put these notes into practice and play some real songs!
Open the Skoove app to play the chorus from “We Will Rock You” by Queen.
🎹 Have a look at the music. You see Quarter notes and Half notes.
How was that? Let’s play one more song!
Open the app to play “American Pie”.
🎹 Look at the music. In this song you will find Quarter-, Half, and Whole notes.
Did you play every example? Well done! You now have a good grasp of simple rhythms and how to play them. You can use this solid understanding to expand your knowledge and ability.
In order to solidify your understanding of these rhythms, be sure to play all the other great songs from the Piano Beginner 1 Course.
Author of this blog post:
Elliot Hogg – Music tutor from Leeds who specializes in teaching piano, music theory, and music composition.
Other music notation articles:
- How To Recognize Notes Quicker
- Rest symbols and why silence in music is so important
- Sight-Reading: Ties Explained
And to go further, check out our ultimate guide to playing the piano.