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Quarter, half, and whole notes: the foundations of rhythm

whole, half, quarter notes

Music is a language. Like all languages, music incorporates a set of characters and symbols to communicate meaning. 

Quarter, half and whole notes are three of the basic note types we use in music to communicate the duration of notes. Think about them like basic units of time, almost like seconds and minutes. 

In order to read music comfortably at the piano, you will need to be able to understand how these three different rhythms work together. Check it out!

What are notes?

You may have looked at some piano sheet music and seen some confusing combination of circles, dots, and lines. Those circles, dots, and lines are all called notes. In music, we use notes for two main purposes:

  • Notes give us information about the pitches we will be playing. Notes that are higher up on the staff sound higher in pitch and notes that are lower on the staff are lower in pitch. Any type of notes can be in any position on the staff.
  • Notes give us information about the duration of the pitches we will play in a given piece of music. Musicians use a combination of open and closed circles with and without lines attached to them to communicate these different durations. 

Let’s looks at some of the most common notes on the staff:

Quarter note symbol
quarter note

Quarter definition

Quarter notes, or quarter note crotchet, are probably the most common note type in music. They are often used as a baseline for counting other rhythms. A quarter note lasts for one beat. You could also say that a quarter note lasts for 1 quarter of a measure.

What does a quarter note look like?

A quarter note crotchet consists of a closed note head (the black circle) with a stem extending up if the note is below the third line of the staff or extending down from the left side if the note is on or above the third line of the staff. This distinction between the direction of the stem makes our music notation cleaner and easier to read.

A little practice

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.

Once you feel comfortable with that exercise, increase your counting to four like this:

quarter note beats

Half Note

half note

Half notes are probably the second most common type of rhythm after quarter notes. Half notes last for 2 counts, or twice as long as a quarter note. You can think of half notes as half of one measure, or the same thing as two quarter notes.

What do they look like?

The half note consists of an open note head (the open circle) with a stem extending up or down depending on where the notes are placed on the staff. Half notes can be any pitch.

How many beats does a half note get?

The half note beats last for two counts. The easiest way to understand how many beats a half note gets is to play a note on the piano and count 1 – 2, then play another note and count 3 – 4. Check out the diagram below to see a visual representation of counting half notes:

half note beats

Whole Note
whole note

A whole note is the longest single note value in music theory. The whole note lasts for four counts. However, just because the whole note value lasts for a long time, does not make them easy to play! You need to pay close attention when you are playing the whole note so that you do not lose your focus.

What do they look like?

The whole note consists of an open note head with no stem. It is simple and easy to read. Like the quarter note and half note, the whole note can be found on any pitch.

How many beats is a whole note?

The whole note is easy to count. All you need to do is play a key on the piano and count 1 – 2 – 3 – 4. Lift up your finger after four counts and you have the note value of a whole note. The whole note last the same time as four quarter notes.

Check out the diagram below for a visual representation of this note:

whole note beatsRecap quarter note, half note and whole note

Let’s recap on the duration and look of the note values we have studied here:

Whole note

Duration: 4 counts

Looks like: open note head without a stem

Half note

Duration: 2 counts

Looks like: open note head with a stem extending up or down

Quarter note

Duration: 1 beat

Looks like: closed note head with a stem extending up or down.

Time for some counting 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. Try beginning on G as in the diagram above, but once you can play and count comfortably, move around to different keys as you see fit!

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 and count 1 – 2. Then, count the half note on beats 3 – 4. How many beats is a half note? Start again on G, but once you feel more comfortable, move on to different notes.

Put these notes into practice! 

A little Queen

With the Skoove app open, try to play the chorus from “We Will Rock You” by Queen.

Have a look at the music. You see quarter notes and half notes as well as two rest symbols. Practice counting along with the music before you try to play it on the piano so that you ensure you understand the rhythm.

Go to the lesson

How was that? Let’s play one more song!

American Pie


Now open up the app to play  “American Pie.” What do you see when you look at the music? In this song you will see examples of the quarter note, half note, and whole note. Again, it will be helpful to count through the rhythm before trying to practice the piece on piano.

Go to the lesson

But how do we make longer notes?

You may be wondering what we do to the quarter note, half note, and whole note if we want longer note values than these? That is a great question!

In music theory, we use a tool called a ‘tie’ to connect two notes into longer note values. Since we break music up into discrete blocks called measures, we need a way to connect notes across the measure lines. We use tied notes for this purpose.

What do ties look like?

Ties look pretty much like you would think they look: a curved line that resembles a piece of rope or shoelace that connects two notes like this:

Remember that the whole note lasts for four counts. If we have two whole notes tied together, this means that the note values are equal to eight counts. Practice playing a note and counting 1 – 2 – 3 – 4 and then again 1 – 2 – 3 – 4.

Here is another example:

In this example, we see the half note tied together. Practice counting this example by holding down the pitch G and counting 1 – 2 for the first quarter notes, then 3 – 4 for the half note. Keep the half note depressed while you count 1 – 2, and then finish it out the quarter notes on 3 – 4. Easy!

What about three beats?

You may have noticed that we have a means of counting 1 beat with the quarter note, 2 beats with the half note, and 4 beats with the whole note. But, what about counting 3 beats? How do we count 3 beats in music?

The dotted half note

We use a new tool called the dotted half note to count three beats. The dotted half note looks like a normal half note, except that it has a small dot on the right side next to the note head. Dotted notes add ½ of the original note value to the note. 

So, if a half note lasts for 2 beats, we had 1 beat to the dotted half note because ½ of 2 is equal to 1. This means that the dotted half note receives 3 counts. It looks like this:

The dotted half note

To practice the dotted half note, play a pitch on the piano and count 1 – 2 – 3. Lift your finger up after 3 and you have successfully played a dotted half note!

Conclusion

Did you play every example? Well done! You now have a good grasp of simple rhythms and how to play them including the quarter note, half note, whole note. 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 through all the other great songs from the Piano Beginner 1 Course. Practicing these easy songs and thoroughly understanding the rhythms will help you develop strong foundational skills for when you start to progress through more challenging music!

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Author of this blog post

Edward Bond

Eddie Bond is a multi-instrumentalist performer, composer, and music instructor currently based in Seattle, Washington USA. He has performed extensively in the US, Canada, Argentina, and China, released over 40 albums, and has over a decade experience working with music students of all ages and ability levels.

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