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Reading rhythm, part 2: notes

Part of a 12-part course on reading rhythm.


Unlike beats, which are points in time, notes have duration. They can start at any time, and be any length.

For example, the last note of Stravinsky’s Firebird is about 6 seconds long:

On the other hand, the notes in Rimsky Korsakov’s “The Flight of the Bumblebee” are only a fraction of a second long:

That’s why you can fit so many of them in such a short space of time. (The pianist is Yuja Wang again, playing an arrangement by György Cziffra.)

However, the duration of a note isn’t measured in seconds in a musical score, it’s measured in beats.

Beats and “beats”

Here’s where things start to get confusing. Remember our beats graph?

beats graph

Let’s zoom in.

beats graph zoomed

The vertical lines represent beats, which, as we established in the previous post, are regularly-occurring points in time.

  • The fact that they’re regularly-occurring is why the lines are equally spaced apart.
  • The fact that they’re points in time is why the lines don’t have any width.

So far so good. The problem is, the word “beat” is also used to describe the time between 2 consecutive beats:

beats and beats

“Why, oh why?!”, I hear you say. Because then we can say that, e.g. a note is “2 beats long”, or “1 beat long”:

notes graph

That 1st note starts on a beat and is 2 beats long. That’s 2 different uses of the word “beat” in one sentence: as a point in time and as a length of time. The 2nd note starts on a beat and is one beat long. Luckily, which “beat” you mean is usually obvious from the context.

Again, this is how notes tend to be represented in music recording programmes, e.g. the Piano Roll Editor in GarageBand:

Piano Roll Editor

Beats are vertical lines, just like in our graph, and notes are horizontal bars – the longer the bar, the longer the note. So we can see that the first note on the left (by the cursor) starts on a beat and is 2 beats long, just like the first note in our graph.

So this is how notes are represented in music notation, right?

Sadly not.

How notes are notated

As we covered in my Introduction to sight reading, notes are represented as blobs, and you can tell how long a note is depending on whether:

  • it has a stem or not ( 𝅝 or 𝅗𝅥 )
  • it’s filled in or not ( 𝅗𝅥 or 𝅘𝅥 )
  • it has a tail or not (and if so, how many) ( 𝅘𝅥 or 𝅘𝅥𝅮 or 𝅘𝅥𝅯 or 𝅘𝅥𝅰 )
  • and whether it has a dot or not (e.g. 𝅗𝅥 or 𝅗𝅥 . )

(If the note images are not displaying, click here to see them.)

Here’s a complete chart you can download and print (click on the image for the PDF):

We’re going to cover rests and dotted notes in later articles, and why the 4th column is true “if the bottom number of the time signature is 4” (and what that means), but for the time being let’s compare the “note” and “name” columns.

The note head / stem / tail system is pretty counterintuitive compared to music programs’ horizontal bar system, but it’s not totally illogical. The crude intuition you can use to help you remember it is: as the notes get “heavier”, they get half as long. Here’s what I mean:

Let’s start with a whole note:


If we add a stem (making it “heavier”), it becomes a 12 note (half as long):


If we fill in the head (making it “heavier” it again), it becomes a 14 note (half as long as a 12 note):


If we then add a tail to the stem (“heavier” again) it becomes an 18 note (half of a 14 note):


And then we can keep on adding tails and halving notes to make 116-, 132-, and 164-notes:

𝅘𝅥𝅯 𝅘𝅥𝅰 𝅘𝅥𝅱

(Don’t worry about memorising all of these now, we’ll work through lots of examples so that they stick.)

(If the note images are not displaying on your browser, click here to see them.)

So that’s how notes are notated. What about beats?

How beats are notated

Here’s the really bad news.

Wait for it …

In music notation, beats are not notated at all.


Yeah. Bear in mind that music notation was invented to notate Gregorian chant, not rock or pop.

So how do you work out where the beat goes?

With quite a bit of thought.

I’ll show you in a video.