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Notes and rests

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Essential to almost any music imaginable, of course, is rhythm. Let's start by looking at how we write down notes of different duration.

Notes and rhythm

Rhythm is all about timing and duration. Notes and rests are the symbols we use to write this information down and communicate it to performers, and these symbols are the building blocks we use to make even the most complex rhythms.

Notes on the stave

We have seen already how the position of the note on the stave indicates the pitch, or the name, of the note (C, D, E, etc.).

In order to indicate the duration of the note, the notes are written with a different shape. The shape consists of a head (the main, oval part) and a tail, with different "flags" attached. Sometimes there are no flags and sometimes there is not even a tail!

These different symbols, which follow a very logical pattern, indicate how long the note should last.


It is helpful to think of music in terms of regularly recurring beats. When you clap along to a piece of music, you clap at regular intervals in time with the music. These regular intervals are called the pulse or beat.

The different types of note symbols tell us how many beats a note lasts. Each different note symbol indicates a different number of beats, which can be counted.


Of course, music doesn't consist of constant sound - there are frequently silences between the notes. Each of these silences is called a rest. For every note symbol, there is a corresponding rest symbol that indicates a silence of the same duration.

Different durations

Let's start looking at some of those symbols, starting with long notes.

The semibreve

The semibreve, also known as the whole note, has a thick oval head, with no tail, and usually refers to a long note. In many pieces today, this is the longest note value used.

semibrevesemibreve subdivisions

The minim

The minim, also known as the half note, also has an oval head, with a vertical tail. The minim is a note which is half as long as the semibreve.

minimminim subdivisions

The crotchet

The crotchet, also known as the quarter note, looks like the minim, except that the note head had been filled in with solid black. The crotchet is a note which is half as long as the minim. As a semibreve is worth two minims, and a minim is worth two crotchets, so a semibreve is worth four crotchets.

crotchetcrotchet subdivisions

The quaver

The quaver, also known as the eighth note, looks like the crotchet, except that a "flag" has been added to its tail.

For a single quaver or its own, the flag curls back towards the note head (as in the single quaver shown below). Where there are two or more quavers to join together, the flag runs perpendicular to the stem, joining with the flag of the other quaver (as in the eight quavers below).

The quaver is a note which is, as you might have guessed, half as long as the crotchet.

quaverquaver subdivisions

The semiquaver

Dividing the quaver into shorter values, we add an extra flag to the tail. The semiquaver, or sixteenth note, is half as long as the quaver and so has one extra flag added (two in total).

semiquaversemiquaver subdivisions

Alternative names

These strange names ("crotchet", "quaver", etc.) come from a long and complex tradition in Europe. They are still used in England, but not everywhere. In America, for instance, the "whole note" is used instead of "semibreve", and divide this into the "half note" (minim), "quarter note" (crotchet), "eighth note" (quaver), and so on.

The same naming system is also used in Germany with Viertelnote for "quarter note" (vier meaning "four") and Achtelnote for "eighth note" (acht meaning "eight"), and so on. This makes the proportional relationships much clearer, but can be misleading in contexts where the "half note" is not half of any meaningful duration. We will return to that issue later.

In summary

These symbols stand for relative duration: one note may be twice or four times as long as another, for instance. Tempo gives those relative symbols absolute values, and we'll look at tempo in more detail in Tempo: fast and slow.

The table below summarises the note symbols introduced in this section, alongside the symbols for rests of the equivalent duration.

semibrevesemibreve rest
The semibreve rest is also used for a whole bar rest
minimminim rest
crotchetcrotchet rest
quaverquaver rest
semiquaversemiquaver rest


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