The way in which a note is written on the stave denotes how long the note should be played for.
Durations are expressed as divisions of a whole note, rather than as a number of seconds or whatever. This subject is quite closely linked to time signatures which are covered in a separate tutorial which you may find it helpful to read in conjunction with this.
Let's start by taking a look at the notation for a whole note, also called a semibreve.
The example shown here is of a bar of music in 4/4 time. As 4 quarter notes = 1 whole note, a single semibreve can fill a bar.
A minim lasts for half as long as a semibreve. It is written in a similar way to the semibreve, but with the addition of a vertical line next to the note.
The example shown here is of a bar of music in 4/4 time. As 4 quarter notes = 2 half note, 2 minims fill a bar.
A crotchet lasts for half as long as a minim.
The example shown here is of a bar of music in 4/4 time. Here we are using 4 quarter notes, which fill a single bar of 4/4.
A quaver lasts for half as long as a crotchet.
A quaver, in common with all notes of 1/8 or less, has a small line at the end of the vertical staff of the note. When written as a group of notes of 1/8 or less, these lines are joined together. Take a look at the example below. This example is written in 2/4 time (i.e. 2 quarter note beats to the bar). In the first bar, there are 4 quavers (4 1/8 notes = 2 1/4 notes = a full bar in 2/4 time).
In the example above, and in the examples that follow, don't worry for now about the other symbols shown in the last bar. These are rests and they're needed to fill up the bar (in the last example, just two 1/8 notes can't fill a bar of 2/4). Rests will be covered in a future tutorial.
A semiquaver lasts for half as long as a quaver.
Notice the similarity between the way this note is written compared to a quaver - the only difference is the additional line at the end of the staff of the note.
This example is also written in 2/4 time. By now you should hopefully be able to see how we need a total of 8 1/16 notes to fill a bar of 2/4).
It is possible to divide a semiquaver down even further. A Demi-Semiquaver lasts for half as long as a semiquaver. The notation for writing these is similar to as for a semiquaver, but with a third mark on the vertical staff of the note.
Further subdivisions are possible, but uncommon. For example, something such as a 1/64 note is likely to occur in a passage of very short notes within a piece of music at a relatively slow tempo.
Hopefully this should have given you a basic understanding of the types of notes used in music, and how they relate to the time signature that a piece of music is written in. Take the time to make sure that you understand these concepts, as they are important foundations that can be built on. Also keep an eye open for further tutorials on the website which will cover the rhythm side of music in more detail.
How useful did you find this tutorial?