Types of Notes Used in Musical Notation

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Understanding the meaning and function of musical symbols such as a whole note and half note will increase your appreciation of music, whether you are a performer, composer, or just an avid listener of music. The location of a note on a staff indicates the note to be played; the shape and form of the note indicate how long it should be played.

A Brief History

Our modern system of musical notation was developed out of the Medieval mensural notation system. The mensural notation was an offshoot of the notation developed from that used with plainsong. Plainsong notation used diamonds and squares on a staff to tell the performer what the correct sequence of pitches was; mensural notation added the systematic use of different shapes to indicate the length that the notes should be played—mensural used a series of rectangles, diamonds, and squares.

The shapes and notation have evolved since then. In modern transcription, developed around 1600, notes are indicated on a staff of music by a combination of symbols. Those symbols include an open oval, a closed oval, and ovals with straight staffs and flags.

The longest note used in modern music is the double whole note, ironically called "breve" or "short" in Italian. That's because, during the middle ages, it really was one of the shortest lengths in use.

Common Note Symbols in Modern Music Notation

The most common notes used in modern music today are described in the table below.

Types of Notes
American British Italian
A double whole note, represented by two open ovals with no stem, has the time value of eight beats and lasts twice as long as a whole note. breve breve
A whole note, represented by an open oval with no stem, has the time value of four beats and is equivalent to two half notes or four quarter notes. semibreve semibreve
A half note, represented by an open oval with a stem, has a time value of two beats. minim minima
A quarter note has the time value of a half of a half note or one beat and is indicated by a filled oval with a stem. crotchet semiminima
An eighth note has the time value of the half of a quarter note or a half of a beat and is indicated by a filled oval, a stem, and one flag. quaver croma
A sixteenth note is one half of an eighth note, is indicated by a filled oval, a stem and two flags. semiquaver semicroma