I. Fundamentals

Rhythmic and Rest Values

Chelsey Hamm; Mark Gotham; and Bryn Hughes

Key Takeaways

  • consist of several different components, including a , , , and .
  • Common note values include the , , , , and .
  • Common rest values include the , , , , and .
  • British terms for note and rest values are different from American terms.
  • increases the duration of a note by half. Subsequent dots add half the duration of the previous dot.
  • connects two or more notes of the same pitch. Do not rearticulate any “tied to” notes.

Music is a art—in other words, time is one of its components—so organizing time is essential for Western musical notation. The next several chapters will focus on the temporal facets of  and , starting in this chapter with the basic rhythmic and rest values in this notation system.

Rhythmic Values

Broadly speaking, rhythm refers to the duration of musical sounds and rests in time. As you’ll recall in the chapter titled Notation of Notes, Clefs, and Ledger Lines, notes may contain several different components, as seen in Example 1:

Several notes are pictured, with their noteheads, stems, beams, and flags labeled
Example 1. Noteheads with stems, beams and flags labeled.

There are many common in Western musical notation. Rhythmic values are ; in other words, their lengths are relative to one another. Each rhythmic value can be divided into two subsequent rhythmic values, as seen in Example 2. Just as a whole pizza divides into two halves, four quarters, eight eighths, etc., a whole note divides into two half notes, four quarter notes, eight eighth notes, and so on.

A hierarchical graphic showing the relationship between whole, half, quarter, eighth, sixteenth, and thirty-second notes
Example 2. The relative relationships between common rhythmic values.

Several additional aspects of Example 2 should be noted:

  • Noteheads can be filled in (black) or unfilled (white); quarter notes and shorter durations are filled in.
  • Unfilled noteheads may or may not have a stem, but filled noteheads always have stems.
  • Flags are only added to the stems of filled noteheads.

Additionally, there are three ways to decrease a note’s value duration by half:

  • Adding a stem to a note (i.e., whole to half)
  • Filling in a notehead (i.e., half to quarter)
  • Adding a flag (i.e., quarter to eighth or eighth to sixteenth)

Open Music Theory privileges the North American names for rhythmic values, but it’s worth being familiar with the British names as well (indicated in parentheses below). See Example 2 for a visual of each note value.

  • Whole note (semibreve in British English): this thick, unfilled oval shape has no stem. In many compositions today, this is the longest note value used.
  • Half note (minim in British English): also an oval, drawn with a slightly thinner line, and has a stem. This note is half as long as the whole note (i.e., two half notes make up one whole note).
  • Quarter note (crotchet in British English): looks like the half note, except that the notehead has been filled in. This note is half as long as a half note (i.e., two quarter notes make up one half note) and a quarter as long as a whole note (i.e., four quarter notes make up one whole note).
  • Eighth note (quaver in British English): looks like the quarter note, except that a flag has been added to its stem. This note is half as long as a quarter note (i.e., two eighth notes make up one quarter note) and an eighth as long as a whole note (i.e., eight eighth notes make up one whole note).
  • Sixteenth note (semiquaver in British English): looks like an eighth note, except that it has an extra flag. This note is half as long as an eighth note (i.e., two sixteenth notes make up one eighth note) and one sixteenth as long as a whole note (i.e., sixteen sixteenth notes make up one whole note).
Symbol American name British name
𝅝 Whole note Semibreve
𝅗𝅥 Half note Minim
𝅘𝅥 Quarter note Crotchet
𝅘𝅥𝅮 Eighth note Quaver
𝅘𝅥𝅯 Sixteenth note Semiquaver

Note values shorter than the sixteenth note (thirty-second note, sixty-fourth note, etc.) are created by adding extra flags. You may run into one additional, less common rhythmic value called the (breve in British English; Example 3). Double whole notes are sometimes notated with only one line on either side of the notehead. In older musical notation styles, the notehead appears more square than oval. Double whole notes divide into whole notes (i.e., two whole notes make up one double whole note).

A double whole note on a line is shown.
Example 3. A double whole note on a line.

Rest Values

Broadly speaking, refer to the duration of silences in music. Each hierarchical rhythmic value has a corresponding rest value, as seen in Example 4. Like rhythmic note values, each rest value can be divided into two subsequent rest values. Several additional aspects of Example 4 should be noted:

  • Notice that a whole rest hangs down from a line while a half rest sits on top of a line. It may be helpful to think of a whole rest as “heavier” than a half rest to remember that it hangs down; likewise, a half rest resembles a top hat, so you can think of it as sitting on top of a line as if on a person’s head.
  • Practice drawing quarter rests carefully; many students find them difficult to draw.
  • Adding a flag to a rest (i.e., eighth to sixteenth) decreases a rest’s duration by half.
The hierarchical relationship between whole, half, quarter, eighth, sixteenth, and thirty-second rests are illustrated
Example 4. The relative relationships between common rest values.

Although rare, you may run across a breve rest (Example 5). A breve rest is equivalent in length to two whole rests. It looks like a filled-in box and appears on the second space from the top.

A breve rest appears on a staff
Example 5. A breve rest.

Dots and ties

Dots and ties allow rhythmic and rest durations to be lengthened. A is written immediately after a note or rest, and it increases its duration by half (Example 6). For example, a quarter note is equivalent in duration to two eighth notes; therefore, a dotted quarter note would be equivalent to three eighth notes. Similarly, a whole note is equivalent to two half notes, so a dotted whole note would be equivalent to three half notes. Multiple dots can be added to a duration, with each subsequent dot adding half the duration of the previous one. For example, a double-dotted quarter note (i.e., a quarter note with two dots) is equivalent in duration to a quarter note, eighth note, and sixteenth note added together. In other words, a double-dotted note is 1¾ the durational value of the original note.

Two examples of dotted notes, one example of a doubly dotted note
Example 6. The rhythmic breakdown of two dotted notes and one double-dotted note.

A is a curved line that connects two or more notes with the same pitch. Tied-to notes are not rearticulated. In other words, ties are used to increase a rhythmic or rest value. The tie connecting the first two rhythmic values in Example 7 indicates that when these half and quarter notes are played or sung, the quarter note should not be articulated; in other words, the first note should be held for the duration of three quarter notes instead of two. Another way to write this rhythmic value is as a dotted half note.

Example 7. A tie connects the first two notes.

You would be correct to think that a tie looks like a (see Other Aspects of Notation). The difference between the two is that slurs connect notes of different pitches and indicate to play or sing the notes , while ties connect notes of the same pitch to create a note with a longer rhythmic value.

Online Resources
Assignments on the Internet
  1. Rhythmic Equations with Whole and Half Notes (.pdf)
  2. Rhythmic Equations with Half, Quarter, and Eighth Notes (.pdf)
  3. Rhythmic Equations with Quarter and Eighth Notes (.pdf)
  4. Rhythmic Equations with Quarter, Eighth, and Sixteenth Notes (.pdf)
  5. Writing Notes and Rests, Rhythmic Equations, pp. 3–7 (.pdf)
  6. Advanced Rhythmic Equations, p. 3 (.pdf)
  7. Slurs and Ties (.pdf)
Assignments
  1. Note and Rest Values (.pdf, .docx)
  2. Dots and Ties (.pdf, .docx)

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OPEN MUSIC THEORY by Chelsey Hamm; Mark Gotham; and Bryn Hughes is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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