You are here

The Shape of a Note

22 July, 2019 - 10:18
Available under Creative Commons-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. Download for free at

In standard notation, a single musical sound is written as a note. The two most important things a written piece of music needs to tell you about a note are its pitch - how high or low it is - and its duration - how long it lasts.

To find out the pitch of a written note, you look at the clef and the key signature, then see what line or space the note is on. The higher a note sits on the staff, the higher it sounds. To find out the duration of the written note, you look at the tempo and the time signature and then see what the note looks like.

: media/image36.png
Figure 1.33 The Parts of a Note
All of the parts of a written note affect how long it lasts. 

The pitch of the note depends only on what line or space the head of the note is on. (Please see Pitch, Clef and Key Signature for more information.) If the note does not have a head (see Figure 1.34), that means that it does not have one definite pitch.

: media/image37.png
Figure 1.34 Notes Without Heads
If a note does not have head, it does not have one definite pitch. Such a note may be a pitchless sound, like a drum beat or a hand clap, or it may be an entire chord rather than a single note. 

The head of the note may be filled in (black), or not. The note may also have (or not) a stem, one or more flags, beams connecting it to other notes, or one or more dots following the head of the note. All of these things affect how much time the note is given in the music.

Note: A dot that is someplace other than next to the head of the note does not affect the rhythm. Other dots are articulation marks. They may affect the actual length of the note (the amount of time it sounds), but do not affect the amount of time it must be given. (The extra time when the note could be sounding, but isn't, becomes an unwritten rest.) If this is confusing, please see the explanation in articulation.