Note Values, An Introduction

If you have looked at a piece of sheet music you will probably have noticed a wide variety of different images, symbols and other strange looking inscriptions. All of these are telling you to do something and it is the intention of this guide to help you start understanding what that is. On this page you will find a brief introduction to what note values are and how they are applied when reading and transcribing music. At the bottom of the page are links to lessons with more detail on specific note values.

There are many things that need to be accounted for when transcribing a piece of music. Rhythm, Structure, Tempo and Time Signature are just a few of the things you will need to understand. In this guide we are focusing on Rhythm, specifically what we call 'Note Values'.

A notes 'value' defines how long or how many beats it is worth. When reading rhythm it is essential to have an understanding of what all the different symbols for note values refer to and all the basic theory attached to that. Fortunately for you, you have this handy little guide to help. It covers in detail the 5 most commonly used note values and gives information and tips on reading.

As you may have already seen, cymbals and percussion use different note heads to drums. Please refer to the Note Values Overview for images of different note heads for each value.

For every note value we are going to discuss there are two common names. One the technical name and the other an 'Americanised' name. The Americanised names are based on fractions, so we get eighth notes, quarters notes etc. The name is derived from how much of a bar of 4/4 the note fills (see the note below about Time Signatures). They are very logical and will hopefully help make this area of theory a bit easier to learn. For ease of understanding I refer to all note values in their full technical name with the Americanised version in brackets.

As drummers, we are going to have an alternate way of approaching note values. For example, if you were reading a piece of piano sheet music and in the first bar was the note C written as a Semi Breve (whole note). It would be very important to know that that note is held for 4 beats. However, when you hit a drum there is very little control over how long that sound lasts. You hit it, and it's done. Yet you can still notate snare drums, toms, hi hats etc as semi breves. So another way to think of these is that when you see a drum or cymbal written as a semi breve, you will hit it but won't play anything else for 4 beats. The same applies to all note values, so with a minim you'll hit and not play anything for 2 beats and so on.

On the pages linked below there will be information on each note value and written examples of each. For the sake of these introductory lessons, when counting is given it will always be assumed the Time Signature is 4/4. Please see our Time Signatures lesson for more information on this. We also have guides explaining what both Counting and Sticking mean.

You may also find our lesson on Rests, Ties and Dotted Notes useful.


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