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The Whole Note and the Half Note

The whole note and half note page is part 6 and 7 in a 31 part series on musical musical notation and basic music theory. We have discussed where to notate pitches on a staff. The next thing we need to cover is how long to hold a note or a group of notes (chords) and the symbols that represent them. When notated, this is called pitch duration.

A whole (below) has a length of 4 beats of sound and is represented by a hollow oval. More simply put, when you sing or play this note, you hold it for 4 beats counting 1-2-3-4 (in your head) before you stop. The British name for this note is the semibreve.

Whole Note


The half notes (below) have a length of 2 beats of sound each and are represented by a hollow oval with a stem. When you sing or play this note, you hold it for 2 beats counting 1-2. It gets it’s name because half of 4 is 2.

Thus 2 half notes is the same amount of time as a whole. All of the note names to follow get there names from their relationship to the whole note. The British name for this note is the minim.

NOTE: These notes are made up of a note head and stem. It never matters whether the stem is facing up or down, the note is always the same. Composers decide to have them face up or down due to spacing on the page.

Generally if the note head is on or above the middle line of the staff the stem goes down. If the note head is below the middle line of the staff, the stem goes up.


The beat should not be confused with seconds or minutes. A beat is a constant pulse that exists throughout a song. It can be as fast or slow as you choose to sing or play it depending on the Tempo.

It's important to know the names of these notes, not just for site reading purposes, but also so that you can communicate to those who are singing or playing your songs. Even if it’s your own band, being able to tell the bass player to hold a note for a longer duration can really improve your arrangement.

Maybe you want the whole band to sustain an ending. Having an understanding of note duration makes it much easier to interact with musicians who speak the same musical language.

Now, let's look at quarter notes, eighth notes and sixteenth notes!

Continue to Parts 8 and 9, Quarter, Eighth & Sixteenth Notes

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