Musical notation truly is its very own language, with grammar, rules, and everything.
In order to understand it, there are loads of things that you need to know first, and it can admittedly be pretty intimidating to look at a full sheet of musical notation and comprehend what every little dot is telling you.
Thankfully, once it’s all broken down into its individual pieces, you’ll find that, as complicated as it looks, it all follows simple rules.
Simply put, a quarter note gets a quarter of the number of beats that a whole note would get.
However, in order to understand how many beats a whole note gets, we need to understand the time signature, and to understand the time signature we need an understanding of measures and tempo.
Though the rules are pretty simple, they’re all interwoven within each other, making it difficult to talk about just one aspect.
So, with that in mind, I will take the time to break down each of these elements to help you understand how to work out how many beats a quarter note gets.
In order to read sheet music or notation you first need to be able to understand what it is you’re looking at.
Sheet music is written on staves, which are the five horizontal lines that run across the page.
Within those staves, you’ll notice that they’re broken up into equal boxes, typically four per row, but it varies.
These boxes are known as measures, or bars (though “bar” is predominantly the British English term).
A measure is a specific unit of time that is set by the time signature and tempo, so the actual duration or number of notes within a measure can differ wildly.
Imagine if a little bit like a paragraph: a measure separates movements of music into smaller sections in order to make it easier to read and understand, as well as practice.
Musicians have been using measures for centuries because it’s much easier to read music when you divide it up into small units of time so that the majority of people will be able to understand where one section of music ends and another begins.
Understand Time Signature
To know how many beats individual notes need to get, you need to know and understand the time signature.
The time signature will show you the number of beats allotted for each measure (the number on the top of a time signature), and the duration of each beat within the measure (the bottom number in the time signature).
The most common time signature, at least in Western music is 4/4, also known as common time.
This means that there are 4 beats in each measure, which will each take up a quarter of the time.
Another common time signature is 3/4, which means that instead of there being 4 beats in each measure, there are only 3, however, the duration of each beat is still the same as in 4/4.
Other signatures might look like 6/4, or 7/8 – they all follow the same rules, though some are a lot more difficult to get your head around than others.
Different Note Types
So now that you have a basic understanding of the time signature, we can start looking at the different note types in order to know how many beats each of them takes up within a measure.
I will list their US names and their UK names as it can be vital to know both of the terms, just in case you come across resources that are UK-based.
It’s important to note here that, regardless of time signature, the number of beats that each note takes up doesn’t change.
Whole Note Or Semibreve
A whole note has a value of four beats.
That means that when you play a whole note you need to count to four whilst holding the note, regardless of what time signature you’re in.
If you’re in 4/4, then this is really easy, if you’re in a different time signature, you’ll need to practice.
Half Note Or Minim
A half note, easily enough, has the value of two beats, meaning that you only have to count to two when playing a half note – this means that it is played for half as long as a whole note.
Quarter Note Or Crotchet
You may have picked up on the pattern by now, and if you have then it should come as no surprise to you that a quarter note has the value of just one beat, giving it one quarter the amount of value that a whole note has.
When playing a quarter note, you only need to count one beat before moving on.
Eighth Note Or Quaver
Although there are many smaller variations of notes, the last one that I’ll cover in this article will be the eighth note.
These are played for half the length of a quarter note, meaning that you play them for one eighth the amount of time that you would play a whole note.
Now we’ve gone through all the different note types, you can see that a quarter note gets one beat.
However fast this is is fully dependent on the tempo, which is represented in BPM (beats per minute). The higher the BPM, the fast the beats, the fast you’ll need to play each note.
The values between each note won't change, but the speed at which you’ll need to change notes will. But a quarter note will always have the value of one beat.