Welcome to the second installment of our series on music theory basics, Ingredients of Music.

In the first post, we talked about why the study of music theory is important and how it can turn us into better musicians.

Today, we’re diving in to the first music theory lesson.

Today will be pretty simple. We’re covering (drum roll please)…notes and rests!

Wait…what?

I know at first glance that might seem like a pretty boring topic. We all know what notes and rests are, don’t we?

Yes, we all do (I assume), but this series isn’t just about the whats of music, it’s about the whys.

And the whys behind notes and rests are actually pretty interesting.

Don’t believe me?

Then keep reading and we’ll see what you think by the end of the post!

The Whats

Durational Symbols

Modern western music notation could be summed up in just two words: durational symbols.

There are two basic types of durational symbols.

Notes

The first type of durational symbol is called a note. Notes are signs that tell the musician to play something.

Important Note: This post will use the American system of note-naming. See this post from MusicNotes for a side-by-side comparison of American and British note-naming terminology.

Notes are assigned a specific rhythmic value.

There are ten basic types of note values: quarter notes, half notes, whole notes, double whole notes, eighth notes, sixteenth notes, thirty-second notes, sixty-fourth notes, hundred twenty-eighth notes, and two-hundred fifty-sixth notes.

notes

Any of these notes can be dotted; that is, a small dot can be added at the end of the note to add another one-half of the value to the note (for example, a dot turns a two-beat half note into three beats).

dotted notes

Notes names correspond to one of twelve different pitches (or sounds): C, C#/Db, D, D#/Eb, E, F, F#/Gb, G, G#/Ab, A, A#/Bb, and B.

The following image shows those twelve pitches notated on both the treble and bass staves:

treble bass pitches

Rests

The second type of durational symbol is the rest. Rests tell the musicians when not to play. They are signs of quiet.

Like notes, rests are assigned a certain rhythmic value.

There are ten basic types of rest values: quarter rests, half rests, whole rests, breve rests, eighth rests, sixteenth rests, thirty-second rests, sixty-fourth rests, hundred twenty-eighth rests, and two-hundred fifty-sixth rests.

rests

Rests, like notes, can be dotted.

dotted rests

The Whys

Durational Symbols

The why behind the existence of durational symbols is simple: without a written form of music notation, most of the best-loved music in Western history could not have been written!

Pretty important stuff!

Notes

Okay, so this one is pretty self-explanatory.

Without notes, there would be no music because musicians would never have anything to play.

So basic, and yet so important…just imagine a world without notes where no music is possible! No thanks!

Rests

Now, this is where the whys of music theory start begin to get interesting.

If you think about it, why do we even need rests?

They are not used in every piece of music.

In fact, a beginner might go through half of their first lesson book (or more!) before they even learn how to read them.

Why isn’t music just constant playing of notes? Why do we need the quiet signs in between?

The simplest answer is that rests can be used to breath life into the music. They are invaluable tools for musical phrasing and artistic expression.

Or, as Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart put it, “The music is not in the notes, but in the silence between.”

Think about The Hallelujah Chorus from Handel’s Messiah for a second.

At the very end of this masterpiece, right before the final “Hallelujah!” comes two full beats of silence, like a deep breath before one last joyful expression of praise.

The effect is breathtaking, and how does Handel accomplish this brilliant finale?

By using our second type of durational symbol: rests!

messiah excerpt

Just listen to the effect that Handel achieves here:

Pretty cool, huh?

And that concludes the notes and rests portion of this series. What do you think? Did you learn anything new?

Now that we have a solid understanding of durational symbols, we’re moving on to rhythm and meter in the next post!

Other Posts in the Ingredients of Music Series:

Why Does Music Theory Matter?

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