Music Note Symbols


Music is an organized combination of sounds and silences.

Music note symbols are used to write sounds, and silences use symbols called rests.

A musical note can in itself show only how long or short it is. The same goes for musical rests, or silences.

But when placed on a musical staff notes can also show pitch- or how high or low they should sound, simply by placing the note higher or lower.

So, with note symbols you can show music pitch, and note duration (or note values). Or to put it simpler; a musical note on a staff shows both:

  • How long the note is.
  • How high or low pitch it has.

Let's take a look at the different note symbols used to show how long or short a note or rest is.

Whole note and rest:

Music notes always have a note head. It is the note heads’ placement on the staff that tells us what pitch to play, or sing:

Half note and rest:

Only the whole note has no stem. All other note values have stems. The pitch doesn’t change, but adding a stem divides the note value by half:

Quarter note and rest:

By filling in the note head, the note value is divided by half again:



Eight note and rest:

By adding a little “flag”, the note value is cut in half once more:



Sixteenth note and rest:

Adding another “flag”, cuts it in half again:


…and so it continues.


Direction of the stem:

The direction of the stem can be either up or down:

This is how you know in what direction the stems should be written:

  • Notes that are on the lower part of the staff, under the middle line, generally have their stems up.
  • Notes on the top half, above the middle line have the stems down.
  • On the middle line the stems go either up or down, depending on the note before or after.


There are many music note symbols used when writing music.

Music is so subjective and has so many means of expression that trying to write exactly how music should be played makes the use of many symbols a necessity.

But, by understanding the logic behind the different music note symbols that are used in the western musical notation, it is actually not so hard.

You might even find it fascinating, as I do, with the clever way that we humans have developed a system to “describe” something as abstract as music!

If you would like to know more about the development of music notation, a great article about the history of musical symbols can be found here.

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