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Musical Notation Symbols: Note Head, Stem & Flag

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  • 0:00 Notes and the Musical Staff
  • 1:07 The Notehead
  • 2:34 The Stem
  • 3:39 Flags & Beams
  • 5:38 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Greg Simon

Greg is a composer and jazz trumpeter. He has a doctorate from the University of Michigan and has taught college and high school music.

This lesson will introduce you to the musical note and its parts: the note head, stem, and flag. Learn how these little dots give musicians information about pitch and rhythm, then take a quiz to test your knowledge.

Notes and the Musical Staff

Have you ever been to an orchestra concert and wondered how the musicians know to play all those different sounds? Maybe you've seen a piece of sheet music and marveled at the sea of little black dots on the page. How do musicians read that? They all look so similar, so what makes each one translate to a different pitch or rhythm?

All classical music is written on five lines and four spaces, called a musical staff. You can think of sheet music like a playbook for the musician to follow. The staff is a diagram of the playing field, showing musicians how the music progresses over time. The specific instructions for the musicians (the players on the field) are musical notes, which provide information about the exact pitch and rhythm of the music. The staff is a grid with two axes. Vertical space on the staff gives the musician information about pitch. The higher on the staff a note appears, the higher the pitch. Horizontal space provides information about time. Notes appearing left to right come one after the other in time, just like words when you're reading a book.

The Note Head

The most important part of a note is the note head. This is the infamous little black dot. It's the circular part of the note that appears on the staff. The note head provides a lot of information to the performer. First of all, it provides the exact pitch of the note through its position on the staff. Each line and space of the staff is assigned a specific pitch. Whenever a note head intersects with that particular line or space, the musician is instructed to play that pitch. For example, the staff pictured has the note F assigned to its top line:

F Note

A composer wishing to have her performer play that note will write a note head on the staff directly on top of the F line. Notice how the line cuts the note head in half. The space below that line is assigned to E. The composer can write a note head on that space, like this:

E Note

If she does, the musician will play the E indicated by that line on the staff.

Note heads also provide the performer with information about rhythm. There are two types of note heads: solid note heads and hollow note heads. Hollow note heads indicate a longer duration for the note. How long exactly will be specified by other parts of the note, as we'll see in a bit. Likewise, a solid note head will indicate a shorter duration, specified once again by other parts of the note. That's why you'll often see sheet music with dense collections of solid black note heads. Each solid note is shorter, so the composer can fit more of them in each beat.

The Stem

Once the composer has determined the note head type, which informs the musician about the pitch and rough rhythm of the music, she still has to provide more information about exact rhythm. This is where the stem comes in. The stem is a vertical line attached to some notes. Not all notes have stems. A hollow note head without a stem is called a whole note and it indicates a note that lasts for four beats. This is usually the longest type of note a composer will use. By adding stems and changing the note head, she'll shorten the duration of other notes.

Adding a stem to a hollow note head will create a half note, which lasts for two beats, or half has long as the whole note. On the staff, the composer has changed the whole note to a half note:

Half Note

The bar is four-four, which means it contains four beats. So, note there's room for two half notes. Replacing the note head with a solid note head will convert it to a quarter note, which lasts for one beat. Changing these half notes to quarters will, like it did before, make room for more notes in the measure.

Flags and Beams

To write durations even shorter than a quarter note, the composer needs only to use solid note heads (hollow ones are reserved for whole notes and half notes). She can shorten a quarter note by adding a flag, a curved hook attached to the stem. One flag will cut the duration of the quarter note in half, creating an eighth note, which lasts for half a beat. A second flag will cut the duration in half again, creating a 16th note. The 16th note lasts for a quarter of a beat, meaning you can fit four in the space of one quarter note. A composer could shorten this note even further by adding more flags, creating a 32nd note, or a 64th note, and so on. While there are practical limits to what musicians can do, composers can write notes as short as they like using this system.

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