Reading Music Notes: Symbols & Names

Instructor: Summer Stewart

Summer has taught creative writing and sciences at the college level. She holds an MFA in Creative writing and a B.A.S. in English and Nutrition

Learning to read music begins with knowing the symbols and names for the music notes presented on sheet music. In this lesson, we will go over the different music symbols and their respective names.


The first step to playing music is learning how to read notes on sheet music. Each musical note has a name and meaning that tell you what to play and for how long. When you are first learning to read music, you will encounter main notes such as the semibreve, minim, crotchet, and the quaver. To understand the meanings of these notes, we will quickly cover the basics of reading sheet music. In this lesson, we will cover the basic musical notes found on sheet music and discuss the setup of sheet music.

Understanding the Structure of Sheet Music

Sheet music can look very daunting, but once you understand the layout, it will make more sense. Musical notes are set up on a barline, which has vertical and horizontal lines. The vertical lines mark the bars in the piece, which contain a specific number of musical notes depending on how many counts are required for each bar. The horizontal lines are called 'staves', which form the staff.

Time signature
Music Time Signature

The counts in each bar are determined by the time signature that is written at the beginning of the barline. A time signature is written with one number atop another number; this tells you how many beats are allowed in the bar. For example, if a piece of music has 4/4 listed, then a total of four beats, or quarter notes, are permitted in the bar.

Just remember, the top number tells you how many beats the notes written in the measure (another term for bar) must add up to.

Musical Note Architecture

Musical notes have specific components: the flag, the head, and the stem. The head of a note is either a hollow or filled-in oval. The head is connected to the stem, which is a line that points up or down (the direction doesn't change the note; rather it changes to make reading music easier when there are a lot of notes). The flag is a mark attached to the stem that tells you the count of the note. The presence of note flags mean that the note is shorter than a note without a flag.

Types of notes. From left: Semibreve, Minim, Crotchet, and Quaver. The subsequent notes are more advanced sixteenth, thirty-second, and sixty-fourth notes.
Musical Notes


A semibreve is a whole note that is played for the duration of a measure. The whole note is played for four beats. The semibreve is an oval-shaped note that only has a head. It is black on the rim and hollow in the middle.

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