If you are a music reader, want you to pretend you know nothing about music notation. If you don’t read music, you’re all set. Now take what I’m about to write absolutely literally. “A quarter note gets one beat, and a half note gets two beats.” Just from that description, do you know that the duration of a half note is twice as long as the duration of a quarter note, or did it sound like you should play two quarter notes, which are two beats, every time you see a half note? The latter is what many novice music students take the statement “a half note gets two beats” to mean. If one beat is a quarter note, it’s logical to think that a note that gets two beats gets two quarter notes. This misunderstanding is possible because note values are often defined as mathematical quantities and not durations. Children are used to seeing pictures of apples and pencils and ice cream cones on their math worksheets. Two pencils in one picture equal two apples in another. So it is reasonable to transfer mathematical logic to music when it is presented mathematically. A quarter note equals one beat. A half note equals two beats. Sing a half note. The child does two quarter notes because he or she was asked to sing two beats. It makes all the sense in the world.
Durations are measured with numbers, but they are measurements of how long something we hear lasts over time, or how long an object takes to move from one point to another, or how long we waited at the doctor’s office in the waiting room. We can’t see time, we can only experience it and represent it abstractly with numbers. A duration is not how many of something there is, like apples in a basket, but of how long it takes for something to occur, from onset to offset, from start to finish, from beginning to end. You can have two quarter notes and two half notes. There are two of each, but knowing that is not helpful in knowing how to perform either, and although there are two of each, and they are all notes, they are not the same notes; they have different durations. The half note has a duration of two beats and the quarter note has a duration of one beat. Both are single notes, but they last for different amounts of time, measured (usually) in beats.
In music, we generally have a reference note that is equal to the duration we consider the beat. This duration is called the ictus. Where the quarter note is the unit of measure, a half note is an elongation of the beat. This is a helpful term, because it describes something longer than something else, not bigger or in greater quantity. Elongation means to make longer, so a half note is longer than a quarter note, not multiple reproductions of it. A whole note is also an elongation of the beat, but also an elongation of a half note. How much longer? Two beats longer. Beats is the unit of measuring the duration of a note.
If there are notes (durations) that are longer than the beat, there are also notes (durations) that are shorter than the beat. If the unit of one beat equals a quarter note, then an eighth note is a division of the beat. Once again, we want to avoid language like, “a quarter note gets two eighth notes.” This can lead to children playing two notes when they see a quarter note, just as they did with the half note. Describe eighth notes as durations. Eighth notes last only half as long as quarter notes, so two of them can be sung or played in the same time as one quarter note. Children can tap quarter notes with their heels while chanting eighth notes, and experience the durational relationship between them. As students get older and more advanced, the same approach should be taken with other note durations that are both smaller and larger than those discussed here. The important thing to remember is that notes have duration measured in beats; they do not have beats. Through hearing patterns of durations, which we call rhythms, we are able to detect a beat, but that beat is made manifest by the pattern of durations. Keeping the concepts of duration and beat separate will clear up many rhythm problems commonly encountered in our teaching.