I have some sheet music that I'm trying to understand, but I'm unfamiliar with the correct terminology and my understanding of it (just starting out learning music).

Lead Sheet

Specifically, the notes that are together.

I understand that this is a chord (any time two or notes are played together, it's a chord?), but I'm curious about the length of the note. The top note is a sixteenth A4, but the bottom is written as a quarter A3. Is this just a shortcut to not litter the page with a bunch of extra flags on stems? Is the A3 also a sixteenth note that's just written as a quarter note for convenience?

So would I play a sixteenth note A3/A4, release both at the same time for the rest, then an eighth note B3/B4 chord, release both for the rest, then a sixteenth note D3/D4?

  • 4
    Welcome to music and welcome to Music.SE! As you’re starting to learn music, I strongly recommend picking some instrument that you like to listen to and that is used in your favorite type(s) of music, buy used or rent one of those, and find a private teacher to take lessons from on that instrument. Online lessons can be very effective if meeting in person doesn’t work for you. I taught myself guitar over a span of about 25 years and then started taking lessons about a year ago and my biggest regret in music is not taking lessons sooner. It is absolutely the best way to learn. Nov 17, 2021 at 11:15

2 Answers 2



When notes share the same stem, they also share the same duration.

While there are rare cases of (wrongly) written notes that seem to share the same stem while they're not, it's not your case.

Each note you see in that score shares the length of the note "above": a sixteenth, an eight and again a sixteenth, for both bars.

Some insight on stem notation

The doubt might arise, as stems height normally extend to an octave (3½ space height), which means that two voices that are an octave away can theoretically "share" the same stem.


Even assuming that the notation was "wrong" as explained above, there are usually clues that can help you when you're in doubt.

In this specific case, there are three important clues.

  1. only stems of notes below the middle line usually have an upper stem, so the B and D stems should be downwards, but they also should not as long as there's (theoretically) another below voice;
  2. voices normally have opposed stem directions, no matter their pitch; a "higher" voice shoould always have upwards stems, and a lower voice downward stems; when using odd numbered voices, it's usually a matter of voice range and, obviously, choice; if there could be 3 or more voices for each staff, consider using more staves;
  3. while, again theoretically, the first and second note could be quarter notes, the third certainly cannot: it's aligned with the last eight note, so there's not enough "time" for a quarter left since the specified time is 4/4.

Consider a (bad) writing with wrong stem direction, the upper voice using sixteenths and the lower quarters:

bad notation!

As you can see, the first two lower notes are quarters. The last one cannot be.

Consider that multiple voices should also have related multiple rests; that's how a real two-voice part should be in that case, assuming that the lower voice should (try to) last a quarter:

better notation

So, the part, as it's written is pretty clear: those note share the same stems, so their duration is also the same.

In a previous version of this answer I mistakenly confused the duration of the second note (but, for some reason, I initially wrote it right). While the suggestions about that aspect were correct, they are not in topic with the question; if you're interested in those aspect anyway, see the edit history.

  • Thanks for the extra explanations! I'm not sure I 100% get the last part: The second note was shortened from an 8th to a 16th and an extra 16th rest was added - so this is to make sure the Notes are all on the beat? If I subdivide this bar into 16 parts, I now have a note on 5, 11, and 15 as opposed to 5, 11, 12, and 15? (- - - - A - - - - - B B - - C - where - are rests and the second B is now a rest in your example?) Nov 17, 2021 at 5:52
  • 2
    @MichaelStum Your doubt is partially right. A more strict version of my last excerpt should have had a slurred couple of sixteenths. But, considering the score and the source, I doubt that it would make any difference. Yes, in my example the "second B" is actually a rest, but, for consistency, it should actually be another sixteenth note, slurred to the same previous one. The point doesn't change: matching stems, also match durations. Nov 17, 2021 at 6:05
  • 3
    @AndyBonner damn, I don't believe it, I was completely sure they were all 16ths, and I also checked the original score. Thank you, I'll update the post accordingly. Nov 17, 2021 at 18:26
  • 3
    (Also, my 2 cents to the composer: Unless the tempo is rather slow, the difference between an 8th and a 16th, when both are followed by rests, will be not much. Just write them all as 8ths, mark the middle one tenuto and the other two staccato, and it'll be easier to read!) Nov 17, 2021 at 18:44
  • 1
    @AndyBonner While yours is a possibly valid suggestion, listening to the original piece I believe that the notation is still correct: the piece is not that slow, but the duration of those notes has to be quite precise and consistent with the lower part, which is based on sixteenths. Readability of a score is important, but consistency of durations should be always be considered. Nov 17, 2021 at 23:29

Musicamante gave you the answer regarding rhythm, but you also added this question...

...I understand that this is a chord (any time two or notes are played together, it's a chord?)

Many regard two tones as partial or incomplete chords. The common definition of a complete chord is three or more tones. But, in this particular case you really have the two tones just doubling at the octave. So, this...

enter image description here

...in terms of harmony and chords is really indistinguishable from this...

enter image description here

...the line without the octave doubling.

If the second notes added different pitches (pitch classes) you would get a stronger sense of incomplete chords, perhaps something like this...

enter image description here

So, it's a case of octave doubling versus incomplete chords.

  • 1
    Considering the tone of the piece (mostly in aeolian mode), I believe that the F and G should be natural. Nov 17, 2021 at 23:33
  • 2
    Maybe, there are only four tones, not enough to really say. Either way the point is the same, doublings shouldn't be regarded as true harmonic tones. Nov 17, 2021 at 23:36
  • 1
    Yeah, it was just a small note, not directly related to the point of the answer. I used the score OP linked, and the original source of that piece: youtube.com/watch?v=VaIj51k6b_g Nov 17, 2021 at 23:37

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.