What are the Tone Characteristics?

As part of the music fundamentals, it is crucial to understand the tone. A tone is a musical sound. A tone has four characteristics:

  • Pitch: The highness or lowness of a tone. In other words, it is the sound.
  • Duration: The length of a tone, also referred to as length.
  • Dynamics: The force or power of a tone, thus the loudness or the softness.
  • Timbre: The quality of the tone.

In this article, we are exploring more details of the tone characteristics and how Western music notation marks these characteristics.

The Music Note

Piano 101 introduces the Staff, the Clefs, and the names of the lines and spaces in a clef. To indicate the tone characteristics, music notes are used.

A note represents the PITCH and DURATION of a tone.

Tone Characteristics, the note


Notes may be placed in the music staff, above the staff, and below the staff. A note will bear the name of the line or space it occupies on the staff.

The location of the note in, above, or below the staff indicates the PITCH of a tone. The higher the position, the higher the pitch.


The TYPE of NOTES indicates the length of its sound.

whole note
  • The head is hollow
  • It does not have a stem
  • It receives four beats
half note
  • The head is hollow
  • It has a stem
  • It receives 2 beats
quarter note
  • The had is solid
  • It has a stem
  • It receives 1 beat
eighth note
  • The head is solid
  • It has a stem and a flag
  • It receives a 1/2 beat

stem up note

Conventionally, when the head of the note is placed below the third line, the stem usually goes upward on the right side.

stem down note

When the head of a note is located above the third line, the stem is usually drawn down on the left side of the note.

Notes on the third line may have stems going either way.

The Rest Symbols

A rest symbol is a sign to designate a period of silence. The length of silence is the same duration of time as the note to which it corresponds.

Tone Characteristics: notes and rest symbols

A Dot After a Note

A dot after a note increases its duration by one-half.

Following are some examples.

Tone Characteristics: notes with a dot
Note with a dot examples
Tone Characteristics: rest symbol with a dot
Rest symbol with a dot examples


In music, dynamics is the variation in loudness. The dynamics contribute to the music’s expression directly.

We use certain words and their abbreviations to indicate the dynamics of the tone. In most cases, you will see the abbreviations on the music sheets.

Force of a Tone Indicating Word Abbreviation
Very Soft Pianissimo pp
Soft Piano p
Medium Soft Mezzo Piano mp
Medium Loud Mezzo Forte mf
Loud Forte f
Very Loud Fortissimo ff

An interesting background of the instrument named PIANO:

When Bartolomeo Cristofori invented the first modern concept piano, he called it “gravicembalo col piano e forte” (it meant a harpsichord with soft and loud).

At that time, the harpsichord could not allow the players to change the tone dynamics by applying different forces on the keys. Cristofori’s new instrument offered this feature of “piano e forte” (soft and loud); hence, the piano became the instrument’s name.

To Wrap Up…

In this part of Music Fundamentals, we discussed the music notes on the music staff representing the PITCH and DURATION of music tones.

Only through practice will you feel more comfortable reading the music notes. In addition, there are many music apps available to connect with your digital pianos that make it easier and more fun to practice music reading.

Learning piano or music theory is not a one-day deal. Just like learning a new language, consistency is the secret to success.

Related: Music Fundamentals Series

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