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I'm currently looking at a vocal score, and there's a small note right above a normal-sized note. Ordinarily, I would presume this to be a cue note, except that this isn't the start of the singer's part, and in any case, you'd expect cue notes to go where the singer has rests, so that (s)he can actually be cued. In addition, I don't think it's a grace note, since it's notated as a quarter note and is on top as opposed to preceding the main note. Does anyone know what this is?

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up vote 9 down vote accepted

Likely an optional note, to be sung instead of the large note if the singer has what it takes to sing the small note.

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Yes, it's called an "ossia" -- Italian for "or, this way." – Robert Fink Aug 3 '14 at 7:15

I've seen cases where this means "sing(play) the smaller note the second time around" in the context of a vocal melody; this was in a case where the words changed from one verse to the other, necessitating a change in the notes and durations for the different verses.

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I'd imagine this would normally be marked additionally to say so though, else how do you know which verse/repeat to change the note in? In this context, I imagine the 'optional note' answer is much more likely. – Chris Jul 30 '14 at 15:42
@Chris: Consider the situation where a measure starts with a full-sized half note C, and small quarter notes D C, and some verses have a syllable on the second beat, but the first verse doesn't. Versus with a syllable on the second beat would use the quarter notes, and those without would use the half note. Such notation would be considered sufficiently commonplace as to not merit a special explanation. – supercat Feb 18 '15 at 21:10
@supercat - surely the lyrics would tell you that in those cases. – Chris Feb 18 '15 at 22:06
In the picture above, there's insufficient context to judge what the small note is for--whether it's a note that singers aren't expected to be able to hit but should if possible, or if it's the last note of a cue-note phrase continued from the previous line, etc.? If the small note had been e.g. a bottom-line E, it might have been plausible that the top-space E was preferred, but that the lower E was suggested as an alternate for anyone who couldn't sing the upper one. That the note is the same duration as the full-size one makes lyric-based substitution unlikely, but... – supercat Feb 18 '15 at 22:11
...lyric substitution is a common reason for printing small notes in addition to full-sized ones, and often doesn't have any special explanation beyond the placement of the lyrics themselves. – supercat Feb 18 '15 at 22:12

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