Consider following excerpt from the beginning of the 2nd leçon of Couperin's Leçon des ténèbres pour le mercredi saint:

enter image description here

As you see, it uses a rather strange notation where, for instance, a bar of 3/2 containing six quarter notes is written as six notes with a white notehead (such as half notes) that are beamed (such as eighth notes).

Why is this, or does it has a specific name? (Is it related to half-time?)

  • @Tim: Seems like left-adjusted sharps to me, the diagonal notation is present in other prints of that period as well); only that f sharp is repeated for octave.
    – guidot
    Commented Aug 13, 2020 at 11:20
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    @Tim they are sharps. There was a time when key signature symbols were held to apply only to the octave to which they were actually applied. Eventually, during the baroque period, people realized that this was unnecessary and began to consider that they applied to every instance of the indicated pitch class.
    – phoog
    Commented Aug 13, 2020 at 14:05
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    @phoog: Just wanted to clarify one point -- it would be more accurate to state that at this time, it was common to use a sharp or flat at every position on the staff (or immediately adjacent to it, as in the F-sharp in bass here). But it's not quite accurate to say that key signatures at this time only applied to octaves where notated, as a note on a ledger line at this time would still generally be presumed to have the same sharp or flat as other octaves, even if there were no corresponding symbol at the start of the staff. (What you say was true in some much earlier practices however.)
    – Athanasius
    Commented Aug 13, 2020 at 19:08
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    @Athanasius that more precise statement certainly agrees with my experience (which in any event is more extensive with 16th- and early-17th-century manuscripts and prints than with those from the eighteenth century). Perhaps it is more accurate to see the key signature as a "set piece" then as it is now; it's only that the shape of the thing has changed.
    – phoog
    Commented Aug 14, 2020 at 0:52
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    FWIW a quick Google search for sheet music images suggests there are a few "modernized" scores that may be useful for comparing with this original Commented Aug 14, 2020 at 17:47

3 Answers 3


I've found this pdf with an analog notation 3/2 like yours with 6 beamed white notes. They say that these notes have the double value (quarter notes, not eighth) and they must be played almost legato:

The example on the far right is notated with white notes. It says “On la note aussi de cette façon6 ". In fact, Couperin notices three of the four movements in Les Goûts-réünis in 3/2 time with white notes. In addition, Hotteterre says that this time signature is for slow pieces with pathetic, tender music is used, and that the quarter notes are inegal (pointé) to be played here like otherwise the eighth notes in other time signatures. In fact, the white quarter notes look almost like Eighth notes off. In our transmission we kept the 3/2 time and the beamed ones white note values doubled, i.e. eighths become quarters, etc. - The sentence starts with "Pointé-coulé" called. In this context, “coulé” means “supple”. We interpret this to mean that the quarters should be stroked back and forth, but so smoothly that it almost like legato 7


enter image description here

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    If you're not familiar with rhythm in the French Baroque, you might have missed the statement about the quarter notes being 'inegal'. Generally eighth notes in a running passage aren't played equally; rather the ones on the beat are slightly shorter. You might think of this as being like the jazz practice of 'swing', except that it's reversed as to which notes are longer. Commented Aug 13, 2020 at 16:47

One name for this is white notation, although that term is typically associated with mensural notation. To distinguish this from that, one may call it French baroque white notation.

See for example http://www.sibelius.com/cgi-bin/helpcenter/chat/chat.pl?com=thread&start=692692&groupid=3&&guest=1:

No, this will be French Baroque "white notation". A white notehead with one beam = a modern quarter note, with two beams = an eighth note, etc.

Another example is http://www.sibelius.com/cgi-bin/helpcenter/chat/chat.pl?com=thread&start=510933&groupid=3&&guest=1:

Forgive me if this has been covered elsewhere, but if so, I cannot find the answer. I am trying to create French Baroque style white notation - passages in 3/2 meter with regular whole and half notes, but with quarter, eighth, and smaller notes using white noteheads rather than black.


I find it a bit easier to read & interpret this mixed-(up)-notation style from another imslp version. Other than dealing with flagged half-notes, it's closer to modern notation. Comparing "beat by beat" to your original post, the other answers appear to be correct.

enter image description here

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