I've got this lengthy solo passage in my piano piece (a transcription of a symphony, where this is the solo). The right hand plays the solo, and the left hand provides the quietest possible background harmonics, in the form of a constant, near-silent F-minor chord tremolo (soft strings in the original). Question is, because the solo is in an overlong bar (which takes about forty seconds to play), how do I notate the tremolo.

Here's one attempt, stretching a whole note over the entire measure. attempt 1 However, because it is so disfigured, you could be forgiven for not noticing that the thing is a tremolo at all.

A more 'correct' way, precisely matching the length values in the melody, just looks messy. attempt 2

Using some obscure notation for extremely long notes, I can divide the bar up into fewer tremolos: attempt 3

But I think I will split the difference, and put a number of these tremolos in a row to give the idea of a constant tremolo throughout the measure, even if the times don't add up. attempt 4

So the latter is my preferred solution, at this moment. The question is: is there a better, more 'legitimate' way, to notate a tremolo of indeterminate length?

EDIT: Sadly, it looks like the trill notation as suggested by Laurence Payne is causing irresolvable issues with the music notation software I use. I would love to hear if that is the only suitable notation or if there are any alternatives. Leaving a bounty for that purpose!

  • If you could tell us what issues you are having with your software, we might be able to suggest a solution.
    – PiedPiper
    Oct 15, 2020 at 11:46
  • @PiedPiper sure. I upload it to Musescore, and their official mobile app can display and play scores too, resizing them to fit on phones. However the trill symbol is from a rare subset of their symbol palette (couldn't use the regular one for weird alignment reasons, had to pick an obscure version that could actually be placed on top of the staves) and it is a symbol that doesn't support resizing well. Long story short, the element is always at full scale so in the app the entire score is unreadably small.
    – KeizerHarm
    Oct 15, 2020 at 12:08
  • @PiedPiper I understand that I should be reporting this bug to Musescore but that can take months to fix, and in the meantime I want to display the score on the app, so for that I need an alternate notation. But one potentially valid answer would be someone explaining that there is no alternate notation, that the trill really is the definitive way to notate the un-timed tremolo, in which case the bounty goes to them.
    – KeizerHarm
    Oct 15, 2020 at 12:11
  • I highly suggest obtaining a copy of Behind Bars by Elaine Gould. It has recommendations for engraving for pretty much every situation, and beyond that it explains a philosophy on engraving that would help you develop your own notation for things that aren't specifically covered in the book. Also I'd like to suggest that whether the software you have can effectively engrave something is not the best guide for how something should be engraved. If you want to ask about a compromise that fits your software, you'll have to tell us what software you are using. Oct 21, 2020 at 8:41
  • I feel like your first option but with the three elements placed close together in the middle of the "bar" would effectively communicate a measured 8th note tremolo for the length of the "bar". It should not be so widely spaced. Also, I just noticed in the comments you do mention you are using Musescore. You'll find that since it's free, it has limitations in some areas, and maybe there will not always be a way to work around those. One thing you might be able to do in this case is actually break the passage into measures but then hide the barlines. Oct 21, 2020 at 8:47

3 Answers 3


Something like this should be clear.

enter image description here

Responding to your comment: OK, just one or two trem. bars then. Or this. (Whoops, I forgot to erase the time signature.)

BTW, have you tried playing it? Not at all comfortable, unless your hands are a lot bigger than mine!

enter image description here

  • Interesting idea, thanks! I am only uncertain about the triple-barred tremolo, afaik that means "tremolo as fast as possible" while I am looking for a more gentler speed.
    – KeizerHarm
    Sep 11, 2020 at 23:22
  • Thanks for the second suggestion, I think I will go with that. And yes, I can manage with 5-4-2-1. I also have a few 10ths in the symphony. My understanding was that those were still acceptable intervals.
    – KeizerHarm
    Sep 12, 2020 at 8:54
  • @KeizerHarm Your first comment here makes me wonder if you are looking for a measured or unmeasured tremolo. Oct 21, 2020 at 8:43
  • @KeizerHarm I would provide an answer for the bounty, but it would basically be the second option here - I'm not sure you can get clearer or better than that. The one thing I would add/suggest is that you put a large X for the time signature at the start of the measure, instead of leaving it blank, to clarify that the time for the measure is unmetered. This is assuming that there isn't a measure before the one pictured that has an X. Oct 21, 2020 at 13:51
  • @ToddWilcox Thank you, and you did help me understand that there's a second question here; notating an unmeasured tremolo that's slower than 32nd notes. But yeah, I wish I could spread this bounty out; multiple people have been contributing to my understanding.
    – KeizerHarm
    Oct 21, 2020 at 13:55

Solution A

extended tremolo

  • A fermata may be placed over the tremolo bar and can stand alone or in conjunction with other solutions. In addition to the fermata used here, there are notations for "long" and "very long" fermatas, which could be substituted. Pictures and descriptions of the various fermata types can be found here.

  • "Sempre tremolo" could be used as shown or at the beginning of the bar, in addition or instead of the fermata.

  • Following ToddWilcox's comment, and also this website, three bars are used to indicate an unmeasured tremolo.

Unmeasured tremolo is notated by marking the duration as thirty-second notes

  • If the passage is intended as a cadenza, then it should be notated with "small" notes.

Solution B

extended tremolo #2

  • Based on the comments, since a fixed-length tremolo is intended, the dotted line replaces the fermata of solution A. This was done in MuseScore by placing an ottava and replacing the "8va" text with "slow trem."

  • MuseScore also allows the use of the "maxima" note-head.

Examples of the "tremolo-bar fermata" are found in Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 14 in F Minor, measures 6 and 10, shown below.1

measure 6
Liszt extended tremolo m. 6

measure 10
Liszt extended tremolo m. 10

1Images from the Dover edition. Franz Liszt, Complete Hungarian Rhapsodies for Solo Piano (1984 Dover), "in association with the American Liszt Society", pages 150 and 151.

  • My personal opinion is that the fermata idea does not clearly communicate the intent, and that the example engraving is not of high quality (even if the music itself is), and therefore might not be the best to emulate. Oct 21, 2020 at 8:51
  • @ToddWilcox I've attempted to address your comments. Please let me know whether or not you find it sufficient (or, even better, convincing).
    – Aaron
    Oct 21, 2020 at 12:48
  • My understanding about the amount of bars in the tremolo may be lacking. I always understood that three bars meant "as fast as possible", which is in conflict with my intent of the tremolo; that the length should be unmeasured but definitely not at 32nd note speed.
    – KeizerHarm
    Oct 21, 2020 at 13:12
  • Regardless, the question was mainly about how to express the total length of the tremolo (that being hard to indicate because of how long the bar is), rather than the amount of attacks per beat. In that fashion, placing the thing somewhat compressed towards the start of the measure does seem like a suitable solution now that I think of it, especially with the longa and the fermata.
    – KeizerHarm
    Oct 21, 2020 at 13:14
  • Then again, if a performer is able to make a 32nd note tremolo at ppp volume then I suppose they should be allowed to; but I don't want to require it. My intent is soft background harmony, something that the melody in the RH easily outsounds.
    – KeizerHarm
    Oct 21, 2020 at 13:20

Normally these sorts of passages are written using smaller notes which usually add up to more than a normal bar. I think your passage would be perfectly clear if you were able to write the solo in smaller notes (like the arpeggios in Aarons answer) whilst having a full bar tremolo in the left hand written full size.

The physical length of the bar still makes it slightly harder to see that the tremolo is over the full bar but the note lengths imply it; so most people would get it because they would have seen similar things before. I am, of course, assuming that your software could handle writing that notation.

  • So what you suggest is like my first example image, but with the solo in smaller notes? I was worried that excessive horizontal stretching would make the tremolo hard to recognise as a tremolo.
    – KeizerHarm
    Oct 15, 2020 at 12:52
  • 2
    You could always add the word "Trem" against the left hand to make it clearer.
    – JimM
    Oct 15, 2020 at 13:43
  • @KeizerHarm A single bar tremolo as in the first example in the question would normally suggest a measured 8th note tremolo, but the word "trem" or "tremolo" added would indicate an unmeasured tremolo, which should be paired with a three bar tremolo notation (four bars for percussion) to be clear. A single bar and the word "trem" risks confusing the player, in my opinion. Oct 21, 2020 at 8:54

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