In bar 4 of Messiaen's Prelude 7 Plainte Calm, the time signature changes to 3/4. However, the notes at the treble clef dont add up.

The first eighth note is followed by 2 quarter notes, and this second quarter note coincides with the second beat of the Bass Clef. However, it its taking 1 1/2 beats from the treble clef to get to the second beat of the Bass Clef. See image below: bar 4

How one should count this?

  • Welcome to Music.SE! We have quite a few answers about this already. Search for piano music in multiple voices. Or stems up and stems down. Basically, the RH is in two parts (known as voices) here, so they happen at the same time. Jul 12, 2021 at 14:57
  • 5
    There should really be a crotchet rest at the beginning of the bar in the lower voice of the RH part; this would make the rhythm clearer. Jul 12, 2021 at 14:58
  • Hi, Bob. Thanks for your answer. Would you be kind enough to point the link to a question here regarding counting multiple voices. The ones I found were not very helpful. Thanks.
    – Eulavo
    Jul 12, 2021 at 15:21
  • I had a look and couldn’t find any questions exactly the same, so maybe this isn’t a duplicate. I’ll quickly do an answer for you. Jul 12, 2021 at 15:30
  • Assuming this isn’t a dupe, it might be worth changing the title of this question, to make it generally about rhythms in any two voice music, rather than specifically about this piece. That would really help future readers search for this info. Jul 12, 2021 at 19:42

2 Answers 2


Piano music often has multiple parts (or lines) written on each stave. For historical reasons (from choral music) these are usually known as voices. Although it is possible to have more than two voices per stave, there are usually not more than two. To differentiate between notes written in two voices on one stave, one voice has stems pointing upwards, the other has stems pointing downwards, regardless of how high or low the notes are.

In the short extract from Messiaen you posted, the right hand part (upper stave) has two voices. So the rhythms for these notes are read at the same time not necessarily in the order that they appear from left to right. However, this is slightly confusing in the extract you show, as really there should be a rest at the beginning of the bar in the right-hand lower voice; instead only the two crotchet notes are shown. Below is the extract you posted notated correctly:

enter image description here

It's worth noting that the left-hand part also has two voices, but as their rhythms are not independent, the rhythm is much easier to work out!

  • I see. So, the first quarter note (which belongs to the first voice) in the RH should be held for 1 beat, however the second quarter note (which pertains to the second voice) should be played at the second half of the first quarter note, is that it?
    – Eulavo
    Jul 12, 2021 at 15:59
  • Bingo! So the second note in the first voice (C) overlaps the first note in the second voice (Eb). Jul 12, 2021 at 19:39
  • If the Eflat and D are thought of as belonging to the left hand, the left hand crotchet rest would apply to them.
    – Peter
    Jul 13, 2021 at 11:20

Imagine the right-hand part were being played by two hands: RH = stems up; LH = stems down (and begins with a quarter rest).

Here's a re-written version that is more explicit in which notes come when and how to count it.

X: 1
T: Messiaen's Prelude 7
T: m. 4
M: 3/4
K: none
L: 1/8
%%score (V1 V2)
[V:V1] F' C'- C' _E'C'_G |
w: 1 + 2 + 3 +
[V:V2] z2 _E- _E D2 |
  • I like the tied C. Although now it starts to look like 6/8 might be more appropriate! Maybe join the quavers in twos instead of threes?
    – Tim
    Jul 12, 2021 at 16:55
  • @Tim IIRC this piece is in a 3/4 rhythm w/ minor syncopation here Jul 13, 2021 at 16:54

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