I was playing "Elf: The Musical" this week and the keyboard player (playing the bass part) asked me what "Maybe quarter notes" meant. "Maybe quarter notes" score notation

I figured it gave the option to either play quarter notes or half notes, but it did seem oddly unspecific. What was it they wanted her to play?

  • 1
    LOL, I think it means the arranger was confused. In seriousness, it's totally unclear. It could be about how you play it—mm 121 and 122 are notated in quarters, repeating each pitch in pairs, but the subsequent mm in half notes, so maybe it's saying that the whole passage should either be played as pairs of quarters or as halves. OR, since m 112 is marked "In 2," this means that the conductor might switch to 4 (in which case it should have said "in 4" instead). I'm tempted to joke about Schroedinger and Heisenberg—*maybe* these are quarter notes, but we can't be sure... Dec 13, 2021 at 16:14
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    I suspect that this is a note to self from the composer or orchestrator, and the copyist misconstrued it as an instruction to the player.
    – phoog
    Dec 13, 2021 at 16:25
  • Of course there's the obvious path—has anybody consulted the score? Ultimately, as observed, maybe it ain't just up to the bass or the keyboard player... Dec 13, 2021 at 18:48
  • The "score" isn't much more than the piano part with lyrics and stage instructions.
    – Duston
    Dec 14, 2021 at 0:39

3 Answers 3


Hard to tell. Probably an artifact from the original creation process. Almost certainly ignorable.

Musical theater is not written in the way that most other music is. With most types of music, a composer writes it all first in all of its detail, and then the performer(s) perform it as-is. With musicals, the inaugural production starts rehearsals with something far short of a final draft, often loose piano sketches. Throughout the production process, music is added, cut, and rewritten all the time, even into performances. In most cases, a separate orchestrator is responsible for taking these hastily written sketches and converting them into playable orchestra parts, and there are probably many copyists assisting in typesetting parts. There's a lot of communication that needs to happen between these people, and some of it takes place via written notes in the materials. Sometimes we see artifacts of these conversations in the final product.

I think that's what we see here. Given that the surrounding music is in half notes, I suspect that an earlier version of mm. 121-122 was in half notes, then at some point someone thought, "hmm, maybe that would sound better as quarters" and wrote that note, later someone thought, "yeah that's a good idea" and changed the music but didn't erase the note, and even later someone was typesetting the parts, didn't know what the note meant, and left it in out of caution.

  • If you want to stipulate this to be an artifact of an editorial process, consider this an oversight when converting the notation into cut time. In that case, the conversion should have properly resulted in "maybe half notes".
    – user83454
    Dec 13, 2021 at 17:37

"Maybe quarter notes" means exactly that: consider playing 4 equal-length notes per bar. You'd think this is what is written anyway but it isn't: note that the movement is under the tempo designation "Double-time swing feel (in 2)" which means that 4 notated quarter notes should usually be played as triplet-half triplet-quarter triplet-half triplet-quarter.

This instruction suggests omitting the swing feel for those measures. How this will then fit up with other parts depends on the notes there: my guess would be that there are mostly sustained notes in the melody part.

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    I don't think this is right. There's just no way that the quarter notes are supposed to be swung, that's just not how music is written. And if it were about swing/non-swing, there would be no ambiguity about it--there's no way that the choice would be up to the player.
    – MattPutnam
    Dec 13, 2021 at 17:06
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    @AndyBonner I'd probably have used "maybe straight quarter notes". If it's not just "maybe", you can put a duplet bracket across each pair of quarters or a quadruplet bracket across each bar (same timing but subtle difference in grouping) since tuplets of any kind are usually considered to override swing feeling designations.
    – user83454
    Dec 13, 2021 at 17:07
  • 2
    Quarter notes don't swing.
    – Tim
    Dec 13, 2021 at 18:10
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    I'm with @Tim, I also play bass and have can't imagine swinging quarters in a walking bass line.
    – Duston
    Dec 13, 2021 at 18:17
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    Is there any audio of this piece that we can listen to, and decide whether this is a valid answer? I agree that swing notes should not be written this way, but replacing them by straight notes is certainly possible and an important decision for the musical leader (not just for the bass player).
    – Jos
    Dec 14, 2021 at 10:35

Until bar 123, all are written out as crotchets (quarter notes). The previous two bars show crotchets playing two of each note. So logic says the minims (half notes) could be played as writ, or played as those two bars, two pairs of notes - one pair for each note written.

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