May I ask if the measure has a certain number of beats, can I still use notes in that measure that exceed the number of beats?

Look at the picture below: enter image description here

  • Is this a US/UK convention, or am I the only one? I think that the word measure would be cleaerer than staff/stave.
    – nuggethead
    Commented Jan 8, 2023 at 20:30
  • @nuggethead, yes. UK uses bars and bar lines, while US uses measures and bars. The staff (plural staves) is always the five lines.
    – Peter
    Commented Jan 9, 2023 at 10:25
  • 3
    Even though the notes must not exceed the length of the bar (or in US the measure) rests can appear to. By convention a semibreve (whole note) rest is also used for a complete bar rest, even when the bar is less than four crotchets long. Of course normally others are playing while you are carefully counting out your rests.
    – Peter
    Commented Jan 9, 2023 at 10:32
  • @Peter in that case why does the question mention staff/staves at all? Isn't the question only about time?
    – nuggethead
    Commented Jan 9, 2023 at 10:41
  • 1
    @nuggethead I think it's ok; the OP clearly intends to talk about measures; a minimal edit that preserves (clarifies!) intent helps rather than hurts. Edit made. Commented Jan 10, 2023 at 14:15

5 Answers 5


The whole point of having barlines is to split a piece into equal parts. If some of those parts are not equal, then they will need another time signature to accommodate them. And every bar in a piece with one time signature will have the appropriate number of beats, be it notes or rests.

Except - the first and/or last bars. Which will never have more (exceed) the quoted number, but could contain fewer. This is the anacrucis, at the beginning (the 'pick-up), which is usually only part of one bar, and the part at the end, which 'fills the gap' made at the beginning. That's usually to allow a repeat to follow say, a first verse, without a timing hiccup.

So, if you wanted the breve to be the bar-filler, the time signature would need to be 8/4, allowing a count of 8 beats in each bar (maybe not 1st and last). Or, if you wanted a note lasting those 6 beats, write in 4/4, and do as you did second, tie two semibreves across two bars.

  • 2
    Also excepting cadenza bars, which can be any length but are usually visually distinctive (like every note being smaller).
    – KeizerHarm
    Commented Jan 9, 2023 at 9:56

Both ways of notation are metrically correct. The second way to notate it is the default and expected way of doing this, so unless there is a good reason against it you should stick with that. The upper example is something you’d mostly see with modern editions of old mensural scores, which did not have bar lines but the editor still decided to add bar lines for readability, such as this:

enter image description here

You can use something like this for example if otherwise the notations would become cluttered, but you should be careful, as this might also just get confusing.

So only use this if its meaning is clear and it is clearly beneficial for the readability of the score.

Funnily there are also cases where a brevis is used without adding a bar line, implicitly doubling the duration of the bar. Schubert does this in his canon for three male voices "Dreifach ist der Schritt der Zeit" (D43):

enter image description here

Note how on the cadence ("the past forever stands still") Schubert is slowing down, eventually switching the beat from the half to the whole note. It is also quite clear why Schubert decided to go for this way of writing this. If you compare these two ways of notating this, you’ll see that what Schubert is doing is less cluttered and thus somewhat easier to read:

enter image description here

But you will also notice that this second one is very clear on what is meant, while the first one might require a few thoughts on what this actually means. So I’d say this case does not fit the rule of a clear meaning perfectly (although well enough).

So the point is: Do what you want and what looks good, but if you go against the default, do it for a good reason, and even then only if the benefits clearly outweigh the confusion this may cause.

  • We should make it clear that the sort of thing shown in this answer is NOT an option in modern notation.
    – Laurence
    Commented Jan 10, 2023 at 16:11
  • 1
    @Laurence Why should this be so? It is quite uncommon for 1) support in notation software is a bit weird, and 2) you should probably not do it anyway unless there is a really good reason to do so. Modern notation usually allows far more than old notation, especially since graphic notation came along. What for example if you want to write mensural-style music? Or what if simply doing something like this leads to less clutter? Take something like Chopin Op. 28 Nr. 5. Even modern editions have the 8th notes cross the bar lines for the sake of readability.
    – Lazy
    Commented Jan 10, 2023 at 17:54

Given a 4/4 time signature, a note of 8 beats must be split across two measures as two whole notes tied together. The lower example is correct; the upper is not permitted.

  • 4
    That's right, it turns out that to use double whole notes, you have to be in 8/4 time or more to use it, why didn't I think of it!
    – go poke
    Commented Jan 8, 2023 at 6:56

The simple answer is 'no'. In modern notation, a note's length cannot exceed the bar that contains it. Ancient practice (and modern facsimiles of ancient works) might differ, but that's today's rule.

And, as a corollary, bars MUST be filled, by notes or rests adding up to that bar's length. There's a Whole Bar Rest, but no Whole Bar Note, convenient though it might be when filling a bar of (say) 5/4.

We could mischievously claim that anacrusis ('pick-up') bars and any matching 'short' bar at the end of a piece break that rule I suppose!


It's HEDLEY (who later renamed to Aaron) is correct as always, but there is one exception. Pickup measures can, in theory, be any length, though they almost never go beyond 2/4. If you have some strange burning desire to use breves, and you don't happen to be on a pickup measure, simply change the time signature.

  • 6
    There are many pieces where the anacrucis is 3 or even 3.5 beats long.
    – Tim
    Commented Jan 8, 2023 at 15:40
  • @Tim I don't see that too often. Maybe we're thinking of different general styles.
    – OprenStein
    Commented Jan 9, 2023 at 23:09
  • No, unless marked with a different time sig, the anacrusis cannot exceed the defined measure timing. Commented Jan 11, 2023 at 15:29
  • "any length" as long as it's shorter than the length specified by the time signature.
    – phoog
    Commented Jan 25, 2023 at 20:11

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