Let's say I have the following piece in 4/4, Should it be notated as:

First image


Second image

Are there any specific rules? From my previous experience, I believe the second one is the correct notation since it shows all the beats in 4/4, am I correct?

  • 1
    Both are acceptable, but the second is usually preferred because it's usually easier to read. – Kevin Aug 21 '14 at 16:57
  • 1
    BTW, what's with this strange C-C♯-C♮ combination? Are you sure the notes shouldn't rather be simply C-C-C-E♭-C-C-D♭-C, e.g. with a key signature of 5 ♭s? – leftaroundabout Aug 21 '14 at 21:28
  • 3
    And while we're at readability... does it really make sense to notate a guitar in (octave-) violin clef, if it's tuned down that low? I'd prefer bass clef, those ledger lines are a nightmare. – leftaroundabout Aug 21 '14 at 21:34
  • @leftaroundabout Yes I should have notated it as C-Db-C. Haven't got time to fix it in Guitar Pro. I agree I should have used the bass clef, but since guitarists mainly read tabs (and read the standard notation for precise rhythms), it doesn't make too much of a difference. Thanks for your input anyway! – rexcfnghk Aug 22 '14 at 6:43
  • The first example is definitely NOT acceptable. I was going to say 'except in exceptional circumstances', but they would have to be VERY exceptional! It obscures the pattern of 4 beats in the bar and is therefore hard to read. – Laurence Payne May 31 '17 at 11:20

Yep, the second one is far better for precisely the reason you say. A general rule is that you shouldn't have dotted-notes that start on an off beat and carry through the next beat. There are exceptions even to this rule, but showing the underlying beat structure of the meter is paramount in the vast majority of situations.

Elliott Carter is an example of a composer that often violates this notational rule (sometimes using four beamed dotted notes, occasionally even crossing the barline), but this is for the specific purpose of notating multiple simultaneous tempos. Even with that reason, an argument could be made that it isn't worth it due to the difficulty with reading it.

  • 3
    In 4/4 time, I'd say it's fine for a dotted quarter note to start on the "and" of beat one or three, since a dotted quarter note is expected to carry on through the next beat; no form of quarter note should generally cross from beat 2 to 3, however. Any quarter note which starts in the first half of a measure should fit entirely within it; likewise any quarter note that starts in the second half. As for having four beamed dotted notes, that would seem a little odd except in something like 6/8 or 12/8 time, and even there a duple bracket might be better. – supercat Aug 21 '14 at 18:19
  • +1 for "...showing the underlying beat structure of the meter is paramount...", though I wouldn't even qualify it as much as you did. – Kyle Strand Aug 21 '14 at 18:28
  • @supercat Yeah, that was the primary exception I had in mind. Carter's beamed dotted notes aren't (generally) in compound time, but I still think there's a strong argument for them. They are generally used in a part that is playing a passage that sounds like it's metered but at a slightly slower tempo than the other instruments. There's a decision to be made about whether to show the groupings of the slower tempo's meter or risk making something look syncopated that should sound regular. He tends to choose the former, but I think a good argument exists for both choices. – Pat Muchmore Aug 21 '14 at 18:37
  • I disagree with calling it a rule, because it simply isn't. It's just that it's usually easier to read if you use a tie - so coincidentally, a pattern emerged, not a rule -, but some rhythms are really a lot more readable with dots than ties even if off-beat. Example: 4 notes in a 3/4 measure. I'd notate that with dots, not ties, because with dots, it is very clear all notes are of the same length, with ties not at all. – 11684 Aug 22 '14 at 22:13
  • I'm with @11684 here, with my typography hat on. There are only very little rules in typography in general. Mostly it's conventions. Whether an author/typesetter decides to stick to the convention or not is up to him. For instance, if you get loads and loads of these notes that break the pattern, then you probably use the dotted notation, since the reader very likely won't get the pattern anyway during the first reading, and you lessen the amount of things to read. But again, that's just my opinion and another typesetter will have a different opinion. – yo' Aug 3 '15 at 16:10

If you are referring strictly to music written obeying to traditional rhythmic conventions (with rational time signatures and regular/even division), then your second example is more suitable. Please keep in mind that the first example is not wrong, but the second will make sight-reading much easier, as our own expectations when seeing a piece in 4/4 make us search for known beat patterns.

One possible exception is the dotted quarter, which can be exchanged with a quarter tied to an eighth. For example, the following fragment

Example 1, quarter tied to eighth

is orthodox regarding to rhythmic division, but

Example 2, dotted quarter

is easy enough to read and can be more straightforward for those who are used to this kind of rhythmic figure.

This exchange can be especially useful in 3/4 meter, when you want to avoid a 6/8 feeling. For example, in this fragment

Example 3, dotted quarters

the continuous repetition of the pattern can lead, by assimilation, to that feeling of 6/8 (counting "1, 2" instead of "1, 2, 3"), as the dotted quarter is the time unit for such compound meter. Using, instead,

enter image description here

will highlight the first, second and third beats, visually aiding the reader to not assimilate the beat pattern to a binary compound meter (well, I know it has also to do with beaming of the notes, but I think you got what I mean).

As Pat Muchmore said, you can "break" these rules when working with unusual/irrational time signatures, free meter or other ingenious procedures (as is common with Elliot Carter's metric modulation, for instance). In such cases, you are the judge of what is more suitable or appealing to what you are trying to accomplish.

  • 2
    that 3/4 example, to me comes out as a 6/8 feel, regardless of what I do to it. Help !! I guess the first quaver would be slightly quieter in 3/4 time compared with it written in 6/8 ? – Tim Aug 21 '14 at 16:09
  • @Tim, the 3/4 should be counted (in eights) "ONE two THREE four FIVE six", or "ONE & TWO & THREE". 6/8 should be counted "ONE two three FOUR five six", or "ONE & & TWO & &". Please refer to this example to illustrate what I mean. – SeuMenezes Aug 21 '14 at 16:28
  • thanks, yes, I appreciate that, but to me it still feels the same, either way.I'd have probably written it 6/8, 'cos that's the final outcome (for me). Unless the rest of the piece is 'normal' 3/4. – Tim Aug 21 '14 at 16:40
  • 2
    yes, it happens a lot, but can have nasty consequences; the truth is that 6/8 and 3/4 are unrelated (6/8 is not 'abnormal' 3/4). It is a binary meter; its compound signature is a way to circumvent an awkward irrational time signature like "2/3", as there is no standard undotted figure which express one and a half time on its own right. This way, you have a binary meter (similar to 2/4), but you have to fit three eights instead of two into each pulse. It should sound identically to a 2/4 meter filled with triplets (which is different from a ternary meter). – SeuMenezes Aug 21 '14 at 16:49
  • 1
    @Tim: For a concrete example where that rhythm is primary throughout the piece, but it's still clearly (at least to my ear) in 3/4, check out "This little Babe" from Britten's Ceremony of Carols. – Micah Aug 21 '14 at 23:56

Here's a common chart showing how the notes break down:

Note breakdown of a whole note

Notice how each row is a full measure in 4/4. The general rule is that a note can span its direct children, or one of its children and one of its nephews. That is, a quarter note can span the 2nd and 3rd eighth notes, but not the 4th and 5th. A dotted note can only borrow from its sibling, not its cousin, so a quarter note can span eights 1-2-3 or 2-3-4, but not 3-4-5.

Your first example has the 3rd eighth note of the bar borrowing from its cousin, the 2nd eighth note. So this is "bad". The second way would be the proper way to write it.

Note that there are always exceptions to every rule, but it's good to follow the rules unless you have a really good reason not to.


The ideal is to keep each beat self-contained, so the second is preferrable.In 4/4 it's certainly best to keep each half of the bar separate, so anything which goes between beats 2 and 3 are shown as tied.It's easier to read, and the ties actually make you aware that the tune is syncopated.The same thing should happen in 6/8 too, which is effectively two halves of each bar. Some more modern composers and re-writers don't feel the need to do this. Change will happen slowly, but for now, at least, let's keep it easy to read - and probably easier to write (longhand at least).

It's good to see the dots alongside tab, so the rhythm can be followed, not guessed !


Correct. There is a subjective component to this decision, but you generally want to keep the placement of the beat as clear as possible.

The rule of thumb is that when a note doesn't begin on a beat, it should not cross into another beat without a tie, unless the notation is simple enough (e.g. quarter, half, quarter) that there is no ambiguity in how the rhythm lines up with the beat.


It is a question of style. The music of the last centuries is not subtle regarding its rhythmic stresses. However, Renaissance and also some Baroque music does not have the same forced substructures of today's rigid meters as well as a central beat, so the "helpfulness" of substituting more complex note constructions for a rhythmically shifted variant of a straightforward melody is limited and sacrifices the self-consistency of the melody for adherence to a metronomic meter that may not even be dominant in the other voices.

The notation impacts the performance. While percussive instruments like pianos and drums are not really in much danger here, continuous sound instruments like vocals, bowed strings, and wind instruments have a tendency of putting additional stress on the on-beat parts of syncopated notes. Which sort of defeats the whole point of syncopation.

Renaissance music consequently often tends to be notated using "floating barlines" between the staves where not even a barline is sufficient grounds for subdividing a note value into an off- and on-beat part.

While the same is no longer customary in Baroque music, the execution of syncopated passages is still very much expected to be indistinguishable from a shifted version of the original melodic fragment.

This kind of non-syncopated syncopation stops being feasible when "swinging" meters come into play where the central rhythmic framework is so rigid that time can be warped around it and on-beat notes have different lengths from off-beat notes.

Basically these days, every music piece is what was previously considered a dance regarding the prevalence of a real or imaginary driving beat. In that context, not burying an on-beat in the middle of a note makes perfect sense, notationally giving the central meter priority over the inner melodic logic of a voice.


As others said, the second form is probably more common, but I'd like to put in my own opinion.

Since the 3:3:2 rhythm is common in music I deal with, I prefer to notate it additively (like your first option, with the first three notes all beamed together). This option also looks cleaner, at the cost of being difficult to recognise for people unfamiliar with the rhythm.


At the end of the day it's really a matter of preference to the composer. Most of the responses that I've read claim the second example is 'right' or 'easier to read' but those are truly opinions. It is my opinion that the first example is preferable, and that's the one I'd use. It has to do as much with how I was taught to read sheet music as it does the music itself. I would only use a tie as a slur between two different notes, and it's mathematically more complicated for me to read it in the second example. The dotted eighth in the first measure represents 3/16th of a beat. The tie in the second measure demands that I add 1/16th & 1/8th together, leading to extra math and at the very least a more difficult sightread. While it is a purposeful goal to make the music you annotate or compose legible and understandable, there is no real right or wrong here.

  • 4
    Writing music is a form of communication. It's not just a matter of preference, you have to take into account a lot of conventions and the like so that the message gets through. In this case it's better to not only express the mathematical length of the note but also its relation to the underlying meter or beat structure if you like; that facilitates playing together. Furthermore, a tie and a slur may look similar but they have very different meaning. – PeterBjuhr Aug 22 '14 at 10:01

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.