# Are whole notes/rests really used to signify variable lengths of time?

I saw this answer and I thought the guy was absolutely crazy for assuming that a whole note automatically equaled one measure regardless of time signature. However, there does appear to be more than one person who believes this. On a comment to this question, Matthew Read states:

Personally I would use a whole rest, which ought to be understood thanks to the fact that it is already variable (used to represent the length of a bar irrespective of the time signature in most cases), but I don't think that's common practice.

Now my biggest issue with this idea stems more from a logical standpoint than a musical standpoint since most of the other notes/rests are defined as a fraction of the whole note. For example, the half note is generally defined as half a whole note:

half note
noun, Music.

1. a note equivalent in time value to one half of a whole note; minim.
Dictionary.com

half note
noun
a musical note equal in time to ½ of a whole note
Merriam-Webster

Half note
In music, a half note (American) or minim (British) is a note played for half the duration of a whole note (or semibreve) and twice the duration of a quarter note (or crotchet).
Wikipedia

Now for example in 2/4 time that would somehow make all of the following true:

1. The half note is equal to a full measure
2. The whole note is equal to a full measure
3. The half note is equal to 1/2 of the whole note (even though they are both equal to a full measure).

So my question is: Is the whole note/rest really used as a note of variable length? If so, how common of a practice is it and how could this possibly be justified?

NOTE: I specifically mention notes in the question, but I am asking about the standpoint on both notes and rests since I normally think of individual rests as having a specific note that they are equal to in terms of length (if this is an incorrect way of thinking please correct me).

• The note, no. The rest, yes. (If I were allowed to speculate why, it's probably to do with the fact that people are more willing to spend a bit of effort getting the detailed notation right for something that sounds than for something that doesn't.) Jun 12, 2015 at 15:23
• Interesting. So you are saying it is an accepted practice that applies only to the rest? Jun 12, 2015 at 15:41
• Well, yes. Absolutely. Look at any relevant music score - for instance. the beginning of Beethoven's 8th. The first page is crawling with whole rests that are actually 3/4 rests. Jun 12, 2015 at 15:45
• This is the most usual practice (I've sometimes seen dotted whole rests in 3/2 time, especially with dotted whole notes running around), and yes, it does apply only to the whole rest. @KilianFoth: in my speculation, a whole rest just means ignore that measure in that staff. Much easier to read than having different sorts of rests that would add up to the same thing. Jun 20, 2015 at 5:51
• @KilianFoth various notes were however used to specify different periods of time in mensural notation. Jul 6, 2020 at 20:21

The other answers are using terminology which is common, but confusing. I think it's better to realize there are two different things here.

1. A whole-bar rest. This is always the same symbol whatever the length of the bar, and it is always positioned horizontally in the middle of the bar.

2. A whole-note rest. This has the same length as a whole-note. and is positioned horizontally in the same place as the note would be written, just like any other rest.

The apparent confusion comes from the fact that both 1 and 2 use the same symbol (but written in different places horizontally), and also that whole-note rests are very rare, because the only "common" time signatures where a bar is longer than a whole note are 3/2 and 4/2, and those have not been used much since about 1800.

Really, this is no more confusing that writing a dot after a note to add a half to its duration, and writing a dot above or below a note to shorten it (staccato). The same symbol means different things, depending on where it is written.

• One caveat -- a whole-bar rest is always positioned in the middle of the bar in good modern typesetting. If you play from 19th c. or earlier scores, you will often find no distinction made in the positioning of whole-note rests and whole-bar rests. Nov 30, 2015 at 16:46
• @MichaelScottAsatoCuthbert but this would only be a problem for bars that are longer than a whole note but shorter than two whole notes (e.g., 3/2) because at 4/2 or longer they should start using breve rests for the whole-bar rest instead of semibreve rests. Sep 22, 2023 at 20:12
• @phoog -- You're right that it only causes a visual problem in those cases, but when a performer is used to reading modern scores, seeing a whole rest at the beginning of the bar in 3/4 in an old edition can throw them off temporarily. Sep 24, 2023 at 10:27

Semibreve (whole note) rests are always used as measure rests, except occasionally for time signatures like 4/2, where a breve rest might be used instead. It's actually pretty simple: you know how many beats are in a given measure, so getting finicky about the actual time interval is a bit of a waste of energy when that voice isn't playing anything anyway. In most cases, a semibreve is greater than or equal to an entire measure, so a semibreve rest tells you quite succinctly that you've got an empty measure.

I would not use a semibreve rest to complete a measure - Matthew's comment that it might not be common practice is entirely correct. The rests that fill out the rest of the measure need to fill it exactly. In situations (like 4/2) where a semibreve is a division of the measure, semibreve rests will then be used according to their exact metric value.

I might add that this really is the conventional notation, and has been for centuries now.

Edit: you will not fill a measure with a semibreve note, however, except where the metre warrants it, i.e., 4/4, 2/2. If you have a note that holds for an entire measure of 3/4, for instance, you will use a dotted minim (half note). It is only for measure rests that the semibreve value carries the extra signification.

• I assume that convention is somewhat based on the "old system for notating multirests" found on wikipedia en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rest_(music)? Jun 12, 2015 at 16:04
• Actually, I expect so. The "old system" goes back quite a ways, to mensural notation. Longa and maxima rests had two ways of being notated, depending on whether they represented 2 beats or 3 beats, and semibreves functioned very much like quavers (eighth notes) do now. Semibreves being such a small unit, they didn't have multiple forms of rest, but as time progressed, music saw smaller and smaller subdivisions, and the unit of beat became smaller and smaller to match. See en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mensural_notation.
– user16935
Jun 12, 2015 at 16:15
• Do you know if this is still an accepted practice? I would have thought that by now they would have gone towards something that doesn't also have another meaning... If it were me I would probably vote just to use a multimeasure rest (if I'm choosing not to use the rests that correspond to the correct number of beats in the measure)... Jun 12, 2015 at 16:30
• Multi-measure rests now mainly take the form of the wide rest with the number of measures over it. Single measure rests, however, are still semibreve rests. That's in part because they still see use in polyphonic music where one voice in a stave might be active while another rests (i.e., multiple voices in one stave - this is still very common in keyboard music). Semibreve rests are very tidy in these situations.
– user16935
Jun 12, 2015 at 16:58
• Occasionally, mind you, you will see a multi-measure rest with a "1" over it in piano music when there is a measure of silence in all voices. I think (I can't say for sure) that this is more common with French publishing houses. I saw such a score the other day, but I'll be damned if I can remember which piece of music it was.
– user16935
Jun 12, 2015 at 17:08

Semibreve rest symbols centered in a bar are commonly used as whole-bar rest. The equivalent of bordun notes that fill a bar with syllables in comparatively free meter (Monteverdi's Vespers contains quite a few prominent examples) is also notated in mid-bar but uses a brevis note (a double whole note), not a semibrevis (whole note). This kind of notation has gone out of fashion since, so the discrepancy between whole bar rests and whole bar notes in their choice of symbol is rare to encounter these days.

The whole note symbol is generally used for whole bar rests written horizontally centered in the bar regardless of bar length (exception: 4/2 and similar meters that could cause confusion).

There is a similar centered note used for filling a whole bar with text (cf the falsoborduno recitatives in the "Dixit Dominus" of Monteverdi's vespers) on the same pitch, but the note glyph being used for that purpose is a brevis (nominally double the length of a whole note, a semibrevis).

This use is exceptional, however, as opposed to whole-bar rests which are ubiquitous.

• Are you the same person as user70671? Sep 22, 2023 at 20:15
• You wrote: QUOTE: (exception: 4/2 and similar meters that could cause confusion). UNQUOTE No I disagree. The rest is placed in the middle of the bar. That makes it clear that it is a whole bar rest. Sep 29, 2023 at 20:11

This is a very common misconception due to how the notes are named. All notes take up a very specific length of a measure as defined by the time signature.

In the most common time signature 4/4, which is also refereed to as common time, a whole note and rest both take the value of 4 quarter notes so it takes up the whole measure in 4/4. The half note and rest both take the value of 2 quarter notes so it takes up half of the measure. The quarter note take the value of 1 quarter note and rest both so it takes up a quarter of the measure. This pattern continues in both directions as there are even values bigger then a whole note like the double whole note shown below.

So the naming scheme is build around 4/4 and it works perfectly there and makes sense, however when using it with other time signatures conceptual problems can arise and informally people will use a whole note rest for a whole measure. Just looking at the measure you can tell that you rest for the whole measure, but theoretically it is incorrect and should be avoided.

• It is not entirely clear whether you are talking about notes or rests: if notes, then you are right. But if rests, then you are wrong. The semibreve, or "whole-note" rest is the standard notation used for a rest for the whole duration of a bar. So I marked you down, but if you like to edit so it is clear you are only talking about notes, we could mark you up again. Jun 16, 2015 at 14:51
• @BrianChandler Theoretically, both rests and notes always the same duration. Informally a whole rest can mean rest for a whole measure just like if were to write u instead of you people would understand what's going on, but it does not mean it's the right thing to put which is what I say in the last paragraph.
– Dom
Jun 16, 2015 at 15:10
• The very last sentence of your answer says: "Theoretically it is incorrect..." This is your opinion, which you are intitled to, but you have several hundred years worth of accepted practice to argue with. Probably readers want to know the standard way music is written, not the way Dom thinks it ought to be written. Have you tried checking any standard reference works on this? Jun 17, 2015 at 3:55
• I wouldn't characterize as informal the use of a whole rest to mean rest for an entire measure, since at least 99% of all formal music notation uses it this way. Furthermore, I wouldn't avoid it either. It is far and away the most readable notation. Jun 20, 2015 at 5:56