I am new to piano and just downloaded this book, it seems simple enough for a beginner like me but there is a symbol that I don't really understand, a fermata.

Googling I see I am supposed to hold that note sometimes as long as double the original note's value, but as you can see below, that's already a whole note, how can I hold it that long? Won't the note go automatically silent before that?

Basically, I think my question is, how do I get that much sustain?

Beethoven's Fifth

  • There's an infinite debate about how music can actually be considered as a form of language (as in communication). Still, the common analogy, also used for music education, passes through voice expression. A "fermata" is similar to a "dramatic pause", but, instead of having an actual silence (a rest), you just keep the "sound of your voice" for a longer time to increase its "dramatic effect". Imagine the initial notes of the symphony as the phrase "Just tell me why?"; then imagine you want to emphasize the question, making the "why" much longer. How long would you make that "why" last? Commented Nov 27, 2023 at 3:48

5 Answers 5


To answer the parts of your question specific to the piano, it's entirely acceptable to allow the sound to die away. Silence is a part of music too, or we wouldn't have rests. One way to get more sustain, though, is to use a concert grand piano. (I'm being a bit facetious, of course--I don't have $50,000+ kicking around and you probably don't either--but it's still true. The longer, heavier strings vibrate longer when struck.)

A little more about rests, since the ideas are related. Once back in college, I was playing something by Mozart. As I recall, there was a passage of running sixteenth notes in the right hand, and notes and chords in the left that were all eighth notes followed by eighth rests. I wasn't paying attention to those rests, nearly turning the eighth notes into quarter notes and making the rests very short. My teacher stopped me and said that Mozart once wrote that the rests in his music were as important as the notes. When I started paying attention to them, the music entirely changed. For the better, I might add.

So, there's nothing wrong with letting everyone wonder when the next note is coming for a bit.

Here are two performances of Beethoven's Op. 90 Sonata. The first one (Ashkenazy) has the music to follow along with. Have a look at the first fermata in the opening passage. You'll notice that in both performances the note the fermata is on has pretty much died away before the next note is played, so it seems clear that neither performer shares your concern about that. You'll also notice a second fermata a little further on, which is on a rest. This is very common too; "portentous silence" is very much a part of music.

Now, the second performer (Goode) uses a considerably faster tempo, and Goode holds the fermatas relatively longer than Ashkenazy does. Both versions work well, so it's also clear that how long you hold a fermata is a matter of art rather than rule. So, use your intuition and don't worry much about whether you're doing it correctly. Rather, pay attention to whether or not you like what you're doing. If you don't, then experiment until you do.


You hold a fermata until it stops crying. Or rather, until you have the attention of the audience and before you lose it again. In a room with reverbation, you stop until the onset of a p will overcome the remaining reverb of an ff. There is a fresh start after a fermata, and you should make it appear like that. With a sustaining instrument like an organ, the pause after a fermata may be more important than actually prolonging the note itself: there is more or less a caesura implied after a fermata (and even after a fermata at the end it is good taste to leave a pause before clapping, if only to make sure that it's indeed the final fermata).

With a percussive instrument like the piano, things are a bit more tricky since you don't want to have the note appear cut short: it's an ending note. If the piano player is getting riled up over the drapes' tasteless color and leaves in a huff, leaving after a fermata would be the right point.

The usual technical advice is to make a fermata note double its original length; of course that is untenable if multiple voices have a simultaneous fermata on notes of different lengths (which means that all notes end at the same time).


Fermatas do not have a specific length. You would just hold the note longer than the value for effect typically at the discretion of the performer or conductor based on what kind of effect you want.

For this specific piece, the tempo is pretty fast so any piano should be able to sustain it easily and the piece is well known enough that you can listen to how long others hold the fermata to get an idea of how long it is held.


Basically, I think my question is, how do I get that much sustain?

Well, you don't really. It depends on the piano, but since it is not a sustained instrument, such as winds or strings, the sound will die away. The only thing you can act on is the timing, which brings me to a point which seems greatly overlooked in the other answers, that is of the musicality, or intention of the fermata.

Googling I see I am supposed to hold that note sometimes as long as double the original note's value

This misses the point. A fermata is a moment, your moment as an performer, to actually perform music, and make it speak. Beethoven's fifth opening is a musical monument, has a dramatic opening, and deserves to be played in a dramatic way. How to describe dramatic? Well, that is hard to say for sure, but if you keep the tempo throughout the fermata, you are almost certainly doing it wrong.

Fermatas should make the listener lose the sense of the tempo.

Composers like Beethoven are pretty good, and have a very good understanding of how to write music. If they meant a measured note, they'd write it as such. But they don't, they write a fermata, so that it is not measured.

A fermata is the moment at the end of Tristan und Isolde where Isolde cries her death, and makes everyone feel her sadness. It's the moment at the beginning of beethoven's fifth where you can feel the sorrow of life.

Feelings are rarely metrically computed, and fermatas should not be thought of in therms of how long we should hold them, but more of what are we actually trying to make our listeners feel.


Beethoven wrote this:

Opening of Beethoven's Symphony No. 5 in C minor, Op. 67. Showing the "da-da-da-dum" melody/rhythm, with fermatas on the "dum".

So a piano version should at least be this:

Piano transcription of the "Da-da-da-dum" melody with the two hands playing in octaves.  There is an indication to pedal and hold the "dum" until the end of the measure.

Yes, the orchestra sustains, the piano has a percussive attack then an immediate decrease in sound. You COULD do this:

As previous image, but with a tremolo alternating between the octaves on the "dum".

Probably not necessary. Our ears accept the convention that piano notes sustain, even though in strict acoustic terms every note is a sfz dim. The sustain pedal will add richness to the held notes too.

How long to hold the fermata? Up to you. Are the first two phrases separate, monumental declarations? Or are they the opening statements of an impassioned speech, ever pushing ahead? Different orchestra conductors have different ideas. Your feeling is valid too. Just don't fall into the trap of thinking 'This is SO well-known, I must do something quirky with it'.

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