I have seen parenthesis occasionally used in notation and would like to know what they mean. Here are some examples of them I have collected.

Around a note:

Note with parenthesis

Around an Appoggiatura: n

Around a fermata:

Around an accidental:

Around an accidental in a key signature: enter image description here

  • I think it can also be used in duet or multi-voice piano scores, where a note notionally exists, but need not be played, because it is already covered by a coinciding note in another clef. Dec 28, 2015 at 7:02
  • True. I've used it for such in keyboard works myself.
    – user16935
    Dec 28, 2015 at 13:51
  • There are more situations where such a notation might be used. In the real book (jazz & blues standards), there are sometimes repeats, and the note has to be only played the first or the 2nd time. These paranthensis are then often accompanied by a text above, saying "1st only" or "2nd only"
    – Mafii
    Oct 26, 2017 at 7:15
  • What's the first piece?
    – phoog
    Jun 26, 2022 at 21:13

3 Answers 3


They are usually items that are either optional or merely reminders. In many cases, they may represent editorial alternatives (for instance, the editor may not see the parenthetical item as definitive, but some historical sources include it, so the editor presents it as an alternative).

In your first example, the low G is presented as a feasible alternative, and there may be an editorial decision involved as well.

In the second example, the appoggiatura probably is an historical alternative.

In the 3rd example, the fermate are probably the editor's phrasing suggestion.

In the fourth example, the flat above the note is a reminder (a cautionary, really).

In the fifth example, the key signature was probably given for G Dorian, for a piece which is actually more in G minor. Right through to Bach's time, there were remnants of the modal system still seeing use, and actually, in Bach's time, the minor mode was seen as deriving from Dorian (not Aeolian), so the difference between what Bach's contemporaries might call Dorian and what they might call minor was rather small (for this piece, possibly more E naturals showing up than might otherwise be the case).

  • 3
    To sum up this excellent answer, parentheses around notation usually means something not found in the manuscript, or something only found in some versions of the manuscript and not others. @patrx2: your answer for the fifth example is particularly interesting.
    – BobRodes
    Dec 28, 2015 at 9:20
  • 2
    @BobRodes, thank you. The assumption about the mode is a guess, but call it an informed one: the example is a chorale harmonisation ("Was betrübst du dich, mein Herze"), and most of the older chorale tunes are explicitly modal (although not necessarily always harmonised as such by Bach). At least two theorists of the time who saw minor as deriving from Dorian were Campion and Rameau. There were a number of Germans as well - I just can't recall them offhand. This, however, isn't too surprising as the sixth in Dorian was traditionally mutable - both natural and flat forms were used regularly.
    – user16935
    Dec 28, 2015 at 13:49

You don't have an example of this usage, but parentheses (or alternatively brackets) are often used around a note in handbell music that is written for a variable-size choir (for example, the piece is written for either 4 octaves or 5 octaves) to indicate that even though the smaller choir could play the note, it should not, because it is contextualized by notes that the smaller choir cannot play (often when a line is doubled up or down an octave).


Parentheses are used to mean different things in different contexts. You’ve got several varied examples.

The first two examples I would say would be ones of ghost notes. These notes should be barely sounded.

The third example either indicates a performance option, or it ties back into a previous phrase in the piece. It seems superfluous to me.

The fourth example is merely a reminder about the key signature.

The fifth example is surely a modal reference, just as user16935 explained very succinctly.

A sixth example could be when multiple staves overlap, and the same note is played (or already played) by multiple hands at the same time.

  • 1
    My understanding about the use of parentheses in the first 2 examples is that it represents optional notes in both cases. Should the instrumentalist opt to play them, they should be played at regular enough dynamic levels.
    – Dekkadeci
    Oct 26, 2017 at 11:28

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