I've always written the whole note rest on the 4th line of the staff and the half note rest on the 3rd. I always see it that way and never thought much about it until recently a musician with a lot more experience than me wrote them on different lines and when I pointed it out that person said that it didn't matter and they could just be written on any line.

I was left wondering if this was true or not. Personally I see no reason to write them anywhere else, since I think it would be pointless and maybe confusing. I'm asking about the correct notation. Do these rests belong on specific lines or not?

3 Answers 3


Yes, whole and half rests should always be pointing into the third space on the staff. As Dr Mayhem notes, it's standardized for ease of reading. They don't mean anything different if you place them elsewhere, but there's no point in moving them elsewhere unless you want to confuse people. Your experienced acquaintance should recognize that it takes no extra effort to draw them in the right place!

I would expect to have been docked marks on my theory exams had I drawn rests on the wrong lines. All notation is arbitrary, of course, but if placement doesn't matter then why not draw the note stems on the left side of the note instead of the right? And so on. Conventions exist to enable and enhance communication, and I see no reason to forgo them when the alternatives offer no benefit.

As noted in the comments, multiple voicings are one good reason to adjust the position of rests.

  • 7
    Note that multiple voices on the same staff can become an exception to the general rule of where to place the whole and half rests; in those cases, you would essentially place them for clarity. Realistically, you would not likely be using a whole rest in that context, though. And, yes, as a theory instructor, I deducted points for nonstandard notation.
    – Andrew
    Oct 31, 2011 at 16:05
  • Indeed, I'm all for exceptions when they make things better!
    – user28
    Oct 31, 2011 at 16:14
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    Sometimes you can see these rests even outside of the staff. They look like short top hats.
    – Gauthier
    Nov 4, 2011 at 12:07

The rests belong on specific lines to conform to the standards that most sight-readers would expect, but to expand on the case of different voices on a staff...

If you are asking one of the two parts on a staff to drop out for a few measures (rather than to be in unison with the other part), it's normal to indicate this by having whole bar rests either higher than the notes of the other part (part 1 drops out) or lower (part 2 drops out).

I often come across this in vocal scores where you have either soprano and alto or tenor and bass on one staff, and in orchestral conductor's scores where multiple players (such as flute 1 and 2) share a staff.

  • Hey! In the situation I was in it was a sigle voice, but thank you for mentioning a case where it does make sense, since I hadn't thought of that and it might be interesting to somebody else in the future. Wish I could merge this with @Matthew's answer!!
    – Lilitu88
    Nov 6, 2011 at 19:53
  • For cases where a voice drops out for many measures, it may be better to simply have a notation "Altos only" or "Soprano tacet until measure 37", but if voices are entering and leaving frequently, using rests is often clearer.
    – supercat
    Jun 15, 2013 at 21:59

It's not really going to matter where they are written, as they have no note associated, however if I was sight reading a fast piece I would want them to be in the standard place to speed up my reading and hopefully prevent confusion.

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    Notational conventions do exist; certainly the meaning would not change, but if there is no reason (like multiple voices per staff) to change the convention, one should not do so. In that sense, it does matter where the rests are written, and it is at least technically incorrect to do otherwise.
    – Andrew
    Oct 31, 2011 at 16:08

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