When writing in 4/4, it's taught that the location of beat 3 should always be clear. However, it seems that the actual practice is that it is acceptable to have a half note on beat 2, instead of a pair of tied quarter notes on beats 2 and 3.

Test 12

In the example, the top line uses half notes wherever it pleases, and the bottom line is strict about showing beat 3. Why is it that some measures have the top line look fine and the bottom look overly fussy but other measures have the top line looking clearly incorrect?

  • The top line is the correct one. The bottom line only has a plethora of unnecessary ties.
    – Neil Meyer
    Sep 5, 2016 at 10:24
  • 10
    @NeilMeyer the sixth bar of the top line is not correct by ANY conventional definition of "correct", and the third bar is marginal. In the context given I would not call the third bar correct, but if there were a number of bars with the same rhythm it might be acceptable. FWIW in the bottom line, the 6th bar would be better starting with an 8th and a dotted quarter tied to an 8th.
    – user19146
    Sep 5, 2016 at 12:15

3 Answers 3


Consider the notes breaking down like this:

Note subdivision breakdown

A regular, non-dotted note should only span the duration of its children, or its child and immediate nephew. So a quarter note can land squarely on a beat, or can span the 2nd and 3rd or 6th and 7th eighth notes. It cannot span the 4th and 5th, or anything weird at the 16th note level.

A dotted note should only take up the first or last 3/4 of its parent. So a dotted half can start on beat 1 or 2, but not on the upbeat of 1.

In your picture, everything in the top staff is correct except for measure 6, which has a half note violating these rules. Double-dotted notes are questionable but generally acceptable, especially within a beat (a double-dotted 8th beamed with the 32nd completing the beat).

Measures 1 and 2 are fine either way (I prefer the half notes but not strongly), but I would personally prefer the dotted notes in measures 4 and 5. I prefer the bottom staff for measure 3 in this case. For measure 6, I would prefer the bottom to use a dotted quarter for the first two tied notes.

  • Do you think all double-dotted notes are suspect, or just half notes with double dots that are problematic?
    – cjm
    Sep 5, 2016 at 4:43
  • 2
    Is there a reference source from which fig. 8 is taken? Is it the same or a different reference source that covers this idea of "spanning its children or its child and immediate nephew" idea?
    – Dave
    Sep 5, 2016 at 21:17

It very much depends on the style and period of the music. Renaissance polyphony does not even split into tied notes when they would otherwise cross a bar line. For that reason, it is customary to use bar lines only between staves in choral music from that period. And if a theme is repeated with a shift of some strange half-beats, the whole point of that polyphony is that the execution "rests in itself" rather than having its accents tied to its position within the global meter.

Now contrast that with music in the jazz/swing genre where eights in the first half of a beat are actually longer than the ones in the second half (usually twice as long): here the position with respect to the meter is quite important to how long the nominal note spans actually end up. And the central meter is usually provided by a drummer that does more than just beat a big drum on central measure points.

So the music is much more tied to the central rhythm, syncopation does not just mean a generally shifted timing but a whole different execution.

And in those genres, splitting notes into tied notes over "unnatural" points is done excessively, sometimes too much for my taste.

Stuff like music theatre will usually do this similarly. Classical music is a lot less like that (with orchestra music tending to split more than ensemble music), Baroque tends to do it sparingly and Renaissance not at all.

  • In your 2nd para. are you talking about a triplet feel? If so, how does that relate to tied notes across the middle of a bar (between beats 2 and 3)?
    – Tim
    Sep 5, 2016 at 7:31

All the notation books I've looked at only like the lower line. I examined lots of Latin music (mostly tangos and rumbas and boleros); all notate things like in the lower. The point is that 4/4 seems to strongly imply a binary division of the measure.

Personally, I prefer the notation in the lower line above. It's much easier to read at sight; the beat division is obvious. Where I really found the lower line style was in cases where two instruments (or the treble and bass clefs on a keyboard) had differing oddball notations. Trivial example would be to think of the 4/4 measure divided into 8 half-beats and have the bass clef alternating among 3+3+2 and 1+2+1+2 and 2+2+2+2 divisions and the treble clef alternating among 3+3+2 and 1+2+2+1+2 and others. The lower line style still aligns the half-measure beat division even though the voices do not use this.

I did see one piece in 6/4 by Froeberger (or Frescobaldi) with some funny cross notation involving half notes; the piece was very slow though.

  • I know theory books say you should use the bottom line, but pretty much all actual printed music I encounter is much closer to the top line (with the exception of the penultimate measure)
    – cjm
    Sep 5, 2016 at 3:31

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