I know that the whole note has 4 beats, the half note has 2 beats, the quarter note has 1 beat, the eighth note has 1/2 of a beat, and the sixteenth note has 1/4 of a beat. That's how they explain everywhere. This holds true in a 4/4 time.

What happens in other time signatures? Isn't it misleading to say the whole note has 4 beats? Can a whole note have 3 beats/5 beats/2 beats? What will be the duration of a whole note/half note/quarter note be in other time signatures like 3/4?

  • If a quarter note has 1 beat, then an eighth note will have 1/2 a beat, and a sixteenth note, 1/4 of a beat. All messed up when playing in cut time!
    – Tim
    Commented Feb 2, 2017 at 7:30
  • 4
    We talk about hemidemisemiquavers about as often as you talk about 64th notes. That is, not very often. At least it's a fun name! Anyway, what right does a country which refuses to embrace metric measures have to criticise British note names? :-)
    – Laurence
    Commented Feb 2, 2017 at 23:40
  • "Isn't it misleading to say the whole note has 4 beats?" Yes, it is. It would be more accurate to say that a whole note is two half notes, four quarter notes, or eight eighth notes. However the idea is generally oversimplified to "4 beats", for better or worse, to facilitate initial teaching of rhythm and time signatures (meter).
    – Aaron
    Commented Jan 6, 2021 at 7:30

5 Answers 5


It depends on the meter. In 2/2 meter (alla breve) the whole note is still four quarter notes, but only two beats since a beat then is a half note.

Conversely, in 12/8 meter, a whole note would be 8 beats long but rarely written as such: it would be more common to tie two half notes.

In general, a whole note is 4 quarter notes rather than 4 beats.

  • 6
    In 12/8 meter, the eighth notes are usually grouped per 3. Then the whole note is written as a dotted half note, tied to a quarter note.
    – Rob
    Commented Feb 2, 2017 at 9:58

There is confusion between beats and note lengths.
I have also seen it said that a whole note (or semibreve where I live) is four beats. It is not. It is equal in length to four quarter notes (crotchets), no more and no less.

As far as beats go it depends what the beat is.

  • If the beat is a quarter note then, yes, a whole note is four beats.
  • If the beat is a half note then a whole note is two beats.
  • If the beat is an eighth note then a whole note is eight beats.

The whole note (semibreve) is always four quarter notes (crotchets). This does not change based on the time signature. I can only imagine the confusion if it did!

The term 'whole note' only makes sense in 4/4, or other similar time signatures (common time, 2/2, etc). In these time signatures, the note does take up a whole bar. In other time signatures, it might not take up the entire bar (like 4/2 or 12/8), or it might not fit at all (2/4, 3/4, 6/8). The British naming system system (semibreve/minim/crotchet/quaver/etc) does avoid this issue, in exchange for ridiculous names like hemidemisemiquaver.

My original answer used the term 'beat' as you did in your question, but that seems to be confusing the issue. In 4/4, a beat is pretty much the same as a crotchet. This isn't the case in other time signatures, like 12/8 and 2/2. However, I don't think you're actually intending to talk about such cases. To be clear, a whole note is always four crotchets, but a beat is not always the same as a crotchet. Beat requires a time signature, and to a lesser extent, a tempo (you could argue that a fast 6/8 has two beats, and a slow one has six, with different emphases).

An exception to the rule is the whole note rest. It can be used as a whole bar rest in pretty much any time signature, except in ones where that might be ambiguous, like 4/2. All the other rests and notes always have the same 'duration', regardless of time signature. By 'duration', I mean the ratios of note lengths, as stated in your question. The actual duration (in seconds) of the note will obviously depend on tempo.

  • 3
    in 4/2 the whole note / semi-breve does not make a whole bar's worth of notes. In that time signature, the breve / double whole-note will be a full bar.
    – Neil Meyer
    Commented Feb 2, 2017 at 6:44
  • 2
    You use a breve rest in 4/2 for a complete bar that rest, that is the only exception to the rest rule.
    – Neil Meyer
    Commented Feb 2, 2017 at 6:45
  • @NeilMeyer Using a breve rest for a whole bar in 4/2 is not an "absolute" rule. Some people use a whole-bar rest. Also, strictly speaking a whole bar rest is not the same as a whole note rest. it is the same symbol, but a whole bar rest is always written in the middle of the bar, while a whole note rest is written at the rhythmic position it applies to, just every other type of note and rest except a whole-bar rest. Of course you can only use a whole note rest in time signatures like 3/2 and 4/2, because for the more common time signatures a bar isn't long enough to contain it.
    – user19146
    Commented Feb 2, 2017 at 6:59
  • That's why in US waltz time is referred to as 'three quarter time'.
    – Tim
    Commented Feb 2, 2017 at 7:32
  • @NeilMeyer - a semibreve rest works as a whole bar rest for all time sigs - except, as you say, 4/2. However, 4/2 is pretty uncommon, and it's going to be patently obvious that in the absence of any dots in a bar, showing even a semibreve rest, that the bar is devoid of any sound. That rule has probably outlived its usefulness - except for getting a right answer in a test! However, the OP asks about notes in preference to rests, which are subtly different in their portrayal in a 'whole bar'.
    – Tim
    Commented Feb 2, 2017 at 10:06

The important thing is not how many beats a whole note gets, but the relationship with other notes. For instance, however many beats you give a whole note, a half note gets half as many, a quarter note a quarter as many, and so forth. Depending on the piece of music, it might be convenient to give a whole note four beats, or two or one; or perhaps eight beats.

The British name for the double whole note, "breve", meaning "brief", harks back to a time when the double whole note was the shortest usual note; twice as long as the breve was the longa, and twice as long as that was the maxima.

All just conventions. It's only the ratios that are important.

  • OK, like you said "however many beats you give a whole note, a half note gets half as many, a quarter note a quarter as many, and so forth". So if the whole note has 3 beats then the half note would be 1&1/2 beat , what about the quarter, the eighth and the sixteenth note?? its quite complicated when the whole note has odd number of beats, Isn't it??
    – Indie Rock
    Commented Feb 4, 2017 at 5:47
  • Yes, that would be true, but I've never seen a whole note being given three beats. Commented Feb 4, 2017 at 20:03

No, a whole note doesn't always get 4 beats. 2/2, in which it gets 2 beats, is commonplace. Also other x/2 time signatures with a half-note beat. In 1/1 time a whole note gets 1 beat. Rare, but Borodin does it in his second symphony.

3/4 is either 3-in-a-bar or one-in-a-bar. So a whole note would get either 4 or 1 1/3 counts. Except that it will never happen, because you can't HAVE whole notes in 3/4, there isn't room for one in a measure. More sensible to consider 6/4, which has two dotted-half beats to a measure. It's not inconceivable that a syncopated rhythm could be notated using a whole note. Again, it would get 1 1/3 counts.

I think I'm safe in saying there's no standard key signature in which a whole note would get 3, 5, 7 etc. beats.

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