What would be the clearest way to notate this rhythm?

There are multiple ways to represent this; should I clearly represent the beat or use the least amount of rhythm notes as possible? Is this subjective or is there a method to this?

(The time signature is 4/4)

enter image description here

  • Without a bigger context, it's hard to say what is "clearest." The simplest is probably two quarter notes and a half note, assuming that a human performer would have a flexible sense of rhythm, but the version you posted is trying to "micromanage" the notation using computer playback!
    – user19146
    Commented Jul 16, 2017 at 19:25
  • I like it the way you have it and I don't see any reason to change it. Sometimes it's just personal preference exactly how you notate something. Commented Jul 17, 2017 at 2:09
  • @ToddWilcox - written this way is not incorrect, but surely there are several better ways to portray it. An experienced reader would probably understand it (and give it a quizzical look) whereas a beginner/intermediate would struggle, having to count it very carefully. To me, the main object of writing music out is to give others the chance to read and therefore play it for themselves. This example will preclude quite a few from that situation. Still like the old-fashioned 'make sure the bar can split in half in even time sigs'. Given options, why make life difficult instead of easy.
    – Tim
    Commented Jul 17, 2017 at 12:05

3 Answers 3


Is this subjective or is there [a] method to this?

This question gives me another occasion to link to the Jacobs School Music Notation Style Guide, which is a great resource for beginning composers. In particular, here's what they say about notating rhythms:

While there are often multiple ways to beam and group given rhythms, some solutions are easier to read than others. Incorrect rhythmic notation greatly increases the risk of misplayed rhythms, and is one of the “deadliest” errors made by young orchestrators.

Show Me The Beats! It is useful to think of “levels” of metrical hierarchy when notating rhythm. For example, in 4/4 time, events that happen on the half-note level (beats 1 or 3) are one metrical level higher than events on the quarter-note level (beats 2 and 4). One level lower is the eighth-note (events which occur on the “and” of the beat), further divided into the 16th-note level (events which occur on the 2nd or 4th sixteenth note of a quarter-note beat). If a note begins or ends on a level two degrees lower than a beat through which it sustains, the note should be divided, with a tie used to show the higher level beat. Observe the examples below.

enter image description here

In your case, the second note begins on the sixteenth-note level, ends on the eighth-note level, but sustains through the quarter-note level. The third begins on the eighth-note level but sustains through the half-note level. By the above criteria, neither of these are good notation. (The first note, on the other hand, begins on the half-note level and sustains through the eighth-note level, which is just fine.)

  • 5
    I like this answer a lot because it shows that there are objective reasons to keep notes combined and other objective reasons to break them up and tie them, based on which way is easier to read and/or count. Commented Jul 17, 2017 at 2:13
  • This answer proves the point that music ought to be written in a way that can be read most intuitively . +1
    – Tim
    Commented Jul 17, 2017 at 12:11
  • I think the style guide location changed, now at blogs.iu.edu/jsomcomposition/music-notation-style-guide Commented Jan 8, 2021 at 20:31
  • @MichaelCurtis: Edited accordingly. Thanks for the heads-up. Commented Jan 8, 2021 at 20:41

Here is the one that seems the simplest to me:

enter image description here

Generally, when you see something like this, try to break the dotted values into the values they represent, like dotted eighth note equals an eighth and an sixteenth note etc.

As far as 'which way you should choose', it really depends on who you plan to read/play this. The first way (the one you presented) will seem complicated to the not-so-advanced players, whereas the other one I provided you with can easily be read by anyone who knows how to read rhythm.

When you use a lot of dotted notes, like in your example, it's not so easy to see where the beat falls. Compare your example with mine. On the latter you can easily see where each beat is and play it without any difficulty.

  • 3
    It's often easier for anyone to read when the bar is seen to be divided in half, as in your last two examples. Although the second and third examples need the end of the bars looking at.
    – Tim
    Commented Jul 16, 2017 at 19:18
  • 1
    Great, now the second is the better.
    – Tim
    Commented Jul 16, 2017 at 19:23
  • 1
    @ToddWilcox but you are not a beginner musician! You can easily read dotted notes. Not everyone can read many consecutive dotted notes. Commented Jul 17, 2017 at 8:09
  • 5
    Never "hide" a downbeat by having a half-note start on an off-beat. That's a particularly unconventional and unexpected notation. Commented Jul 17, 2017 at 11:17
  • 2
    Since the second example is the easier, for all readers, why would anyone bother writing it any other way...
    – Tim
    Commented Jul 17, 2017 at 12:13

There is indeed a correct, or at least preferred way of writing these syncopated patterns. The rule followed by nearly all written music is to indicate the beats.

Exactly what this means is a bit complicated to explain, but I believe I can simplify it down to a few rules.

  1. When dealing with tied notes, the larger of the notes should always appear where it could normally appear by itself. This means a quarter note is always shown on a down beat. An eighth note is on a down or up beat. And a half note is on 1 or 3 in 4/4 or just 1 in 3/4.

  2. In a duple meter (such as 2/4, 4/4, 2/2), a dotted note should be treated as part of a group with the next smaller un-dotted note. For example, only ♩.♪ and ♪♩. are valid. The smaller note can be tied to another note, however. Two dotted notes of the same duration should never follow one another.

  3. In a triple meter (such as 6/8, 9/8, 12/8), a dotted note always replaces a group containing a multiple of 3 beats. So, in 6/8 time, a dotted quarter note may only appear on beats 1 and 4, and a dotted half note only on beat 1. Notes that replace a multiple of four beats should not be used. So no half notes or whole notes.

  4. In complex meters (such as 5/4, 7/8, 11/8), there must always be a note at the beginning of each grouping. So, if your 5/4 is grouped into 3+2, then you must have a dotted half tied to a half note to indicate a note that fills an entire measure.

There may still be exceptions in this, but I believe I have covered all the cases.

Exception to 3: A duplet may instead be indicated by dotting each of the notes. Two duple eighth notes may instead be written as two dotted eighth notes beamed together.

  • +1! Question about the complex meter. In 5/4 how would you know whether the song groups as 2 + 3 vs 3 + 2, or even 4 + 1? Is the notation supposed to reflect that? Commented Jul 20, 2017 at 5:01
  • Ah, yes. It is harder with 5/4, since quarter notes do not have beams to link them together. The easiest way to tell is if you happen to have a group of smaller notes, like a run of eighth notes. Then the eighth notes will be grouped 4+6 or similar.
    – trlkly
    Commented Jul 23, 2017 at 2:15
  • Of course, this is assuming the piece is properly written. If you're writing down music yourself, you'll just have to try and feel the beat and figure it out. One hint is that, in most measures, there will usually be a note on the first note of the second grouping. And a piece usually keeps the same grouping throughout.
    – trlkly
    Commented Jul 23, 2017 at 2:17
  • I agree with most of this. Re your 1: would you not even allow a note to occupy te middle half of a unit, e.g. { 4 2 4 } in 4/4 or {8 4 8} in 2/4? IME this is commonplace. Your 2.'s last sentence is too strict. A dotted note may follow a dotted note if the former is a Scotch snap: { 8 4. 4. 8 }.
    – Rosie F
    Commented Oct 13, 2019 at 10:37

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