A dotted whole note tied to an 8th note works efficiently, but it looks kind of weird and doesn't convey the feel of the music. In this instance, the 13/8 is comprised of 3+3+2+2+3, so I tried a dotted half note tied to a half note tied to a dotted quarter note, but it seemed to be over-complicating things. Is there a commonly accepted practice for this type of note or a happy medium that I can use?

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    I'm not sure about specific rules for something that idiosyncratic, but if I were you I'd definitely use the second notation you describe. Depending on how rhythmically active the other parts are, I might even use two dotted quarters, 2 quarters and another dotted quarter. In sight reading situations I would want something to indicate the 3+3+2+2+3 as clearly as possible. Aug 6, 2017 at 20:16
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    Split it so that it follows the rhythm. We don't know if your 3+3+2+2+3 splits into 6+7 or 8+2+3. Split the long note to match whichever is the correct choice. (You can write "7" as a double dotted note, but not "5", which is why I said 8+2+3 not 8+5). 10+3 or 3+10 would also be possible ways to split the rhythm, but probably less likely.
    – user19146
    Aug 6, 2017 at 20:56
  • Isn't it common to use a whole note for a complete measure even when the measure isn't 4/4? Aug 6, 2017 at 22:37
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    @ToddWilcox That's common practice for whole rests, but as far as I'm aware, no such convention exists for whole notes.
    – hopper
    Aug 7, 2017 at 0:17
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    If repeated more times througout the piece, I would adopt using breve notes to denote a 13/8 note lasting a full bar. Especially in Church music, this notation is commonly used to mean "a note lasting as long as necessary".
    – yo'
    Aug 7, 2017 at 11:07

3 Answers 3


Write a whole note. It is fairly standard practice to use a whole note to indicate a bar's length note when the bar length meets or exceeds the length of a bar of 4/4. What's more, even if someone doesn't know that they will very quickly understand the meaning of the absence of rests. 'Yo's answer is functionally identical in this regard except using the breve; in my experience (as a performer who mostly plays jazz and therefore mostly plays 20th century music notated as simply as possible) I have only actually seen the whole note used for this purpose, although I am aware of the usage he describes. Nonetheless, I'd still recommend the whole note because it's just generally more readable, especially by amateurs.

Your only other real option is a tie, I'd say, and that looks silly since you'd have to beam the tie appropriately, meaning you'd need to tie together whatever the largest allowable note for each subunit is (dotted quarter plus dotted quarter plus quarter plus quarter plus dotted quarter). You can't (or shouldn't) use a dotted half note because it implies a unit of six when, in fact, you have two underlying units of three.

  • Well, my argument for not using a full note here is that e.g. in 3/2 or 6/4 time signature, the full note would get two different meanings. On the other hand, you never put a longer note in a bar (unless the piece gets arythmical in the spot), so a breve note can't be mistaken for anything.
    – yo'
    Aug 7, 2017 at 14:34
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    I'm sympathetic to this argument, and I think if I were writing a score I wouldn't use a whole note for this purpose. But I wouldn't use a breve either, since the same logic would apply for larger time signatures; for a score I think the only correct route is ties. If you're making a lead sheet (or something analogous, like separate parts in a less-than-formal setting), I'd go with the whole note.
    – Fugu
    Aug 7, 2017 at 14:39

It depends. In general, the good ways are two:

  1. Use a whole note when possible.
  2. Divide following the rhythm.

The second option can be done, in your case, as 2. 4.. or 4. 2.. 4. or 1 4 4. or so (as mentioned in the comments).

For the first option, there is no standard way as we do not have a single note of duration 13/8. However, the breve note with standard duration 2/1 = 16/8 is used for "undefined" lengths in some church music such as psalmodies. So, if your music contains a clear 13/8 in the same bar in another voice, I would try using a breve note for this. While this is non-standard, it will be the easiest to read, once the player gets familiar with what you mean, check this, for instance:

enter image description here

I would just not do this if it appeared only once or twice in the whole piece.

Note that you need a\breve*13/16 to input the note in LilyPond as the native duration of the note is 2/1 and you need it to be 13/8 = 2/1 * 13/16.

Addendum: I tried various ways of writing out the long notes (e.g. as Laurence Payne suggests in the comments) but I can't say I like it more or consider it more readable; still it could be just me. Some variants are written down below. One thing is that we don't know how is 3+3+2+2+3 grouped in the piece...

enter image description here

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    The breve convention deserves to catch on! But NOT those double-dotted halves. Double dots are fine, in their place. But they no way help a player count his way through that 3+3+2+2+3 structure. Write it the way a conductor would beat it. Aug 7, 2017 at 14:17
  • @LaurencePayne I tried to write it out and IMHO it's not better, but I'm not strong in this, so I offer it as variants now.
    – yo'
    Aug 7, 2017 at 14:32
  • I like the double whole notes for a full bar, but what you have in your last example for a partial bar.
    – MattPutnam
    Aug 7, 2017 at 14:34

Since 13/8 is going to be confusing to anyone reading the music, could you rewrite it with switching meters? Since you mention the feel is 3+3+2+2+3, maybe 6/8, 4/2, 3/8?

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    I think you mean 6/8 4/8 3/8. Another way to write this is 6+4+3 / 8 (which is the sort of thing I am sure I have seen, perhaps in the score of Man of la Mancha). Aug 8, 2017 at 4:32
  • I'm sorry @Spivonious but I disagree with that suggestion on two counts. I'm really not certain that switching time signature every single bar is 'easier' to read that consistent bars of 13/8. Also if the piece is in 13/8, then it's in 13/8, which is a different rhythm than 6/8 4/8 3/8 6/8 4/8 3/8 6/8 4/8 3/8 6/8 4/8 3/8. The reader (and of course more importantly player) will quickly adapt to 13/8. Aug 8, 2017 at 8:45
  • I'm just thinking that's pretty rare for something to actually be in 13; it's usually a repeating pattern of odd meters (in my experience).
    – Spivonious
    Aug 8, 2017 at 12:57
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    Fair enough. Quite a bit of Eastern European music is in all manner of irregular rhythms like 11/8, 13/8 and so forth, so it's not unheard of. Aug 8, 2017 at 14:45
  • Alternating by measure would be possible, but in my experience as a musician, mixed meter bars have been no harder to read than alternating bars of different time signatures. Aug 8, 2017 at 18:13

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