Beginner warning :-)

This is the piano sheet music for Elgar’s Variation, Nimrod.

Please do note: I am currently learning time and key signatures with my theory teacher, but in looking at the music here I can not understand why this rest is required.



6 Answers 6


It prevents the appearance of an overfull measure. Without it, what we see on this staff is a quarter-note chord, a half-note chord, and a quarter-note chord. 1/4 + 1/2 = 3/4, and we're in the time signature 3/4, so the measure should be done already. Then where does that quarter-note chord on the third beat come from?

It comes from another voice, as Todd Wilcox says — a voice that's silent on the second beat. By writing a quarter-rest for that voice on the second beat, and writing it on the staff where it's about to have some notes, we properly set up, in advance, when that chord takes place. Yes, the quarter-note duration already exists on the upper staff, but that's a long long way away. The rest establishes that information locally, on the lower staff, to improve clarity.

  • 8
    This is the correct answer. Todd is correct about there being multiple voices, but the reason for the rest is to prevent the reader from getting confused and thinking the measure is in 4/4.
    – Agargara
    Commented Nov 15, 2017 at 7:15
  • So are you saying in this answer that the voice that plays the quarter note C and Eb in the left hand on the third beat isn’t even notated at all on the first beat? And that the rest therefore “introduces” that voice? Commented Nov 15, 2017 at 12:43
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    I note with amused irony that the rest is "to improve clarity", yet has first prompted this question, and then so much uncertainty/controversy in the answers and comments.
    – user33337
    Commented Nov 15, 2017 at 12:45
  • 1
    @Agargara While this answer may be technically more correct, it's also a bit harder to grasp. Some mention of the opposition of the note stems (i.e. why that's important) would be helpful.
    – jpaugh
    Commented Nov 15, 2017 at 15:36
  • @ToddWilcox No, more like "introduces it to this staff". I agree with you that it's the same voice that has the stem-down quarter notes. I was just trying to avoid duplicating your explanation. I also didn't expect this answer to be nearly so popular :)
    – hobbs
    Commented Nov 16, 2017 at 5:25

The score has three voices. We can call them the "lower voice", "middle voice" and "upper voice". The lower voice is completely notated on the bass clef. The upper voice is completely notated on the treble clef. The middle voice switches back and forth. When the middle voice is in the treble clef, its notes have down stems, and vice versa when the middle voice is in the bass clef.

In the first measure, the middle voice plays the G and Bb quarter notes (crotchets) that are in the treble clef with down stems below middle C. The second beat the middle voice plays the rest that you are asking about. For the third beat the middle voice plays the C below middle C and the Eb just above it, notated on the bass clef with up stems.

A bigger question is where is the middle voice for the first two beats of measure two? And I'm a bit wrong because measure three seems to have four voices in it. Perhaps that's the titular enigma.


On further consideration, I think there are four voices the whole time, and it's just notated in an unclear manner. I think the lower middle voice plays the Eb below middle C that is the top note of the first chord in the bass clef, then the lower middle voice rests for the second beat, and then the third beat is the C and Eb in the bass clef. The upper middle voice is the G and Bb below middle C in the treble clef for the first beat, then the second and third beats are the middle Cs that are the lowest notes of the treble clef chords. Then they proceed from there.

  • 5 voices for bass, maybe? I know it is a little unusual, but if you look at the measure, it starts with a one beat, three note chord. Then there's a two count, three note chord that plays for the rest of the measure, and on the last beat, a two note chord plays. That would require, for the last beat, five notes just for bass clef. Ahdunno, I'm no expert in voicing or arranging. Commented Nov 15, 2017 at 2:32
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    @GeneralNuisance In this case, I don't intend the word "voices" to imply singers or human vocalist. A "voice" in this sense is just a distinct musical line. Commented Nov 15, 2017 at 2:37
  • I'd agree about the voices - almost satb, not quite. However, going along those lines, the first bar shown could be written better, with a rest on beat 1 in 'bass', and a minim rest in 'alto'. otherwise the existing rest really has no more validation than those I just mentioned. Or change direction of some of the stems.
    – Tim
    Commented Nov 15, 2017 at 11:45
  • I like this answer, though I would say there are only two large-sense "voices" for the first two bars, one mostly in the lower staff, and the other mostly in the upper (although individual sub-voices become discernable around the eighth-notes). The <c e-flat> chord in beat 3 does not introduce a new voice, but actually belongs to the <a-flat e-flat f> chord above it; they are part of the same "voice". The only reason it is notated in the bass clef is to indicate it should be played with the LH, necessitating the quarter-rest in question.
    – Gooseberry
    Commented Nov 16, 2017 at 5:13

Though clear, it would be marked wrong in a theory exam. The correct notation would actually be this. Each voice technically needs to show a complete bars worth of beats.

enter image description here

  • 1
    Right. Splitting up the first chord to include both voices would also make it technically correct, while probably looking less jarring. Commented Nov 15, 2017 at 15:57
  • 4
    Modern practice, even in choral music where people sing distinct parts, is to write homophonic groups of notes using stems in a single direction rather than splitting them. The first beat is a quarter note in all "voices", so there's no need to write some parts stem up and some part down, and there's no physical "voice" that needs to be silent for that first beat. If one wanted to write in "theory-correct" notation, I think changing the mid-bar quarter rest to a beat-one half rest (and reversing the stem direction for the beat-one quarter notes) would be clearer than adding your quarter rest.
    – supercat
    Commented Nov 15, 2017 at 16:09

As others have said, there are multiple voices. Pictures are helpful:

Three voices circled

  • 1
    Common practice allows voice splitting and joining within a measure if all notes that are sounding at a given point of the time start simultaneously and have the same duration. I'd read m1b1 of the upper staff as having two voices while m1b1 of the lower staff is homophonic (all voices glommed together). Then m1b2-3 of the upper staff are homophonic while m1b2-3 of the lower staff have two voices.
    – supercat
    Commented Nov 15, 2017 at 19:15
  • @MattPutnam I would see a different voice subdivision. Yours has stems in both directions in the 'lower green' voice. Isn't that a counter-indication to this way of splitting? Commented Nov 16, 2017 at 5:31
  • @MarnixKlooster Yes, but that's only because the lower "voice" is not being emphasized as a voice. Standard stem-direction rules are being applied in the bass except where it "splits" into two voices (notationally, if not functionally speaking).
    – Gooseberry
    Commented Nov 16, 2017 at 5:39

Common practice nowadays is to show all notes that are played simultaneously on a staff using a single stem if they start and end at the same time, and if nothing else will happen on that staff during that time. This is done even in choral music where a staff is shared e.g. between soprano and alto, or between tenor and bass. Notation is only divided into up-stem and down-stem portions at beats where different notes start and end at different times, or when there are distinguishable voices (e.g. sopranos and altos) and some but not all should refrain from singing on that beat.

In beat 2 of measure 1, bass clef, not everything is supposed to sustain a half note, but something else is supposed to happen during that time (i.e. some quarter notes are supposed to play on beat 3). Thus, at beat 2 the bass clef splits into two logical voices, one of which plays half notes, and the other of which rests for a quarter note and then plays quarter notes.

Note that on beat 3 of measure 2, the treble clef actually has three voices, with the middle one playing a quarter note while the outer ones play eighths. The bottom voice is beamed with the eighth note on the second half of beat 3 in the bass clef because doing so avoids having to write an eighth rest for the first half of that beat, and because it makes clear that that note starts at the same time as the quarter note but lasts a different duration.

Had the bass clef not had an eighth note that could be beamed to that note in the treble clef, other ways of notating that measure would be:

  1. Notate the treble clef with homophonic eighth notes including a "d" which is tied to another "d", avoiding the need for quarter notes. This would avoid crossed stems, but such ties can make music hard to read.

  2. Place the "a" on the same stem as the "e" and "g" above. This would avoid the need for ties, but at the expense of crossed stems.

  3. Stack the notes as they are, but use a "flagged" eighth note on beat 3, and add an eighth rest for the second half of that beat.

Compared with the above, the use of the cross-staff eighth-note beam was a reasonable "least of evils" judgment.

  • This answer is most correct. This is common notation for piano music, which indicates voicing only when feasible, logically necessary (as here), and/or helpful as a hint to the performer. There are no discernable "voices" (in a functional sense) in the bass clef as other answers suggest.
    – Gooseberry
    Commented Nov 16, 2017 at 4:46
  • As a performer, I do find the cross-staff stem in b2m3 helpful as an indication of how to resolve that voice in b3m1, apparently to the g in the upper staff, even though I play the f with the LH. However, I don't know why this answer focuses so much on that stem, which wasn't even part of the question.
    – Gooseberry
    Commented Nov 16, 2017 at 4:46
  • (I meant "beam" not "stem".)
    – Gooseberry
    Commented Nov 16, 2017 at 4:57
  • @Gooseberry: In general, a vertically-stacked group of notes can only be treated as homophonic if they all start and end at the same time and nothing else happens in the mean time. Applying the same principle to the second measure as the first would imply that there should be an eighth-note rest in the second measure bass clef, analogous to the quarter rest in the first measure, except that cross-stem beaming provides an alternative way to show that the bass clef eighth note in the second measure starts a half-beat after the last quarter note.
    – supercat
    Commented Nov 16, 2017 at 5:58
  • In Barbershop music scores, each of the four voices has a unique combination of staff and direction. Tenor is treble clef, stems up. Lead is treble clef, stems down, Baritone is bass clef, stems up. Bass is bass clef, stems down. No matter if the voices cross, or how high on the staff they appear. If for example, the baritone and bass have the same note, it will be notated with both a staff up and a staff down.
    – cmm
    Commented Nov 16, 2017 at 22:48

A chord on a staff is executed immediately after the preceding chord, held for its full duration. If the quarter-rest were absent, the (c e-flat) chord at the end of the 1st bar would be played on the 4th beat, instead of the 3rd, as we would infer from its alignment with the chord in the upper staff. The quarter-rest explicitly indicates a splitting of the lower staff into two simultaneous "voices", but only in a notational sense. There is no functional splitting of voices.

At a large scale, I would say the voices act functionally as follows, though individual subvoices become discernable around the eighth-notes:

enter image description here

  • The (vertical) alignment of C/Eb at the end of bar 1 can only mean it is played on beat 3. There cannot be beat 4 as the time sig. is 3/4, so I don't see that the rest indicates much. Also, as the C gets played again at the end, with pedal, it could have been written out better anyway.
    – Tim
    Commented Nov 16, 2017 at 10:34
  • Agreed, but that reasoning permits the removal of ordinary rests as well. For example, suppose the half-note chord were absent. Then, by that reasoning, we could also omit the quarter-rest, leaving a blank space at beat 2, because the alignment of C/Eb can only mean it is played on beat 3. This is valid reasoning, and I wouldn't have any trouble playing such a score, but notation rules require us to make an explicit accounting of all beats within a staff, irrespective of the surrounding context.
    – Gooseberry
    Commented Nov 16, 2017 at 16:44
  • I agree that, as a performer, I would probably not even miss the quarter rest if omitted; the score would be perfectly clear without it. The rest is only present as a general notational rule, just as most English sentences would be perfectly easy to understand without proper punctuation.
    – Gooseberry
    Commented Nov 16, 2017 at 16:49
  • Whilst that is true, then the down stem G and Bb on beat one have no rests for the remainder of that bar. By those rules, the rests ought to be shown, otherwise the stem on G/Bb should be up. Put the 2 A notes into 'alto' position - problem solved ! can't understand why that bar is written as such, it's not in keeping with the subsequent bars. Without punctuation, a lot of sentences could be highly ambiguous...
    – Tim
    Commented Nov 16, 2017 at 16:49
  • @Tim Those rests are not shown because this score indicates "voices" only when notationally/logically necessary. It does not indicate the continuity of voices as they extend over entire phrases. The "voice" in beat 1 of the upper staff, is notational, not functional, and ends on the same beat. This is common in piano music.
    – Gooseberry
    Commented Nov 16, 2017 at 16:55

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