I'm transcribing a piano passage in 5/4 time here, and I think I'm doing well so far. sheet music snippet

I find myself mildly annoyed by having to notate the chords that span the whole measure (first in right hand, then in the left for the last two measures of the passage), with a whole note + a quarter note, tied together. It looks a bit unwieldy to me.

Now, I know you can use a whole rest to signify any fully empty measure, no matter the time signature. Can you do the same with whole notes? Will I be understood if I use whole notes for these chords, without an attached fourth note? Do real composers or engravers do that?

  • 1
    I can't find any proof to support it but I am sure I have seen and heard of a breve/double whole note being used to denote duration equal to the length of the bar (regardless of time signature, similar to multi-bar rest notation)
    – lioness99a
    Commented Mar 17, 2020 at 8:59
  • 1
    To be really unambiguous about a triplet, you can write "3:2" above a group of notes, instead of just "3". This generalises, so you can write "4:5" above a whole note to make it last 5 quarter notes. In theory, anyway. Commented Mar 18, 2020 at 9:08
  • 1
    I actually find your notation method slightly confusing. 5⁄4 notation is usually either 3 + 2 or 2 + 3. Bar 73 and 75 implies that in this case it is the latter, 2 + 3. Therefore, a better notation would reflect the pulse of the bar, as per Schultz’s answer below. You should use tied half notes and dotted half notes in the order required by the bar’s pulse.
    – Canned Man
    Commented Dec 8, 2022 at 10:23

8 Answers 8


You're correct that a whole rest is used for this purpose, but I've never seen actual note values used in that way. The whole+quarter construct seems to me the smart way to go.

This is especially important when multiple voices occupy a single staff; in such a case, using a whole note only would lead to certain confusion on the part of the performer as to what was intended.

I guess you could, at the start of your score, create a special notehead with a clarification that it is equivalent to a whole+quarter. But that seems overkill; I've seen plenty of 5/4 pieces with the whole+quarter (or half+dotted-half) construct.

  • 35
    Might make a little more sense to count the tied notes to co-incide with the underlying rhythm. If it's 123 12, then a dotted minim followed by a minim is what I'd write. A count of 4 and 1 seems quite weird.
    – Tim
    Commented Mar 16, 2020 at 20:18
  • 1
    @Tim: Yeah, it'd be analogous to writing a full-measure note in 6/8 time with a half note tied to a quarter note (if you somehow forgot that dotted half notes exist.) Commented Mar 18, 2020 at 12:54

I would like to add a detail to Richard's answer. The bars sometimes has a 3+2 rhythm and other times a 2+3 rhythm. You could notate the long held chords in synchronization with that. So when it is 3+2 the chords can be notated with a dotted halfnote tied to a halfnote, and when it is 2+3 a halfnote tied to a dotted halfnote. Try it out and decide whether you like it better that way or not.

  • Hard for me to judge which one it is, when I'm transcribing someone else's performance :) I think 4+1 can be interpreted as "agnostic" of the subdivision of the compound measure?
    – KeizerHarm
    Commented Mar 16, 2020 at 20:21
  • 7
    @KeizerHarm - I generally meet 3+2, or 2+3. 4+1 is a strange concoction.
    – Tim
    Commented Mar 16, 2020 at 20:23
  • 2
    @KeizerHarm 3+2 or 2+3 is the standard approach.
    – phoog
    Commented Mar 17, 2020 at 7:25
  • 7
    I think it is somewhat more common in pop music to have a 5/4 or 7/4 that doesn't follow the "traditional" rhythmic groupings but is more like a "standard" 4/4 pop beat just with one beat added or taken away. In such cases, notating as 4+1 or 4+3, respectively would make sense, I guess. Genesis' Turn It On Again is an extreme example of either 13/4 or 6/4+7/4 depending on how you look at it, where the keyboard and guitars play a 6/4 + 7/4 chord progression, whereas the drums play a straight 4/4 with just one duplicated snare hit at the end of every third bar, thus making it 4/4+4/4+4/4+1/4. Commented Mar 17, 2020 at 8:29
  • @JörgWMittag The usual significance I get from a notation of M+N beats is it tells me there is a downbeat on the first of M beats and then on the first of N beats. So 4+1 tells me the first and last beats are both downbeats. Is that what you meant?
    – David K
    Commented Mar 18, 2020 at 4:37

In chanted music there are two notations for "notes held as long as you need to." One is to put vertical bars on either side of the whole note, as shown here


Another is to use the double whole note as shown here



"Whole notes" are four beat notes, "whole" or expressing one whole measure if you are in a time signature whose "fractional expression" (reading a time signature like it was a regular fraction) equals one (four quarter notes or one whole note, hence the name). So, 4/4 time or 2/2 or but not 3/4 or 2/4 or 6/8 or 5/4.

"Whole" is a little unfortunate. "Compared to what?" "Compared to a semi-arbitrary but-you-have-to-start-with-some-standard of reference 4/4 measure in which One measure equals Four quarter notes in a . . . you got it, in a 4/4 measure.

A half note does not cover half a 3/4 measure. It's two beats out of a three beat measure. I'm saying this by way of analogy for why you can't (aren't supposed to, would be misunderstood) use a "whole note" for a whole five-beat measure in a song or piece which is, at least part of the way, in 5/4. (Like the chorus of "White Room" by Cream. I mean the "bolero" drums.)

In a 5/4 measure, you clever beat changing musician, you write "whole note, ligature, quarter note," to express the whole five beats of a 5/4 measure. That's if you are really holding the note or chord for "the five."

There's are no standard "fill the space, whatever size" notations in simple, everyday western musical notation from the so called common practice period of euro-anglo-western music . . . or especially standard western music notation, although in orchestral scores there is a way to say "silent throughout" with a "whole measure rest," regardless of whether the measures are 4/4, 8/4, 12/4 or more.

Don't worry, when your musicians will see "whole note, ligature, quarter note," they will know that the bendy arch connecting the whole note and quarter note are meant to be played as one five-beat note, not a separate four beat note followed by a distinct one beat note. If they are alert, they will see the 5/4 signature and expect some unusual combinations of notational values, and so will be counting, and discover that, yes, four plus one equals five, just as you intended.

Hey! I didn't even see the score until just now, and you got it exactly right! Whole note, ligature, quarter note. Like saying, "FI-I-I-I-IVE" "FI-I-I-I-IVE" etc. where each syllable or I is a beat. The beats are felt, but not expressed.

But I strongly disagree, if I may, with what was said about writing a 3-2 sometimes and a 2-3 other times. If a " 'whole-in-quotation marks " five-beat note is really just that, it should be written the same way each time. If there are "inners rhythms" then the rhythm instruments should have their syncopation expressed. If the beat changes, these cats read and play and change the beat. But a five-beat note is a five-beat noter and you will make your session musicians ask themselves, "is this five beat note different from the other? If so, how?" You don't need to have phantom rhythms expressed inside real, solid five-beat "whole plus one" notes.

You, or the rhythm notation or the rhythm players will "cue" your whole-measure guys about the inner subtleties, and if they can swing at all they will feel your swing. They will feel it, their sheet music does not need to have "special swing encoding." At least, not for the whole-plus one notes -- if that is really what they are meant to play. "Feel" comes from somewhere else.

So, yes (I belatedly read) it IS unwieldy to use ligatures for odd-valued long notes. Maybe our notation could and should better reflect that, and maybe some Indian (from India) or Iraqi (they have a ten-beat rhythm that goes 2-3 3-2 and I think is meant to drive you crazy) -- maybe some other notational systems express longer rhythmic patterns better than ours. Our system is descended from a "church" mode in which a standard, chantable long measure used something like our whole note, half note, quarter notes, and then triplets, so, like, a 12/8 pattern or something like it.

When some secular composers borrowed unusual time signatures from traditional folk dances, they found a way to make beats and measures more or less any size and shape they needed. But the "legacy" is that a whole note means four beats, not "A measure of whatever size."

To quote your post:

Can you do the same with whole notes? Will I be understood if I use whole notes for these chords, without an attached fourth note?

No, you are not supposed to do that, and no, you will be misunderstood. The "best practice" is to consistently stay with four-one ligatures, knowing that by four plus one all you really mean is five.

The awkwardness actually has one benefit. It looks unusual, and it will remind whoever is playing, "Hey, wake up, remember, this is in FI-I-I-I-IVE" ! Odd notes for odd music.


For the sake of clarity, I would recommend: minim + dotted minim. Especially if you consider the rhythmic quality of br 73,75 and 77


There is a notational curiosity in Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition (composed in 1874) in the last (5/4) measure of the Promenade before N.7 "Limoges." I've found three different notations, with six, five, and four beats in the upper staff:

(1) Manuscript:

enter image description hereenter image description here

(2) A reprint of the First Edition keeps the doted half:

enter image description here

(3) The notation was later corrected to what is generally printed. A 1914 London edition:

enter image description here

(4) The Kalmus reprint of the Complete Works:

enter image description here

(5) The Henle edition (1992):

enter image description here

(6) My 1952 International Music Company edition (which boasts "Authentic Edition") screws things up again here. The last measure (still governed by the 5/4) has just an undotted whole note with a fermata. On the plus side, it does have black and white reproductions of the pictures.

Note the confusion in sources (2) and (3) in assigning quarter- or eighth-note flags to the F and A in the r.h. of the 2nd and 4th beats of the 6/4 measure. Source (6) has the same flagging as (2).

The "kosher" notation with a tied quarter after the fermata does make you smile from the performer's view. It would appear that Mussorgsky's thought the dot was OK in 5/4. Perhaps you could make a case that the dot is correct and the last measure was meant to revert to 6/4; however, leaving out the time signature seems like a bigger oversight than the imprecise dot. It's a moot but curious point because of the fermata. The piece wasn't published until after Mussorgsky's death. Snippet (5) is from the publisher's website; all others are from sources available at IMSLP.

  • 2
    Please refrain from constant edits to a post. Edits are fine, but try to do as many as you can at once. Over 20 edits in 24 hours is a bit much.
    – Dom
    Commented Dec 8, 2022 at 17:07

Just thought of another idea. A whole note with a following dot (sorry, I grew up around musicians but never went to School for Serious Musos, so I call them "dots") -- a following dot means "plus one half again." So, Whole note, four beats, plus dot adding two beats equals six beats.

Maybe a dot after the other dot could be accepted or explained to mean "the second dot means make the first dot only half as much longer." So, conceivably, a double dot of this sort could mean, "Four plus Half of Two, or One," or "This means Five."

But you'd have to explain it and I think I've just shown why the standard notation with all its drawbacks is the one to use -- for Mutual Intelligibility.


peace to each and all.

<{: )}>

  • 9
    The double dot is already in use and it's add half as much again, so, a whole double-dot note means 7 beats (4+2+1). A double-dotted quarter is 1 3/4 beats.
    – Don Hosek
    Commented Mar 17, 2020 at 18:40

The whole bar rest is not a normal whole note rest: the whole bar rest is positioned in the middle of the bar.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.