Breath marks (related to caesurae) often appear in scores for woodwind instruments where it is acceptable to take a breath of air. They are placed in a passage where the phrasing will not be disrupted.

A breath mark will necessarily mean that the note preceding it will have to be played slightly shorter than denoted (much is the same way a grace note will steal some time from the note preceding it).

Breath marks are usually engraved with a comma like symbol placed above the staff.
Alternatively a tick mark like symbol (or even an up bow symbol) is sometimes used instead.

When a breath mark is optional (for a player with a greater lung capacity), the breath mark can be placed in parentheses.

This excerpt from a piece of music (for descant and treble recorders) has be written with both the tick type and the comma type symbols (for breath marks?):

Excerpt from "Dirge", showing tick type and the comma type symbols

Are these different symbols supposed to represent different types of breaths (perhaps one is longer than the other)?

Is the the comma representing something else? (perhaps a breath mark with a fermata/pause?)

Is something else going on?

4 Answers 4


The comma is plainly called "breath mark" and is the most commonly used version in symphonic and vocal music.

The "tick" mark is called luftpause and is of German origin according to Oxford Music Dictionary and Dolmetsch. However, these are the only two references I could find specifically describing "a V mark above the staff." Other websites including Wikipedia use luftpause to describe the comma.

My opinion after reading these sources and the OP's example is that the "v" mark indicates where the musical phrase naturally breaks, and where bowed strings would lift [their bow] as an articulation, but no physical inhale. Whereas the comma is a proper breath mark indicating a full separation of both phrase and wind performance. Neither should affect tempo or the placement of the following downbeat, but the comma should result in a shortened duration and physical inhale.

This usage is supported by the "v" appearing within brackets indicating it is assumed, much like a complimentary accidental.

  • What do you mean by "check mark"? Are you referring to the V-like sign?
    – Rosie F
    Apr 18, 2020 at 14:40
  • @RosieF: it seems safe to assume that; it’s pretty much the symbol usually known as a check-mark in American English
    – PLL
    Apr 18, 2020 at 20:34
  • @PLL This site is used by people outside America, too. That's why I dislike the use of Americanisms except when together with synonyms.
    – Rosie F
    Apr 19, 2020 at 4:34
  • 1
    @RosieF The OP called it a "tick" mark. When I wrote my answer, "tick" became "check" in my head. In British English, the definition of "tick" is "a mark (✓) used to indicate that an item in a list or text is correct or has been chosen, checked, or dealt with; a check mark." Apr 19, 2020 at 18:41
  • Luftpause is literally just the combination of "air" and "rest" so "rest to breath" or in other words just a synonym for a breath mark.
    – haxor789
    Mar 27, 2022 at 23:14

These symbols do indeed have slightly different meanings according to Elaine Gould's Behind Bars - The definitive guide to music notation [p. 436]:

When the time taken to breath is subtracted from the previous note, mark in a tick ✓. Placed in brackets, the tick indicates an optional breath (✓). When the note should be sung for its full duration, with extra time for the breath, add a comma above the stave – this adds a short pause to the bar in which it occurs.

Another source Essential Dictionary of Music Notation by Tom Gerou and Linda Lusk, defines the comma symbol as having two possible meanings [p. 44]

The breath mark (’) has two similar uses:

  • an actual breath indication for instruments (including voice) requiring the breath to sound.
  • a small pause or break (as if taking a breath) for instruments not requiring breath to sound.

A breath mark may or may not interrupt the tempo. If it does interrupt the tempo, the break or pause is shorter than that of a caesura or fermata.

This first definition of Gerou and Lusk corresponds to the meaning of the Gould's tick (and the definition given in the question).

Gerou and Lusk's second definition of the comma matches with Gould's, indicating a short interruption of the meter.

  • Yeah, your claim in the question that "A breath mark will necessarily mean that the note preceding it will have to be played slightly shorter than denoted (much is the same way a grace note will steal some time from the note preceding it)." did not match my experience interpreting apostrophe-shaped breath marks in clarinet music, but it matches this answer of yours instead.
    – Dekkadeci
    Feb 20, 2022 at 16:14

Imagine you were playing that duet on two violins.

You'd probably ignore the tick marks (because breathing isn't integral to your violin phrasing) but you'd heed the comma just before the final bar. The effect is that nice lift you get just before the end of many baroque performances.

So the tick is a technique mark specifically for woodwind/brass instruments and the comma is a stylistic mark observable by all players.

  • 1
    The excerpt in the question is arranged for two recorders. Why would there be instructions/symbols in it for other instruments? Apr 19, 2020 at 9:56

Is the the comma representing something else? (perhaps a breath mark with a fermata/pause?)

The comma is a breath mark:

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In this case (your example) the breath is above a rallentando and so it is altering the tempo.

The tick-sign or v appears in notation for strings or choirs.

This pause usually does not affect the overall tempo. For bowed instruments, it indicates to lift the bow and play the next note with a downward bow.

https://musicterms.artopium.com/b/Breathmark.htm V Theres no difference:

Luftpause: v and comma

A momentary interruption of the metre by silence, often indicated by a comma or ‘V’ above the staff.


  • 1
    How is the comma type breath mark, different to the tick type breath mark? Apr 18, 2020 at 14:51
  • As the V sign looks like nose this means you can breath through the nose. ;) Apr 18, 2020 at 15:03

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