History and meaning of the double whole note or breve
Have you ever seen a whole note with two lines on each side?
If the answer is yes then you’ve come across a double whole note, also known as breve in the British musical terminology, a particular kind of note value which rarely appears in the most recent musical literature.
Historically, the first references to the double whole note or breve are found in the Medieval and Renaissance musical works written using the mensural notation.
The American expression ‘double whole note’ derives from the fact that this note lasts as long as two whole notes; its British counterpart, breve, reminds us of the latin term ‘brevis’, which referred to the shortest of the two notes (longa and brevis) employed within the ancient mensural system.
Therefore, keep in mind that the term ‘breve’ can be misleading if taken literally because it indicates one of the longest note values used in the Western music notation even though the word in itself means ‘brief’.
Now, let’s get back to our historical overview.
At the end of the Baroque period, a new concept of metre and rhythm had almost entirely replaced the mensural system and composers started to ignore those time signatures, such as 4/2, that were functional to the use of the double whole note.
As a result, this peculiar note value became less and less useful in the context of the modern styles of music and was inevitably relegated to play a marginal role in the musical works of the 18th and 19th centuries.
Ok, fine, but what types of symbols have been created for the double whole note and how many beats does it last?
Follow me and I’ll help you find a clear and detailed answer to these and other questions related to one of the least common note values belonging to the modern music theory of the West.
Let’s dive into it!
Symbols and rest
The first question I would like to answer is this:
What does a double whole note look like, or, more technically, what kind of symbol has been assigned to it in musical notation?
Well, there are 3 symbols used to indicate a double whole note:
- a hollow oval note head, almost identical to a whole note, preceded and followed by two vertical lines
- a hollow oval note head preceded and followed by one vertical line
- a rectangular shape nestled between two vertical lines
In a case like this, an image is worth more than 1.000 words:
The first two symbols of the double whole note are commonly used in modern notation while the rectangular one is found primarily in older musical scores and notation systems dating back to the Middle Ages and the Baroque era.
Double whole notes have also a specific rest symbol, a small and vertically placed rectangular shape, depicted in the image below:
Beats and Duration
The other crucial question many people ask is this:
How many beats are there in a double whole note?
One double whole note covers 8 beats, which means that it lasts as much as 2 whole notes or 4 half notes.
As a result, the most frequent time signature used by ancient composers to host this note within their works was 4/2.
Take a look at the musical score below:
The first bar is completely filled up by one single note, the double whole note indeed, which lasts for eight beats as indicated by the 8 numbers positioned below the corresponding bar.
That’s why we say that a double whole note or breve has a value or duration of 8 beats.
Double whole note in context: some audio examples and scores
Once you are aware of the symbols representing the double whole note and its duration in terms of beats, now it’s time to explore a couple of compositions built on the cornerstone of this peculiar musical figure.
The first example is Monteverdi’s arrangement of a Gregorian chant called Ave Maris Stella.
As you can see from the time signature, the Italian composer sets the choral piece in 4/2 and employs the double whole note in the first bar of the Octavus and the fifth bar of the whole choir:
The other example comes from Palestrina’s Missa Papae Marcelli, more precisely, from the Sanctus-Benedictus.
Here the double whole note is used at the very beginning of the composition and pervades the whole choral texture, reinforcing that sense of peace and ecstatic contemplation that characterizes this well-written and balanced piece of sacred music: