All you need to know about the whole note in music
What are the symbols used for the whole note and whole rest?
How many beats do they last?
How does a whole note differ from the half note and quarter note?
If you want a clear and detailed answer to the most important questions revolving around the whole note, also known as semibreve, this guide is for you.
Let’s jump right in!
One of the possible definitions of whole note is this:
a note value depicted as a hollow oval with no stem that covers a number of beats equal to four.
It is the longest musical figure contemplated by the western musical theory and one of the easiest notes to play in terms of rhythm.
Nomenclature of a whole note: American name vs British Name
There are two ways to call a note value lasting for four beats: whole note and semibreve.
‘Whole note’ is the American name, whereas ‘semibreve’ is the British name.
The word ‘semibreve’, literally ‘half’ (semi) and ‘short’ (breve), derives from the ancient ‘semibrevis’, an equally hollow and stemless note used within the mensural notation system.
With regard to the whole note, this American expression is the literal translation of the German word ‘ganze’, which means entire and refers to the fact that a whole note is the longest musical value of the Western music and, as a result, the founding note from which all the other rhythmic subdivisions originate.
Symbol and notation
Speaking of musical notation, what kind of symbol is commonly used to indicate the whole note?
The symbol associated with a whole note is a stemless and hollow oval, represented in the picture below:
As the image clearly shows, the shape of a whole note can be misleading in that he’s almost identical to the form of the half-note.
However, you can easily grasp how these two notes differ from each other by taking a look at this other picture:
The half-note is notated as a hollow oval endowed with a stem, whereas the whole note is stemless.
Beats and duration
Moving to the rhythmic side of the topic, I think that one of the first things you want me to cover is the number of beats, counts or claps contained in a whole note.
In other words, we have to determine what we call the value or duration of a whole note.
Ok, straight to the point:
the length of a whole note equals four beats, that is, you have to count four claps to get a sense of its musical value.
This means that if you have a time signature of 4/4, you can have only 1 whole note per bar.
Whole rest and its symbol
What is a whole note rest?
What’s its symbol and how many beats does it encompass?
A whole rest, also known as a semibreve rest, is a rectangular shaped symbol used in musical notation to indicate 4 beats of silence:
It is a musical pause whose duration is equivalent to the length of a whole note.
Therefore, when you encounter this symbol you have to stop playing and pause for four claps.
According to the rules of music theory, a whole rest must be hanging from the fourth line of the staff and its interior has to be entirely coloured in black.
Make sure you don’t confuse it with the half note rest, which has the same shape and color but differs for its location on the staff.
In fact, the whole rest hangs from the fourth line whereas the half rest sits on the third line:
How does the whole note relate to the half note and quarter note?
At this point and in view of the exercises I’m going to propose you at the end of this blog post, it is important to understand the relationship between the whole note, the half note and the quarter note.
One whole note can be divided both into two half-notes, each of which lasts for two beats, and four quarter notes, each of which covers one beat.
In other words:
1 whole note (4 beats) = 1 half-note (2 beats) + 1 half-note (2 beats) = 4 beats
1 whole note = 1 quarter note + 1 quarter note + 1 quarter note + 1 quarter note = 4 beats
The following image will help you visualize this rhythmic subdivision on the staff:
How do we count a dotted whole note?
Another common question I always get asked is this:
how do we count a dotted whole note?
The musical purpose of a dot is to extend the duration of a note.
More precisely, the dot adds to a note a number of beats equal to its half.
Let me give you an example:
if the note value is 2, the dot prolongs the value of 1 beat; if the note lasts for 1 beat then the dot adds ½ beat and so on.
Therefore, given that a whole note lasts for four counts, a dotted whole note value is counted as follows: 4 + 2, that is, the duration of a whole note plus its half, which is 2 (4-2).
Double whole note: echoes of mensural notation
If you are not accustomed with early music and mensural notation you probably might be wondering:
what is a double whole note and what kind of relationship exists between it and the whole note?
Well, a double whole note results from the following calculation:
a whole note plus a whole note equals a double whole note, that is to say, four beats plus four beats equals 8 beats, counts or claps.
Here’s a picture showing three different symbols that have been used to notate the double whole note:
As you can see, in the first two symbols, the only difference between the two notes lies in the vertical bars placed before and after the hollow oval; the third one, however, is completely different, in that the oval of a whole note turns into a rectangular shape.
Should you be interested in knowing more about this topic, I think this guide could be of help: “Double whole note: symbols, duration and history [Audio examples + Scores]“.
Whole note in the history of music: some audio examples and scores
The first audio example I’ve chosen is Palestrina’s Adoramus the Christe, a sacred motet in 4/4 whose first 8 bars are characterized by an interrupted sequence of whole notes, homogeneously distributed across the four vocal parts:
As you might have noticed, after 8 measures, the composer abandons the whole notes and gives space to a balanced combination of half notes and quarter notes.
Another inspiring example of how the whole note and the whole rest play a major role in creating intense and thick vocal atmospheres is provided by Monteverdi’s “Ond’ei di morte”, a madrigal for five voices:
The composer equally distributes the whole notes to the five vocal parts, alternating half notes and quarter notes with the aim of generating delicate and small rhythmic variations.
Listen to the following audio file in 4/4 and try to recognize the whole note and the half-note:
In this other example, I’ve included whole notes, half notes and quarter notes.
Listen carefully and pay attention to the measures where the whole note occurs:
The last exercise focuses on the combination of whole notes, whole rests and the other two values.
Take note or transcribe the rhythm on a musical score:
Now let me share with you the solutions related to the exercises: