Rests in Sheet Music

silent rhythm

felix mas

Rests make music exciting!
Rests :

  • Emphasize notes
  • Help us understand music's rhythm
  • Let us know when a phrase ends
  • Contrast Sound and Silence

Sheet music has different symbols for the various durations of rests (silence). Listen to music as phrases of sound. Then, instead of getting lost in counting rhythm, we hear the song's logic to help us understand the rests' rhythmic role.

Rests are much like their note counterparts, in counting rhythm. Rests are easier, since we don't have to worry as much about placement, but about the rests' appearance. Consider a Whole Rest:

Notice it hangs from the D line

Like a whole note, this whole rest lasts an entire measure, no matter the measure's count. If the measure is in counts of four, the whole rest will rest for four counts. Same goes for counts of two or three.

When you see whole rests, usually another instrument is playing. Or, a second part, like the other hand on keyboard, could be playing. Also, whole rests can be repeated over a few measures at a time. This is most likely when other instrument(s) are playing their written notes. So just sit tight and count, until your part (notes) return.

Half of the whole rest is the (you guessed it) Half Rest. It lasts half as long as the whole rest. We could put two in a measure, since each takes up half of the count - but why? A whole rest is the same duration of rest as two half rests. The reason we need half rests, is that we start adding notes, that take up the remainder of the measure's count.

Notice it sits on the B line

Since we're dividing up the whole rest, with each extra division, we have more rests per measure. Keep in mind that notes (tones) will eventually be inserted between the rests, and will therefore take up their own counts in the measure.

Measures get their name from measuring out units of time, or duration, in equal parts. The divisions can be in units of 2, 3, or 4. These units are 'beats', because each tone makes a sound that has a duration within the rhythm of the song. With rests, the rhythm is counted out, until the next note. Every element, notes and rests, get a count, or portion, of the measure's count - whether it's a count of 2, 3, or 4 beats per measure.


Half of a half rest, is a Quarter Rest. Four quarter rests take up all of a measure's count. If the count (beat) were in three, then three quarter rests could appear; although using only rests, we'd use the whole rest for an entire measure. Each quarter rest gets one beat per measure (a mixture of notes and rests would probably take up the other counts of the same measure).


Finally, half of a quarter rest, is an Eighth Rest. Eighth rests are quite useful, as they are used so much between the melody's changing tones. Also, the rhythm section of a band or orchestra makes good use of eighth rests, using them to offset the beats on the upbeat, or downbeat.


The Dot

Sometimes when we add up a measure's count, we find we don't have enough rests to cover it all. Or, we may have too many. This happens when rests and notes are mixed, to create a rhythm. It's helpful to have an extra rhythmic symbol to make up the missing count.

It's a simple Dot. Just add a Dot after a rest or note, and voila, that rest or note just added one half of its value to itself. A quarter rest or note becomes one count, plus a half count, to make one and a half counts total. Count this dotted quarter rest as 1&2.

dotted quarter rest

However, a 3 beat rest is found mostly within time signatures where the eighth note is one beat. A 3 beat rest is written as a quarter rest, followed by an eighth rest. This equals 3 eighth rests. In total, they have 3 beats, since the eighth note or rest gets one beat, in these types of time signatures. Count the rests as 1&2&3&.

quarter, eighth rests

Finally, we may keep dividing the rests in half, to get smaller divisions. But at the moment, we'll keep it simple. Once we get the hang of counting rhythm, we can get into subtleties (of sound, and rests, even). I'm pretty excited about rhythm, because it's what makes us want to move!

The next page has measures of notes, that we divide their rhythm into musical phrases.

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