Double whole note

Double whole note
Various breve notations

In music, a double whole note (American or "German" terminology) or breve (British or "classical" terminology) is a note lasting twice as long as a whole note (or semibreve). In medieval mensural notation, the brevis (ancestor of the modern breve) was one of the shortest note lengths (hence its name, which is the Latin cognate of "brief") (Read 1969, 14), and could be either a half or a third as long as the longa.[vague] However, in modern music notation it is the longest note value still in use (Gehrkens 1914, 106).

In modern notation, a breve is represented in two ways: by a hollow oval note head, like a whole note, with one or two vertical lines on either side, as on the left of the image, and as the rectangular shape also found in older notation, shown in the middle of the image (Jacob 1960, 21; Read 1969, 459; Gerou and Lusk 1996, 210). An alternative notation consists of a joined pair of whole notes (at the right of the image), but this can easily be confused with a pair of unison whole notes, as found in double-stop notation for stringed instruments or when two parts are written on a single staff.

Because it lasts longer than a bar in most modern time signatures, the breve is now rarely encountered except in English music, where the half-note is often used as the beat unit (Gherkens 1914, 11). However, in time signatures where the top number is exactly twice that of the bottom, such as 4/2 or 8/4, it lasts a whole bar and so may still be found.

Modern musical notation often employs a breve even when the note value extends beyond the measure.[citation needed] Some write a thicker barline on each side of the note as a means of indicating two joined measures, while some omit this, placing the note in an apparently normal measure.[citation needed]

Breve rest

A breve rest

A related symbol is the double whole rest (or breve rest), which usually denotes a silence for the same duration. Double whole rests are drawn as filled-in rectangles occupying the whole vertical space between the second and third lines from the top of the musical staff. They are often used in long silent passages which are not divided into bars to indicate a rest twice as long as a whole rest (or semibreve rest). This and longer rests are collectively known as multiple measure rests.

Alla breve

Alla breve, the time signature 2/2, comes from the note value breve. Originally, in mensural notation, it meant that the brevis was to be considered the unit of time (tactus), instead of the semibrevis, as in other time signatures. This corresponds to its modern use, except that the breves have been replaced by minims (half notes) as the longer note values were discontinued. The sign is similarly a vestige of the one used in mensural notation.


  • Gehrkens, Karl Wilson. 1914. Music Notation and Terminology. New York: The A.S. Barnes Co.; Chicago: Laidlaw Brothers.
  • Gerou, Tom, and Linda Lusk. 1996. Essential Dictionary of Music Notation. Essential Dictionary Series. Los Angeles: Alfred Music Publishing. ISBN 0882847309.
  • Jacob, Archibald. 1960. Musical Handwriting: Or, How to Put Music on Paper, A Handbook for All Musicians, Professional and Amateur, second edition, revised. London: Oxford University Press.
  • Read, Gardner. 1969. Music Notation: A Manual of Modern Practice, second edition. Boston: Alleyn and Bacon, Inc.

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