Dotted Notes and Rests

How Adding Dots Changes the Rhythms of Music

Handwritten manuscript of Parade, by Eric Alfred Leslie Satie (1866-1925). France, 19th century.
De Agostini Picture Library/Getty Images

Notes and rests are dotted—that is to say, a dot is placed to the right of the note or rest—to indicate that the length of time the note is played or the rest is held should be changed in a piece of music. A dot after a note tells the musician that the note or rest should be held half again as long as its normal duration.

Every musical work has an established tempo and most scholars believe that musical tempi are based on human heartbeats. Musicologist David Epstein calls the underlying rhythm of any piece of music a "ground pulse" that in some respects sets the tone for the piece. Dots on notes can elongate or interrupt the beat in a way that is interesting, subconsciously or consciously. When taken as a whole, tempo combined with other variables, such as timing, dynamics, intonation, and timber, defines the emotional content of a piece.

Dotted, Double-Dotted, and Triple-Dotted Notes and Rests

Therefore, dotting a note or a rest changes the regular pattern, by adding half of the value of the note or rest to itself. For example, a half note normally gets two beats, but when it is dotted, it gets 3 beats. To illustrate, the value of a half note is 2, half of 2 is 1 so 2 + 1 = 3.

Multiple dots increase the length an additional half the time of the previous dot, so a half note with two dots (also known as double-dotted) is calculated 2+1+ 1/2 = 3 1/2 beats, and a triple-dotted half note equals 2+1+1/2+1/4 = 3 3/4.

The table below lists the type of dotted note/rest and its duration depending on the number of dots. Musical pieces with more than three dots are rare. 

Dotted Notes and Rests and Their Duration
Dotted Note Dotted Rest No Dots One Dot Two Dots Three Dots
whole note whole rest 4 6 7 7 1/2
half note half rest 2 3 3 1/2 3 /3/4
quarter note quarter rest 1 1 1/2 1 3/4 1 7/8
eighth note eighth rest 1/2 3/4 7/8 15/16
sixteenth note sixteenth rest 1/4 3/8 7/16