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Crossing the Line - "When is the Right Time to Use Tied Notes vs. Whole Notes in Music?"

Updated: Jun 6

One of the most confusing things for the beginner musician to understand is the need for chopping up certain note values - such as a dotted crotchet - into smaller values - such as a crotchet and a quaver - and presenting them as tied notes.

This is because it seems that it can be very randomly allocated in the first instance. If I were to suggest to some pupils that they needed to notate a rhythm then strictly speaking they could do it correctly, but it would probably be wrong technically.

For example:

Example sheet music dotted crotchets wrong

The above passage of music makes perfect sense - two dotted crotchets followed by a crotchet. If we break these down into quavers, it absolutely fits within the 4/4 time signature because a dotted crotchet = 3 quavers (remember a dot adds half a beat and, as we know, a crotchet is 2 quavers). So: 3 + 3 + 2 = 8! 8 quavers = 4 crotchets, so no issues there. is wrongly notated...

Example sheet music dotted crotchets tied notes

The above passage - which is exactly the same rhythmically - is correct!

But why?

It's all to do with the idea of not 'crossing the line' and how we use tied notes to do this!

Let's investigate...

The Imaginary Middle Line in Music Notation

If we are in a time signature for which the top number is even - as many simple and compound time signatures are - 4/4, 2/4, 6/8, 12/8 - we can easily strike a line down the exact middle of the bar and keep it symmetrical. This is just simple mathematics - I need not even demonstrate with a bar of music yet to make the point!

4/4 - 1 - 2 (MIDDLE) 3 - 4

2/4 - 1 (MIDDLE) 2

6/8 - 1 - 2 - 3 (MIDDLE) 4 - 5 - 6

12/8 - 1 - 2 - 3 - 4 - 5 - 6 (MIDDLE) 7 - 8 - 9 - 10 - 11 - 12

You should be able to see the point - there are as many beats in the first half as in the second - perfect symmetry!

So now we just need to visualise the imaginary middle line on a piece of music:

sheet music example demonstrating middle lines

On the above examples, we can clearly see a bar of each of the above time signatures divided up by its typical beats (the bottom notes of the time signatures - 4 = crotchet, 8 = quavers), as well as very clear indication of where the middle line is that splits them up!

So - to paraphrase the iconic rule from 'Ghostbusters' - we come to our first golden rule:

  1. Don't Cross the Line!

Is this a hard and fast rule? Sadly not. Of course music has its little idiosyncrasies!

So how can we explain the rule so that its absolutely fail safe?

It all begins with our old friend symmetry once again!


If a note value crosses that line but splits in half so that it is the same on one side as the other - no need to split it up!

Why? I don't know...but this is standard.

However, if a note crosses the line but has a different value on each side of the line - now we need to split it!

To exemplify - some examples...

example sheet music note length tied notes

On the above example, we can see what can actually be interpreted as two correct forms of notation. Unlike the example below, it isn't actually a crime to tie two notes of equal value together - however, to be consistent with typical notation, the example above left with a rhythm of crotchet - minim - crotchet is accurate.

This is because - as the rhythmically identical bar following demonstrates - the minim is made up of two identical length of note (crotchets) on either side of the bar. Note how the 'imaginary middle line' splits that minim in half exactly. Therefore, no need for tieing our notes together.

example sheet music note length tied notes

The above example deals with a more syncopated rhythm - not dissimilar to the one at the very beginning of this post.

I have demonstrated the point clearly by marking out the 8 quaver beats in a bar below them to get us easily into the mindset of how long a dotted crotchet is (3 quaver beats).

As you can see from the example on the left, the second note - a dotted crotchet - crosses over beats 3, 4 and 5. Our imaginary line strikes the middle between beats 4 and 5, meaning that beats 3 and 4 of this note are on one side of the line and beat 5 on the other. The line has been crossed, and this is poor notation!

How do we solve this?

We break it up into two notes that won't cross the line and tie them together!

Beats 3 and 4 on one side are two beats - a crotchet, and beat 5 on the other is a quaver, so we notate them as two separate notes and tie them together!

Thus the rhythmically identical bar on the right is correct!

Further to the idea of symmetry within sections of the bar, don't forget that this also explains our use of whole bar notes / rests:

example sheet music note length tied notes

It would be unusual to see the above left notation of two minims tied together in 4/4. Because this is symmetrical, we can just substitute a whole bar note - in this case a semibreve.

Surely that's all we need to know to get this right?...

...sadly not!

Let's go further down this rabbit hole and discuss...

Tied Notes on Non-Syncopated Beats

For anybody who doesn't know about or of syncopation, that may fill you with dread.

However, its explanation is remarkably simple.

In a nutshell, syncopation refers to emphasising more strongly on the off beats (or playing between the beats - but for this example let's focus on emphasis). If we count 4/4, for example, as 1 - 2 - 3 - 4, then 1 and 3 are our on beats and 3 and 4 are our off beats.

So first beats are non-syncopated!

So why am I going on about it?

Because I want you to recognise where the non-syncopated beats are in the time signatures we have explored:

4/4 - 1 2 3 4

2/4 - 1 2

6/8 - 1 2 3 4 5 6

12/8 - 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12

and consider these slightly more convoluted rules:

2. For /4 time signatures: Joining the Complete First Half of the Bar to the Second Half onto a Fully Recognised non Syncopated Beat = No Tied Notes Necessary!

3. For /8 time signatures: Joining the Complete First Half of the Bar to the Second Half onto any value in the second half (exception of the entirety!) = Tied Notes Necessary!

4. For /4 and /8 time signatures: We need to tie notes when joining a syncopated beat to a non syncopated one. We don't need to tie them when joining a syncopated to a syncopated or a non syncopated to a syncopated.

Don't panic - even my brain hurt as I tried to write those!

So let's break it down:

The complete first half of the bar means a note value that takes up the complete length of that bar.

In 4/4, for example, this would be a minim.

In 2/4, a crotchet.

In 6/8, a dotted crotchet.

In 12/8, a dotted minim.

A 'fully recognised non syncopated beat' in the second half means a note of the exact value of the lower numbers of the time signature (for example, in 4/4 - the lower number - 4 = crotchet) that falls on a beat we have identified as non syncopated in the second half of the bar (for example, beat 3 in 4/4).

Let's explore some examples:

example sheet music note length tied notes

The complete first half of the 4/4 bar above is correctly identified as a minim on the left, but then because beat 3 is fully recognised as the note value of a crotchet (the bottom 4 in 4/4), it actually means we don't need to tie - even though it crosses the middle line!

In this instance, we can use a dotted minim - therefore, the bar on the right - which is rhythmically identical - is better notation.

If we in any way disrupt the length of the first half of the bar, then we will of course have to resort back to tied notes:

example sheet music note length tied notes

In the case of 2/4, tying a crotchet (the entire first half of the beat) to beat 2 - regardless of its syncopation - gives us a whole bar's worth if this note is also a crotchet anyway:

example sheet music note length tied notes

However, with great ruling comes great controversy!

On the bars below, rule 4 actually takes over and dominates our understanding of symmetry. Symmetry would dictate that the bar on the left (below) was correct.

However, because beat 2 is considered the syncopated beat in 2/4, and our non syncopated first note on beat 1 ties to it, we don't need the tie! Therefore, the bar on the right is correct.

example sheet music note length tied notes

Let's see how this comes into play with 12/8:

example sheet music note length tied notes

In the above example, we can actually exemplify both rules 3 and 4:

  • The first note in the bar on the left is 8 quaver beats (a semibreve) however, we now know that in 12/8 our middle line goes between beats 6 and 7 (as can be seen above with the line). So 8 beats starting at the beginning divides itself up by our first 6 beats and then another 2 - therefore a dotted minim and a crotchet. Notating it as these two notes tied together exemplifies both points 1 and 3.

  • Point 4 deals with joining 2 or more consecutive beats together. After our first 8 beats, we can see on the left that we have a crotchet followed by two quavers to give us our final four beats. However, we know that beat 10 is a non syncopated beat, therefore needs marking as such in the music (on the example on the left, it is being swallowed up by the crotchet on beat 9). So that just needs splitting up into two notes that allow for beat 10 to shine. As it happens, in this example it is as simple as splitting this crotchet into two quavers.

Just to further exemplify the alternatives in rule 4, here is how a 12/8 bar should read divided into 'crotchets':

example sheet music note length tied notes

There is no fear of crossing the middle line here as the fourth note clearly begins on beat 7, however note that we have crotchets on beats 1 - 2, 5 - 6, 7 - 8 and 11 - 12.

We don't need to tie notes when they cross from a non syncopated to a syncopated beat (such as beats 1 - 2 and 7 - 8) or from a syncopated to a syncopated (such as 5 - 6 or 11 - 12).

However, we do need to tie them when connecting a syncopated beat to a non syncopated one - such as 3 - 4 and 9 - 10.

The 3/4 Waltz

You may have been wondering up to now - but what of the 3/4 time signature?

3/4 is divided very clearly into 3 crotchet beats, therefore its inclusion of an imaginary middle line is rather tricky.

Perhaps because of this, the ruling of the waltz / 3/4 time is much more relaxed, with the following examples being perfectly acceptable notation:

example sheet music note length tied notes

However, once you familiarise yourself with the above rules regarding other simple and compound time signatures, you will be able to recognise the similarities between 3/4 and 6/8 as printed music should you ever need to subdivide your 3/4 piece in quavers that cross certain lines at any time - and apply the rules accordingly:

example sheet music note length tied notes

No doubt you can see above that - whilst we do want this to be in 3/4 time as opposed to 6/8 because of its very clear 3 beats in the left hand - we have incorporated a couple of tricks learned earlier into the right hand part:

Because this is subdivided into 6 quavers, the middle line is not crossed!

Irregular Time Signatures

I suppose all that's left now to explore is the irregular time signature. This is a complex one - aside from it being unusual to count anyway - as it can be differently interpreted by the composer / arranger.

An irregular time signature refers to an undividable number of beats - think prime numbers! The most common, therefore, are 5 and 7, and we often see 5/4, 5/8, 7/4 and 7/8.

However, we need to establish where the accents are in order to determine whether we will use tied notes and - if so - where.

For example, 7/8 can be counted 1 - 2 - 3 - 4 - 5 - 6 - 7 - 1 - 2 etc.,

But - being irregular - there is no clear definition of which beats are supposed to be emphasised and not. That is where we come in in the role of listener, interpreter, arranger, composer, performer etc.

We could establish that the music we are notating should emphasise:

1 2 3 4 5 6 7


1 2 3 4 5 6 7


1 2 3 4 5 6 7

and depending on where we put these emphatic beats - which we shall refer to as our non syncopated beats - affects how we would tie our notes.

We don't need to worry about our imaginary lines for irregular time signatures - just how our distribution of emphatic / 'non syncopated' beats affect them!

Therefore, the three examples above have been notated (respectively) using a demonstration rhythm. Note how we tie / don't tie notes in different places depending on where we consider the beats to be:

example sheet music note length tied notes

Conclusion - Tied Notes and Crossing the Line

If you aren't planning on notating music yourself any time soon, the above is all probably just academic as you can easily read two tied notes as easily as you can a whole one, wherever it lies in the bar. But it still pays to be aware of how it all works and how it all fits together - especially if you do decide to put pen to paper one day. I should point out, though, that - whilst these are the rules to follow - you can be forgiven for making simple errors of judgement and this will be entirely legible for the performing musician regardless. The more you familiarise yourself with it - through writing your own music and reading other transcriptions - the stronger your understanding of it will be!

As a further disclaimer, it should be observed that there is ongoing debate as to some of the lesson above. For example, many people would not cross a minim across beats 2 and 3 in a 4/4 bar and would still insist on its separation as 2 tied crotchets. This is fine, however I have personally come across more instances of the former over the years to have decided for myself that this is the rule I follow - so keep an open mind as you explore and investigate!


Jack Mitchell Smith is a piano teacher based in Macclesfield, Cheshire. Click here to find out more.

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