Types of Rests in Music: Complete Guide and Common Mistakes

Music is made of sound. But it’s also made by silence.

And the way we use silence makes a big difference in how the music communicates. If we play the “spaces between the notes” well, we can create beautiful contrasts. But if we play them sloppily or carelessly, the playing can sound messy.

So the way we use silence matters. Luckily, composers have specific music symbols to show silence.

These silence symbols are called rests in music notation.


Rests in Music Notation

For each music note value, we have a corresponding music rest symbol.

As an example, we have a quarter note. We also have a quarter rest, which gets the same length of time as the quarter note. So if you already know your note values, you’re well on your way.

musical rests
A rest indicates silence. Here, a rest replaces a quarter note, for one beat of silence.

Whole Rest

whole rest in music
A whole rest gets four beats. It hangs below the line.

A whole rest gets 4 beats, just like the whole note.

We can recognize the whole rest by the fact that it hangs below the line. We can remember this by thinking that it is so heavy, with a full four beats, that it hangs below.

Half Rest

half rest music theory
The half rest gets two beats and sits on top of the line.

The half rest gets two beats. This looks similar to the whole rest, but it sits on top of the line.

Quarter Rest

quarter rest in music theory
The quarter rest gets one beat, just like a quarter note.

A quarter rest in music gets one beat. This is the counterpart to the quarter note, as mentioned above.

The symbol for the quarter rest is a squiggle.

Eighth Rest

eighth rest in music
The eighth rest gets half a beat of silence. The flag is shaped differently than the eighth note and is on the left.

The eighth rest gets half of one beat, just like an eighth note. The symbol used here is a slanted stem with a bulbous head, resembling the number 7.

Sixteenth Rest

16th note rest in music
The 16th rest has two flags and gets 1/4 of one beat.

The sixteenth note rest looks like the eighth rest, except we add a flag. This is similar to the way flags work on regular note values.

32nd Rests and Beyond

As we progress to 32nd rests, 64th rests, and beyond, we add flags. This is the same routine we use with the note values.

musical rests chart
Here is a chart of the rests showing how they relate to each other.

Dotted Rests in Music Theory

We can also use other symbols to denote rhythm with rests.

For example, we can use dotted rhythms, just like we do with note values. The dots act the same in that they add half the value of the rest to the duration.

We can also use fermatas to suggest a longer duration than normal.

How to Count Rests in Music

When we count and clap rhythms aloud, we can still say the beat numbers as we would with regular notes and rhythms.

For the rests, we would not clap. In fact, some people like to “reverse clap,” meaning they move their hands apart for the rest.

With practice, rests can be an integral part of your clapping and counting rhythms.

The Most Common Mistakes People Make with Music Rests

The most common mistake people make when playing a rest in music is to shortchange it.  To not give it the full value of time.

If the rest is meant to last for two full beats, it is a mistake to play the next note before this length of time has passed.

The reason people make this mistake is often that they stop counting during the rests.

So instead of playing the next note at a specific time based on the rhythm, they guess. And when we guess in pieces of music, we usually get it wrong.

The solution is to practice counting through the rests. Just because they are called “rests” do not mean we can relax and stop counting. Quite the opposite – rests are a call to stay alert and place the next note with certainty and precision.

Rests in music are expressive.  They are musical, and the more respect and attention we give them, the better we sound.

Many thanks to MusicTheory.net for some of the images above. 

Allen Mathews

Hi, I’m Allen Mathews. 

I started as a folk guitarist, then fell in love with classical guitar in my 20’s. Despite a lot of practice and schooling, I still couldn’t get my music to flow well. I struggled with excess tension. My music sounded forced. And my hands and body were often sore. I got frustrated, and couldn’t see the way forward. Then, over the next decade, I studied with two other stellar teachers – one focused on the technical movements, and one on the musical (he was a concert pianist). In time, I came to discover a new set of formulas and movements. These brought new life and vitality to my practice. Now I help guitarists find more comfort and flow in their music, so they play more beautifully.
Click here for a sample formula.

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