how many beats is a whole note? (Answer Might Surprise You!)

whole note length

A whole note is a unique looking note on the musical staff because it does not have a stem. But how many beats does a whole note get? It’s not as simple a question as it may sound! We’ll be looking at that, plus more whole note questions, in this article!

What is a Whole Note?

A whole note is a specific type of note in musical notation that is written as a ring or sideways zero shape. Merriam Webster Dictionary describes it as “a musical note equal in time value to four quarter notes or two half notes.”

whole note

How Many Beats is a Whole Note?

That brings us to the central question of this article. A whole note is held for 4 beats in a musical score. Most commonly, a whole note is held out for a whole measure. However, this is not always the case (see caveats below).

That is why the definition above says it is equal to 4 quarter notes. A quarter note gets 1 beat each, so 4 of them are equal to a whole note.

Let’s look at an example. Below is a small excerpt from a piano arrangement of How Great Thou Art. Can you find the whole notes?

There are two chords in the bass clef that are whole notes—the left hand notes in the first and third measure. This song’s time signature is 4 beats, so those left hand chords are sustaining while the right hand plays a bunch more notes. This is a great way to use whole notes in writing music!

Are Whole Note Always 4 Beats?

As with most things in music theory (and life, for that matter) there are caveats. While whole notes usually get 4 beats, there are some times when this changes.

Here’s how you can determine how many beats a whole note gets: the time signature!

So long as there is a “4” on the bottom of a time signature, the whole note will get 4 beats. For example, in 3/4 and 4/4, a quarter note gets one beat, a half note gets 2, a dotted half note gets 3, and a whole note gets 4.

But if the time signature is 2/2, everything changes. In this time signature, a half note gets 1 beat, and a whole note gets only 2 beats.

If the time signature is 12/8, on the other hand, the whole note is worth 8 beats, but it does not appear very often. This is a scenario where the whole note does not take up a whole measure (since there are 12 beats per measure in this time signature).

And lastly, there are even time signatures where whole notes do not work at all! For example, 3/4 cannot use a whole note since it will not fit in a 3-beat measure. Likewise, 6/8 does not use whole notes.

I know it is a bit confusing. But remember, the key to figuring out the length of the whole note is the bottom number in the time signature.

Is a whole note equal to a half rest?

No, a whole note is not equal to a half rest. A half rest gets 2 beats of silence.

Instead, a whole note is equal to a whole rest, which gets 4 beats of silence just as a whole note gets 4 beats held down.

Even if the time signature changes, a whole note is still not equal to a half rest. A half rest is always “half” as short as a “whole” note/rest!

How many beats is a whole note plus a half note?

There may be times when you have a whole note that is tied to another note. If this is the case, you would always count the regular time of both notes and then add that together.

If the time signature is 4/4, for example, add 4 beats for the whole note and 2 beats from the half note—so 6 beats altogether.

How do you draw a whole note?

You can draw a whole note simply by doing a sideways zero on the staff. Just like any other notes, you will either draw it in the spaces, or with a line cutting through. If you want to make it look more realistic, fill in the insides a bit more.

More Music Theory to Learn:


Whole notes are seen all throughout music, whether you’re a beginner pianist or not. Hopefully this article has given you some more clarity on how many beats whole notes and the amount of beats they get. So here’s your assignment: go grab a piece of music and look for whole notes! See how many you can find! 😉