The Dot and the Double Dot

By Orlando A. Mansfield, Mus. Doc.

Early in the history of measured music the demand for a character which would lengthen one-half anything after which it was placed became so imperative that the introduction of the dot as a sign of duration was a matter of necessity rather than of choice. As Alexander Malcolm, in his Treatise of Music, Speculative, Practical and Historical, Edinburgh, 1721, quaintly says, “There is also the Proportion of 3:1 used in Music; and to express a Proportion of 3 to 1 we add a Point (.) on the right side of any Note, which is equal to Half of it, whereby a pointed Semibreve (whole note) is equal to Three Minims (half notes) and so of the rest.” From this we gather that the original position of the dot was after the musical character; and that its effect was, as Stewart Macpherson puts it, to take “half the value of whatever immediately preceded it, whether note, dot, or rest.”

The History of the Dot

The dot first began to be used about the end of the fourth century when St. Ephraim, a monk of that date, renounced the letter notation of the Greeks, substituting for it a system of dots and dashes known as Neumes. These remained in use after the invention of the staff; and, in a modified form, flourished as late as the fourteenth century. The dot is their direct descendant.

By Franco of Cologne, who flourished at the beginning of the 13th century, the dot was called the “sign of perfection;” and, later, the “point” or “prick of perfection” – perfection to the mediaeval mind being always associated with the number three, from the fact of there being Three Persons in the Trinity. And as the latter was symbolized by the circle, a circle was employed to denote triple (the called perfect) time, and a dot (or smaller circle) to represent the proportion of 3 to 1.

As late as 1654, John Playford, in his “Breefe Introduction to the Skill of Music, for Song or Viall.” Calls the dot “the prick of perfection and addition.” Hence, a dotted note come to be termed a “pricked note,” a term still employed by rustic musicians in the West of England. In its modern signification the dot was used about 1600, nearly a century before its employment as a sign of staccato.

The dot in the 17th and 18th centuries was sometimes used, says Mr. Abdy Williams, in his Story of Notation, “after the last note of a bar (measure), thus lengthening the note into the next measure,”


This is from a composition (published at Genoa in 1585) by Don Carlo Gesualdo, Prince of Venosa, circa 1550-1613, a Neapolitan madrigal composer. It would now be written:


Sir John Hawkins, in his celebrated History of Music, says that some early instruction books for the flute employed a “method of notation by dots;” and that the last publication of this kind was printed in 1704. “In this,” says Sir John, “the learner is furnished with directions for playing either Dot-way or Gamut-way – for these were the terms of distinction – and is left to the choice of either.”

Bach, Handel and their contemporaries, often used a dotted 8th followed by a 16th, in combination with triplets in another part. In this case, image-3 was regarded as the equivalent of image-4 e.g.,


This would be played as if written:


Alluding to the occurrence of the figure image-7 in modern music, Dr. Fisher, in his Pianist’s Mentor, says that the idea of the notation is “not necessarily a note preceded by another which has three times its value; but, rather, a long note, the longer the better, which occupies very nearly the whole of a beat, and gives way at the very last moment to another note which has only just time to display itself before the first note of the following beat ought to make its appearance. So we get a crisp, bright performance, such as is lacking when we try to measure out the notes in a stolid manner.” But, as Mr. Franklin Taylor wisely points out, ‘in view of the fact that there are a variety of means whereby a composer can express with perfect accuracy the rhythmic proportions he desires, it certainly seems advisable to employ the utmost caution in making use of such licenses.”

Double and Triple Dots

The double dot was first used by Leopold Mozart, the father of Wolfgang, in the second edition of his Violin School, 1769. The triple dot was used by his son in the Symphony in D, composed in July and August, 1782, “for the wedding of a daughter of the Hafners, at Salzburg, one of the great merchant families of Germany,” e.g.,


Mendelssohn also uses the triple dot in the second bar of his Overture to the Wedding of Camacho.

The young student will find but little difficulty in understanding the value of dotted notes or rests, if he remember that a single dot lengthens a note or rest one half; a double dot, three quarters, and a triple dot seven eighths. This, a dotted character is worth three of the denomination next below it in value; a double dotted character, seven of the denomination next but one below; and a triple dotted character, fifteen of the denomination three degrees lower in value. Thus


It is fortunate for us that double and triple dotes can, as a rule, be equally well expressed by other means; for, as Dr. Marx, in his Universal School of Music, says concerning the multiplication of dots, “This crowding of minute characters, the values of which have to be found by calculation, makes reading music difficult, and exposes the performer to many mistakes.” And we must also remember, with Dr. C. W. Pearce, that “it is not possible, by adding any number of successive dots to a note, to double its time value.” For however many dots we may add, we are always the value of that last dot off that of the required double note. Thus image-10 seven eighth notes, but image-11 eight eighths; and image-12 fifteen sixteenths, but image-13 sixteen sixteenths and so on.

It should also be noticed that in writing dots, the dot after a note in a space is placed in that space (a); but after a note on a line the dot is generally placed in the space next above that line if the following note be higher (b); but in the space next below the line if the following note be lower (c), e.g.,


The Dotted Rest

The dot after a rest is rarely used, its most common employment being to represent silence for a beat and a half at the beginning of a measure in simple time, e.g.,


In compound times silence for a dotted beat is usually denoted by a long and a short rest, e.g., image-16 instead of image-17 in 6/8 time. Double dotted rests are possible but extremely rare.

By placing the dot above or below a note, instead of after it, we then have the staccato sign.

The dot as a Sign of Staccato

The dot now becomes a sign of shortening instead of lengthening, reducing the note to about half its written value. But, as Mr. Franklin Taylor observes, “differences in the written values of the notes must always be observed,” e.g.,


Here the final note in both versions remains double the value of its predecessor, the amount of time taken from each note by the dot being made up in silence before the next note is heard. As a staccato sign the dot was first used in the works of Couperin, Bach, and Rameau, in the early part of the 18th century, say from 1720 to 1730.

A lesser degree of staccato than that denoted by the plain dot is shown by placing a slur over the dots on successive notes, or by a dot with a tenuto line over it in the case of a single note, e.g.,


Here the note is held about three fourths of its real value. In pianoforte playing such notes are executed with a species of touch known as the mezzo staccato or portamento, according to the authority last quoted, “a close, firm pressure, with but little percussion.” In violin playing notes marked as now described are terms spiccato, being played, says Dr. Barrett, “by the same bow, but the bow must remain stationary between each sound.”

Some composers occasionally employ the dot as a sign of accent, writing it as if for staccato, but intending it as an indication that certain notes are to be “strongly marked, and made to stand out prominently from the rest,” e.g.,


while two or four dots on each side of a double bar denote the repetition of the music preceding and following each double bar.

With the exception of the dot under a semi-circle, signifying a hold, or pause, we have now examined all the applications of the dot in modern music. These vary in meaning according to the position and environments of the dot itself. None of these applications, however, are devoid of interest.

“In old music,” says Dr. Baker, “several dots set above a note indicate that it is to be sub-divided into so many short notes image-21. This is now used as a tremolo sign for the violin, the dots denoting the actual number of repetitions required. This is a survival of the Bebung, an effect peculiar to the clavichord, on which the continuous repetition of a note (somewhat similar to the vocal vibrato or the tremolo of strings) was produced by the movement of the tip of the finger without the latter quitting the key, and for the employment of which Marpurg gives image-22 as the sign.

Placed on each side of a diagonal line dots now denote the repetition of a measure, e.g.,