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A fermata (or hold or pause) is an element of musical notation indicating that the note should be sustained for longer than its note value would indicate. Exactly how much longer it is held is up to the discretion of the performer, but twice as long is not unusual. It is usually printed above, but occasionally below (upside down), the note that is to be held longer. Occasionally holds are also printed above rests or barlines, indicating a pause of indefinite duration.
This symbol appears as early as the 14th century, and is quite common in the works of Dufay and Josquin.
In Chorale arrangements by Johann Sebastian Bach and other composers of the Baroque, the fermata often only signifies the end of a phrase, where a breath is to be taken. In a few organ compositions, the fermatas occur in different measures for the right and left hand, and for the feet, which would make holding them impractical.
Some modern composers (such as Francis Poulenc and Krzysztof Penderecki) have expanded the symbol's usage to indicate approximate duration, incorporating fermatas of different sizes, square- and triangle-shaped fermatas, and so on, to indicate holds of different lengths. None of these has become standard usage, however.