British terminology for notes

March 31, 2005 at 05:18 AM · I'm having something of a difficult time adjusting to the British note terminology. Semibreves are whole notes, minims are half notes, crotchets are quarter notes, quavers are eighth notes, semi-quavers are 16th notes, demi-semi quavers are 32nd notes, and hemi-demi-semi quavers are 64th notes. (I think that's correct anyway.) Can someone explain to me how these names came about? Perhaps if I can learn and understand their origins (not the "semi" prefix, etc, I get that), but perhaps a minim, a crotchet?

Replies (27)

March 30, 2005 at 08:56 AM · Let me finish that sentence (sorry, it's late here!)

...perhaps if I can learn and understand their origins now, I will remember more easily and be clear of all danger of sitting, listening to quavers and minims, with my eyes glazing over. :-D

March 31, 2005 at 09:39 AM · I don't know, but every second word the British use is slang with no obvious connection to the word it's substituting for. I've never seen anything like it. They must just make them up on the spot. Just practice asking "What does that mean?"

March 31, 2005 at 09:29 AM · If you Americans call Semibreves whole notes, then what do you call breves?


March 31, 2005 at 10:04 AM · Breves are lattes made with half and half instead of milk.

March 31, 2005 at 06:46 PM · I don't know Carl, you tell me. :) Are semibreves not whole notes?

March 31, 2005 at 06:56 PM · Jenni

Just to add to the list, here's the definition of 'breve' from the online Grove's Dictionary of Music:

"In Western notation a note half the value of a long and twice that of a semibreve. In American usage it is called a double whole note. It was the shorter of the two notes of early mensural music and theory, hence its name. "

I was trying to find the origin of the terms you mentioned. It's dense but one clue: half of a semibreve could be called (among other things) a "minimum perfect time". Hence, 'minim' for short?

If I see any info on 'quavers', I let you know.

Larry Samuels

March 31, 2005 at 07:41 PM · The Latin roots of crotchet and quaver mean they're thinking of the half note as getting the beat for some reason.

March 31, 2005 at 09:00 PM · 'Quavers' are a form of British cheese-flavoured crisps (potato chips to Americans) which taste foul. Stuffed full of additives as well...


April 1, 2005 at 01:04 AM · Personally I'm baffled as to why the Americans call semibreves 'whole notes', when not every bar is in 4/4. It seems to me that it would make more sense to call crotchets (quarter notes) whole notes because they're each worth one beat.

April 1, 2005 at 01:12 AM · hehe sue... when we moved to the states about three years ago, my mom always used to say, after learning a new "american" word (the boot of a car being a trunk, the dustbin being a trashcan, the robots being traffic lights, etc.), "the americans just HAVE to be different from the rest of the world and make things complicated... " lol... i thought that was the funniest thing in the world... hehe

April 1, 2005 at 03:36 AM · But if the automobile was invented in the United States, wouldn't it be the Brits who changed things around?

Not wanting to pick a fight, just wondering.

April 1, 2005 at 04:18 AM · Okay all you Limeys:

Before you go criticizing us real English speakers any further, please explain how "cheese and rice" is the savior of all men, a trombone is something you hold to your ear and talk through, Johnny Rutter is something you smear on bread, and Elizabeth Regina is... I'm not even going there.

April 1, 2005 at 05:02 AM · Sue said, " would make more sense to call crotchets (quarter notes) whole notes because they're each worth one beat." However, in time signatures of x/8, an eighth note is worth one beat.

I did some quick Internet research, and now everything makes even less sense:

1. Breve is a note equivalent to two whole notes. The word is derived from a Latin word meaning short or brief. A note equivalent to two whole notes doesn't sound brief to me.

2. Minim has several meanings: (1).. Abbr. M. or min. A unit of fluid measure, as: (a) In the United States, 1/60 of a fluid dram (0.0616 milliliters). (b) In Great Britain, 1/20 of a scruple (0.0592 milliliters). (2) A half note. (3) An insignificantly small portion or thing. I don't believe that a half note is an insignificantly small portion of any other note. I also find it interesting that in Great britain, a scruple is a (small) unit of fluid measure. An online thesaurus gives the following as synonyms or equivalent words: A tiny amount: bit, crumb, dab, dash, dot, dram, drop, fragment, grain, iota, jot, mite, modicum, molecule, ort, ounce, particle, scrap, scruple, shred, smidgen, speck, tittle, trifle, whit. Chiefly British : spot. A half note is equivalent to a molecule or a scruple?

4. A quaver is defined as (1) A quivering sound. (2) A trill. (3) Chiefly British: An eighth note. This actually makes some sense to me.

5. A crotchet is defined as (1) An odd, whimsical, or stubborn notion. (2) a quarter note. It is derived from from Old French crochet, hook, diminutive of croche. A written crotchet may look like a hook, if you have a sufficiently vivid imagination.

6. I found a new word, longa, which means a note twice as long as a breve.

Inge, you're a linguist. Can you make some sense of this?

Someone famous (GB Shaw? Mark Twain?) once said, "The Americans and the English are two peoples separated by a common language."

April 1, 2005 at 05:34 AM · OK, back to the original question: I had a feeling that I had the history of those names somewhere. I picked up a used book called "Medieval Music" and never did managed to slog my way through the neumes and modes and such. Mostly I gleaned that "them folk didn't think the way us folk do now." But scattered in various chapters there are a couple of references to breves and so on. The bad news is that the character of those values seem to change as musical concepts develop and change.

What I'm getting from this text is that at some point in the Middle Ages people finally decided on rhythms, and those rhythms followed modes like I remember from my Latin class: trochaic (long short) iambic (short long) etc., and once you have rhythms you need to define them.

So I see St. Augustine (354 - 430 A.D.) invented (?) two meausrements: a "long" and a "breve". No semi-breves yet. And the purpose seems to be to be able to designate those "modal rhythms" that are variations of "long short" "short long". "Breve" literally means "short". The breve was half as long as a "long" - makes sense. They don't seem to have been as digitally precise as we are these days: the rest of the chapter talks about "long longs" and "ultra long longs" and so on. The age of relativity, I guess. Something that we would write as a dotted quarter note followed by an eighth note, would ahve the dotted quarter (or dotted half or whole note with the same rhythmic relationship between tow notes) as the "long long" because that "long" was "longer" than the regular "long".

The next time the book mentions anything we're into the 13th century and music has become more complex. The music is still based on the relationship of "longs" and "breves" and the number "3" is quite revered because it constitutes perfection, having a beginning, middle, and end. So when you have the iambic measure of long plus short in essence you have three beats. The text goes on at length about perfect moods, major and minor moods that are related to rhythm rather than harmony as we would think about it. In any case, as time went on, people were beginning to feel hampered by those 6 rhythms they had to use and started to invent new ones. As they invented new ones they had to reinvent their note values (still written as neumes). They broke up the "shorts" (breves) into something shorter, and called all of them "semibreves" no matter how short they were. A certain Franco de Cologne then created some kind of a system to make sense of it all.

Then suddenly in the 14th century there is reference to "minims" as though they had been around for a while. I suppose "minim" would mean "smallest. Shorter and shorter notes were being used, so the values had to be chopped up. So they had longs, breves, semibreves and minims.

Then things get turned around. The "breve" is no longer "short". "minim" meant the shortest possible note, but they ended having "semiminims" that were half the value of "minims". In any case, it's the beginning of our modern music, but steeped in older ideas. I found it hard to wrap my head around the concept that certain rhythms are "major", others are "minor" and that rhythms contained perfection and imperfection.

So here we get to some of our ideas. Perfect time was indicated by a circle. So imperfect time was a semi-circle, which is the symbol for our "common time". The "breve" was the length of two whole notes, so half a breve (our semi-circle) is the length of our "imperfect time" and that's the whole note, or four quarter notes etc. In common time, the beat falls on the semi-breve, they would say.

The other "ala breve" signature that looks like a C with a line through it and nowadays means 2/2 time, meant that the beat fell on the breve, which is like two semibreves (2 whole notes) in length, so we end up with 2/2 time.

It's all quite confusing, really, and probably not helpful in memorizing British notation. But at least it gives a muddled idea that those terms come from the Middle Ages, and it gave me a bit of an idea of how our modern music developed from an earlier age. I dare say that I find the bland mathematical chopping up of notes from "whole" down to 32nd and smaller easier to comprehend.

April 1, 2005 at 07:19 AM · To take it back to the very origins, the term "breve" was in use during the Medieval era, by the 1200-1300s. At this point "they" were still using the rhythmic modes, standardized arrangements of long (longa) and short (breve). Things started getting sloppy when the concept of subdivision of a duration worked its way into the music scene. Far too complex and inconsistent for me to follow...! At some point they were even using different colors of ink to denote duple (black) verses triple (red) subdivisions.

Along came Philip de Vitry to save the day (sort of...). In his Ars Nova philisophizing he recognized four or five note--no,neume--values, values that I don't happen to recall off the top of my head. I don't beleive he made it further than minims or crotchets, but don't hold me to that! Symbols like circles and half circles with various dots and lines started popping up to signify meters, to use the term VERY loosely. This, by the way, is where our C and C-with-a-line-through-it come from. "Common time" and "cut time" are terms created to suit our modern fancies.

Through this ongoing process the longa and duplex longa lasting-forever-type notes kind of dropped of the radar, so to speak. Suddenly "breve," which means "short," was left to serve the role of "long." Oops!

With the breve as the long note and the increasing complexity and idiomatic writing through the Renaissance demanding quicker note durations they started making up neume-values on a whim. Splitting a crotchet yielded a "quaver." Splitting a quaver was obviously a "semi"-quaver, to use the standard latin term for "half." Then came the demisemiquaver... half of half of a quaver. And the hemidemisemiquaver... half of a half of a half of a quaver.

And there, in the most simplistic to the point of barely accurate terms, is the explanation and history of the names of notes.

'Erie, music-geek-extraordinaire :-)

April 1, 2005 at 09:06 AM · It sounds like notes have suffered from spiraling inflation. Hmmm, except it's deflation.

April 1, 2005 at 09:58 AM · Why did Mozart sing so high?

He got kicked in the crotchet.

I remember the good old ABRSM days...

April 1, 2005 at 12:46 PM · Lol, Henry.

So if I understand these (very interesting) explanations correctly, perfect time is in three, three being historically 'perfect', 'magic', etc etc, presumably derived from the holy trinity. And perfect time is indicated by a circle (have I got this right, Inge?). And imperfect time is indicated by a semicircle. Firstly, how is 4/4 or 2/2 or whatever half of 3? Secondly, does the hang-up about the number 3 and the notion of perfection imply that the perfect piece is in 3/3 time, contains three three-bar phrases, and finishes with a perfect cadence? The mind boggles.

What I don't understand is this: When there's a historical thing going on about the number three, how is it that music is commonly dealt with in subdivisions of 32, 16, 8 etc?

April 1, 2005 at 12:53 PM · Oh, btw, British terminology for notation makes no sense to me either. In fact I explain the US system to my students because it enables them to translate time signatures much more easily. The British are funny like this; we have all these proclaimed 'rules' for things, yet nothing is ever consistent. Our contemporary English grammar and spelling system, for example. If you read a text in Middle English, the system they used back then actually makes far more sense than the one we use today.

And Sam, phone is 'dog and bone'. Keep up, old chap;)

April 1, 2005 at 01:45 PM · Maybe they're so inbred they can read each others minds.

April 1, 2005 at 01:57 PM · Jim,

I'm not inbred! I am of mixed German/Canadian/English/Welsh background.

Regarding note names... yes, it's confusing. One of those things you just learn and take for granted I guess.

By the way, I've never heard anyone use cockney slang sincerly.


April 1, 2005 at 01:56 PM · This conversation reminded me on one particular question. I'm moving to London and probably starting my studies of cello, there. I'd like to learn the British music terminology to make things easier. Is there any good (British) music dictionary out there?

April 1, 2005 at 02:28 PM · Hi Shonagh,

Try Maureen Cox's theory books; Theory in a Nutshell is a comprehensive guide up to Grade 5 level. Otherwise Eric Taylor's book, whose title I can't remember, but it's published by the Associated Board and is pink with a red treble clef on the front (just ask any UK music retailer for The Pink Theory Book). It's rather impenetrable, but has a ton of stuff in it.

April 1, 2005 at 05:21 PM · Oh 'Erie, I'm glad you came in after my post to save the day. I went to bed at 3:00 a.m. thinking "what have I done", recognizing my ramble as the result of a lot of sleep deprivation.

Sue, I haven't a clue. I dropped the book because it occurred to me that it would be better to get my modern key signatures straight in my head rather than getting a thorough understanding of the intricacies of neumes. I'm no scholar, but what I've gathered even before is that in the Middle Ages they had an entirely different mindset than we did: more pictoral, non-digital, and their focus was entirely different than ours. They were following some kind of heaven-oriented ideal in which earthly life didn't really matter very much except as an expression and symbolism of that ideal (the way I'm picking it up) which is a bit behind their almost burning Galileo at the stake for proving that the Earth is not the centre of the universe. A couple of years ago I ran across a tidbit by accident that Galileo's father made strings or string instruments, I'm not sure which: but the main point was that he was "controversial" because he wanted to tailor them according to pitch as their measure. They were tailored according to mathematical proportions which were considered sacred. That probably is related to those "perfect" rhythms and so on. Music and musicians were considered of a rather low order. The only reason that music was elevated at all is because of its mathematical component. I would almost think that while nowadays we might use physics and mathematics to serve music, that in those days music was considered as a means of serving the divine expression that mathematics (geometry?) entailed.

Actually this has gotten my curious, and I think I found a bit of an answer to your question, Sue. In the earlier times it seems that singers were free to choose the rhythm because they were "knowledgeable" after years of training, so nothing is really written down. After that most of the references seem to be in terms of 3/6, 9/6, 3/4 time in modern parlance and that makes sense.

Then we get to the 14th century & Philippe de Vitry. "An even more far-reaching innovation, however, was the establishment of duple mensurations on a par with triple." Duple meter became "acceptable" for the first time. A mood or mode was considered "perfect" if the long equals three breves, and imperfect if it equals two. At that time smallest subdivision was the minim (fraction of a semibreve which is fraction of breve which is fraction of long), and if three minims = 1 semibreve, it was "perfect", but if two minims = 1 semibreve, it was "imperfect". That subdivision of the semibreve was called "prolation".

They show four 'time signatures' (= mode or mood).

- a circle with a dot in it "=" 9/8 time is perfect time because it consists of THREE "semibreves" which in our notation would be three dotted quarter notes. The prolation is also perfect because each of the semibreves = THREE "minims" that would look like our eighth notes and function like a triplet, i.e. eighth note with a little three over it.

- a circle = 3/4 time was perfect time because it consisted of THREE semibreves. But it had imperfect prolation because each of the semibreves = TWO minims.

- A dotted semicircle (C with a dot in it) was like 3/4 time, and was imperfect time because there were TWO semibreves (two dotted quarter notes in the rhythm), but perfect prolation because each of the semibreves = 3 minims (triplets).

- a semicircle = 2/4 or common time was imperfect because it equalled two semibreves, and it had imperfect prolation because each semibreve = 2 minims.

So there you have it. Crazily enough, I think I'm starting to understand this.

I'm curious whether, given the mindset of the time, the holier the music, the more "perfect" the time signature, and if secular music would be set apart by imperfection? But then for dance music, does that make a waltz holier than a march?


April 1, 2005 at 06:14 PM · Thanks Sue! By the way, I love your blog. It's absolutely hilarious!

April 2, 2005 at 09:31 PM · Thanks Shonagh! It's dedicated to Rosemary Cox:P

May 4, 2005 at 09:30 PM · Hi.

I read this little conversation and found it quite enlightening. I never before realized all of the history behind the english names of the notes, much less the actually names of some of the less, well, obvious ones such semi quaver down to hemi demi semi quaver. Thank you very much, but there is one thing that i still have no idea about... what are the names of the prefixes after hemi demi semi quavers. It baffles me completely. There are another 23 different letters of the alphabet but i have no idea which one goes next on to what we Americans call 128th notes. Thank you.

A little side note: i actually know someone by the last name of Cox with a wife, Rosmary Cox. They run a group called Montgomery County Youth Orchestra somewhere near where I live. If these people happen to be one and the same, it would be very nice to know.

This discussion has been archived and is no longer accepting responses.

Facebook YouTube Instagram Email is made possible by...

Shar Music
Shar Music Shopping Guide Shopping Guide

Los Angeles Philharmonic
Los Angeles Philharmonic

Corilon Violins
Corilon Violins

Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra
Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra

Dimitri Musafia, Master Maker of Violin and Viola Cases
Dimitri Musafia, Master Maker of Violin and Viola Cases

Anne Cole Violin Maker
Anne Cole Violin Maker

Miroirs CA Classical Music Journal
Miroirs CA Classical Music Journal

Pirastro Strings
Pirastro Strings

JR Judd Violins
JR Judd Violins

Classic Violin Olympus

Coltman Chamber Music Competition

Metzler Violin Shop

Southwest Strings

Bobelock Cases

Johnson String Instrument/Carriage House Violins

Bay Fine Strings Violin Shop

Jargar Strings


Violin Lab



Nazareth Gevorkian Violins

Laurie's Books

Discover the best of in these collections of editor Laurie Niles' exclusive interviews. Interviews Volume 1 Interviews Volume 1, with introduction by Hilary Hahn Interviews Volume 2 Interviews Volume 2, with introduction by Rachel Barton Pine