Why Do We Have Two Naming Systems for Musical Notes?

If you’ve ever spent time in an online forum about music theory, you’ll have probably come across an argument about whether the UK or the USA note-naming system is superior. Those in the UK are quite attached to their unique, historically meaningful terms, while those in the USA think them antiquated and much prefer their own system, which they see as more logical and mathematical. There is little point in arguing – neither side is going to change their system! It’s more interesting to consider why there is such a difference, bearing in mind we do speak the same language.

 UKBreve SemibreveMinimCrotchetQuaverSemiquaverDemisemiquaver
 USADouble wholeWhole noteHalf noteQuarter noteEighth note16th note32nd note

The UK names for notes date back hundreds of years, to the earliest ever times when music was written down.

Initially in the early 13th century, there were only two available note values, one of which was long, and the other short. Their names were based on the Latin words for long and short: long and breve (like “brief”).

long v. breve

Long   Breve

As time went by, composers felt the need for another note value, which would be worth half or a third of a breve, and this was named the semibreve. The semibreve appeared in the late 13th century. (A symbol was placed at the beginning of the music, to show whether there would be two or three semibreves to a breve. These symbols eventually evolved into time signatures.)

Records suggest that a semibreve would normally be at a metronome speed of about 40, which is much faster than modern standards.

semibreve - half or a third of a breve


By the early 14th century composers again wanted a faster note – this evolution itself reflects the growing rhythmical complexity of the music being written at this time. The minima (minim) was invented, based on the Latin word “minimum”, supposedly because it was the smallest note value possible to play.

minima - shortest note value


However, the trend towards ever-quickening note values was not suppressed simply by using the name minim, and by the late 14th century the crotchet had appeared, worth half a minim. The crotchet gets its name from its shape – it looked like a minim with a hook, (crochet is hook in French), and the crotchet fell into line with other cr- words to do with the crooked, the crinkly, the crippled and the cramped, (as this fascinating book explains: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Sl-Sleaze-but-Sn-Sneeze/dp/1985830892.)

In the 15th century, though, it was the turn of the crotchet to be subdivided, with the creation of the fusa, and at more or less the same time, the semifusa, which by the 16th century had been renamed the quaver, and the semiquaver respectively. The hook moved onto the quaver too (a note which is known logically but confusingly as une croche by the French, who call a crotchet “une noire” (“a black”), as the longest of the wholly black notes), and there it proudly remains.

crotchet, fusa, semifusa

Crotchet  Fusa   Semifusa

During these changes, the actual time assigned to a semibreve became slower and slower, so that a modern semibreve at a moderate tempo would beat at a metronome speed of about 20 – about half the speed it used to be!

Thus, the time names for notes were settled in the UK from the 16th century, long before the Pilgrim Fathers set out for Plymouth, New England, in 1620. To find out why the Americans invented their own system, we need to look at early American music education and social history.

For the earliest settlers in America, music education would not have been high up on the agenda.

Those English men who were highly trained in music would generally have been comfortably employed by the Royal Court, and would have had little reason to emigrate across the ocean. Those who did make the initial crossing were Reformed Protestants, who shunned all music making, except for the singing of Psalms.

As the colonies grew, it is certain that music-making would have become a large part of every-day life, the first communities would have relied on their memories and rote-learning, and the majority of people would not have been musically literate.

the Pilgrim Fathers  settled in New England

As time went by, musical societies and music schools began to appear, as a natural part of a settled society, but they had to start mostly from scratch when it came to educational materials. Music publishing did not begin in America until around the 1780s. Given a clean sheet to start from, the earliest music educators decided to use a mathematical system for naming notes, since notes have a mathematical relationship with each in any case, and they rejected the UK system, where the name of the modern longest note (breve) means “short”! The system was designed for the fast, effective learning of Psalms and hymns, most of which were written in 4 in a bar (or “measure”) Thus a “whole note” would last for one bar, and the other notes are fractions of that note.

Back in the UK, each new generation seamlessly learns the ancient system from the previous generation, so it seems unlikely that the more modern USA system would be able to supplant it.

And indeed, as music itself has become more adventurous and complex since the US system was invented, it can be argued that the “whole note” system is no longer particularly logical. A “whole note” is not long enough when the time signature is 5/4, and when the time signature is 6/8, an “eighth note” lasts for one third of a beat, or one sixth of a bar – it’s not an eighth of anything. Perhaps we should have a new system!