The weirdness of traditional note names

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The start of today's 9 Chickweed Lane:

Punctuation names don't actually follow the powers of 1/2 beyond "semicolon", of course. But the traditional names of musical notes do — and are an interesting exercise in lexical history, combining etymologies from Greek, Latin, Old English, French, and Italian, along with a pervasive inflation of time values.

Thus a quaver, known more rationally as "eighth note", comes originally from the (presumably Old English, and anyhow obsolete) verb quave, meaning "To quake, shake, tremble", plus the frequentative suffix -er, as in clatter, flutter, wander, waver and twitter. In other words, quavers were originally "shakes" or "trills", decorative musical wiggles, presumably to be performed as fast as possible.

But now, at an andante tempo of ♩ = 75, a "quaver" lasts for 4/10 of a second — long enough to say two or three syllables. Similarly, when I was a kid, a bottle of soda from a machine cost a nickel — whereas now it's \$1.50 or \$2.25 or more.

The whole list:

Traditional (British) name Modern (American) name
Longa Quadruple Whole Note
Breve Double Whole Note
Semibreve Whole Note
Minim Half Note
Crotchet Quarter Note
Quaver Eighth Note
Semiquaver Sixteenth Note
Demisemiquaver Thirty-second Note
Hemidemisemiquaver Sixty-fourth Note

Actually there's more! As this Wikipedia page shows you, at the long end there's also an "Octuple Whole Note" (= "Maxima"), and at the short end there's the "Hundred twenty-eighth note" (= "Semihemidemisemiquaver" or "Quasihemidemisemiquaver"), as well as the "Two hundred fifty-sixth note" (= "Demisemihemidemisemiquaver").

It's not entirely clear when and why to chose "semi", "hemi", "demi", or "quasi" for the various powers of 1/2 involved, but whatever…

And there are probably studies Out There exploring how inflation has modified time-values over the centuries — perhaps someone in the comments will point us to them.



  1. Philip Taylor said,

    September 2, 2022 @ 12:04 pm

    Well, I have learned something (by no means for the first time) from this forum. I have know, since a child, the series from breve to hemidemisemiquaver (tho' I remembered the last as a hemisemidemiquaver and the penultimate as a semidemiquaver — I wonder whether both are equally valid), but never before encountered a longa. Thank you !

    [(myl) A quasi-Gricean implicature ensures that if there's a short ("breve") there must also be a long ("longa"), right? And speaking for myself, though I knew about the "longa", the "maxima" is new to me.

    The existence of the semihemidemisemiquaver and the demisemihemidemisemiquaver is implied by the previous power series, and suppose there's nothing to stop someone going on to hemidemisemihemidemisemiquavers and semihemidemisemihemidemisemiquavers and onward ad infinitum…]

  2. J.W. Brewer said,

    September 2, 2022 @ 12:20 pm

    The order in which the diminishing-modifiers fall is presumably historically arbitrary although it may evolve a meaning in context when contrasted with alternative potential orders. The U.S. Dep't of Justice has some people with the job title "Associate Deputy Attorney General" and other people with the job title "Deputy Associate Attorney General,"* and it wouldn't surprise me if there were a university out there with both Deputy Associate Provosts and Associate Deputy Provosts.

    *The title "Deputy Assistant Attorney General" is also a thing. The federal DOJ, however, apparently lacks the title "Assistant Deputy Attorney General" but some state governments have it.

  3. Kenny Easwaran said,

    September 2, 2022 @ 12:44 pm

    There's at least two rounds of musical duration inflation whose existence we can recognize from the names. As the British names suggest, the basic distinction used to be between the breve and the longa, and occasionally people used a semibreve or even a minim. But the new set of names then indicates the semibreve as the new "whole" note, with the old minim as a "half" note, and then even shorter notes below what used to be the minimum. And anyone who has studied modern music at all now knows that a whole note is no longer the unit of a beat, but instead is much more often the unit of a whole measure, with the quarter note (or sometimes the eighth note) being much more common as the basic pulse.

    The History and Modern Use sections of the Wikipedia article on Mensural Notation gives a bit of this:

  4. David Marjanović said,

    September 2, 2022 @ 2:03 pm

    From the Wikipedia talk page of the 256th note:

    "A discussion is taking place to address the redirect Semihemidemisemihemidemisemihemidemisemiquaver. The discussion will occur at Wikipedia:Redirects for discussion/Log/2020 July 26#Semihemidemisemihemidemisemihemidemisemiquaver until a consensus is reached, and readers of this page are welcome to contribute to the discussion. 1234qwer1234qwer4 (talk) 19:24, 26 July 2020 (UTC)"

    In case anyone's wondering, the "modern"/"American" names are international (ganze Note, halbe Note, Viertelnote, Achtelnote…).

  5. Sili said,

    September 2, 2022 @ 2:33 pm

    As a case of deflation rather than in-ditto, I vaguely recall something about a Shostakovich symphony wrongly being played at 75 tempo because the photocopier had cut off the top of a 9.

  6. James said,

    September 2, 2022 @ 3:57 pm

    At a tempo of ♩ = 75, it is a *crotchet* that lasts for 8/10 of a second – a quaver lasts for only 4/10 of a second :)

    [(myl) You're right, of course — I was careless in doing the conversion, and the post is now fixed. Thanks!]

  7. AntC said,

    September 2, 2022 @ 5:41 pm

    What is the fastest music humanly possible? (including the 'world record' for the fastest human drummer). There's a limit at which the human ear can no longer distinguish separate notes — so they get perceived as tone.

    [(myl) For discussion (and examples) of the auditory "flicker fusion threshold" (or "flutter fusion threshold"), see "Vocal creak and fry, exemplified", 2/7/2015. Those examples will illustrate the fact that the transition from taps to tones happens in the neighborhood of 30 Hz (= cycles per second). The transition is a gradual one, of course, and also depends on the nature of the repeating waveform.

    And on the production side, if you record yourself producing a trill as fast as you can with your fingers (e.g. by tapping with the index and middle fingers of your dominant hand), you'll find that the rate is about 13 per second. Double- and triple-tonguing on wind and brass instruments yield similar rates — this study found that

    Benchmarks of tempi for different instruments and various experience-levels of the players for 'SINGLE TONGUING' and 'DOUBLE TONGUING' have been evaluated over 30 seconds for continuous sixteenth notes. The average tempi (median) in BPM (Metronome values) for four 1/16 notes in the first two seconds have been for 'SINGLE TONGUING' 109 for amateur, 120 for students and 123 BPM for professional players (167 for the fastest player, i.e. 11 notes per second). For 'DOUBLE TONGUING' the averages are 149 for amateur, 170 for students and 172 BPM for professional players (238 for the fastest player, i.e. 16 notes per second).


    The fastest notes that are still musical, not just some mechanical exercise.

  8. David Morris said,

    September 2, 2022 @ 6:23 pm

    I am currently typesetting a new 'modern classical' work by a leading Australian composer, and he has included a few longas (longae?), for example three crotchets and a longa in a bar of 19/4. Probably most people would notate it as four crotchets with a pause over the last (maybe with a verbal indication '16 beats'). He also gets down to semihemidemisemiquavers (5 beams), which the typesetting program I use doesn't create automatically and I have to go through a separate procedure. Fortunately there aren't many of either.

  9. Brett said,

    September 2, 2022 @ 7:00 pm

    It's nothing to do with notes, but any sequence of semi-, hemi-, and demi– (all three) makes me think of "The Remorseful" by C. M. Kornbluth:

    “Maybe on Mars!” he shouted as he trudged. The haversack jolted a shoulder blade and he arranged a strap without breaking his stride. Birds screamed and scattered in the dark pine forests as he roared at them: “Well, why not? There must of been ten thousand up there easy. Progress, God damn it! That’s progress, man! Never thought it’d come in my time. But you’d think they would of sent a ship back by now so a man wouldn’t feel so all alone. You know better than that, man. You know God damned good and well it happened up there too. We had Northern Semisphere, they had Southern Semisphere, so you know God damned good and well what happened up there. Semisphere? Hemisphere. Hemi-semi-demisphere.”

  10. Petex said,

    September 3, 2022 @ 7:53 am

    Re: 'more rationally as "eighth note"' – it's mor rational only if the time signature is 4/4. It's presumably, say, a "12th note" in 12/8.

  11. Coby said,

    September 3, 2022 @ 11:34 am

    David Marjanović: The "modern"/"American" names are not "international" but very specifically German. For example, a "quaver"/"eighth-note" is croche in French, corchea in Spanish, croma in Italian, and so on. The German influence on American music terminology is also found in such words as english horn (Br. cor anglais) and concertmaster (Br. leader, though "concertmaster" has been coming into use recently).

  12. Jacob Reed said,

    September 3, 2022 @ 11:50 am

    I think the gradual "speeding up" of rhythmic values is one of those things that every music history textbook talks about, but nobody has done a broad-scale, systematic investigation of. But there are some nice detailed investigations—I like this article by Rob Wegman:

    And relatedly, this article by Nicholas Temperley on how congregations tend to slow hymns down over time (slower tempi being a correlate of "faster" notational values):

  13. Benjamin Geer said,

    September 26, 2022 @ 3:24 pm

    Musicologists have had lengthy debates about the tempi that were commonly used before metronome markings became widespread. Defenders of fast tempi and of slow tempi have devised elaborate arguments to support opposing claims. Ivo Abrava recently summed up the historical evidence in his book _On Bach’s Rhythm and Tempo_ and found it hopelessly ambiguous: the oral tradition of that period has been irretrievably lost, and with it all hope of reconstructing its tempi with any confidence. Even for the 19th century, one often finds that composers wrote metronome markings that couldn’t possibly be correct, or that conflict with evidence of their own performance practice. In short, it’s difficult to be certain about anything before the advent of sound recordings.

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