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When writing in English for an international audience.

I'm not a native speaker of English myself, and I was wondering whether, say, crotchet and quaver are more generally recognized than quarter and eighth note, or the other way 'round. And if I choose the American terminology (which to me, as a non-native speaker, seems a bit more transparent), will I be readily understood by British readers?

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  • 1
    If you're self-publishing I suppose you can do whatever you want. Otherwise, the publisher probably has a say. Feb 23 at 4:42
  • 2
    One thing you don't need is an apostrophe before "round." Another thing to consider is that "croche" in French is not the same as "crotchet" in English (it means "quaver" or "eighth note"), so using the British names could lead to confusion for French speakers who are not aware of the difference.
    – phoog
    Feb 23 at 14:12
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    Other answers address the question of publishing more directly. I would like to mention one additional motivation for the use of fractional names is their increasing prevalence in the interfaces of electronic music equipment and software where it has a more direct connection to the implementation. I'm glad my synthesizer's sequencer lets me set the step length as "1/16" instead of "demisemiquaver". (Maybe one day we'll even refer to 16th note triplets as 24ths as my [30-year-old Roland R-5] drum machine does.)
    – Theodore
    Feb 23 at 14:46
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    And just to double down on that observation, for those voting to close as opinion-based and those giving answers: The question I see above is not "which system is better," but "which system will be understood by the most readers." Feb 23 at 20:28
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    @SteveH. The point is that "round" isn't necessarily short for "around"; it's a preposition in its own right, and the people who actually use "round" rather than "around" as a preposition, for example most English people, don't spell it with an apostrophe. I wouldn't normally get into it here on Music: Practice & Theory, but the question is about "writing in English for an international audience." The apostrophe makes it look like it was written by a non-native speaker (or possibly by an American).
    – phoog
    Feb 25 at 19:12

10 Answers 10

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Since most other languages use the fraction terminology instead of providing clumsy terms of its own (hemidemisemi…), you would do the international audience a favor by sticking to the American terms. (For a comparison, see Lilypond notation.) Even if a reader's native language has its own set of colorful terms, the fractions would be decoded easily.

I disagree with the approach that a motivated reader could look up or even learn the British terms: If you write to be read and understood, the hurdles should be as low as possible. I expect the relation to be more drastic than the hit counts provided by Aaron's suggestion.

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    Yeah, the hemidemisemi... stuff gets ridiculous at a certain point. See demisemihemidemisemiquaver (There's a redirect there from the even-worse "Hemidemisemihemidemisemihemidemisemiquaver") Granted you don't see too many 2048th notes, but at least that terminology is easier to parse and unambiguous. Feb 23 at 16:56
  • 4
    Another point that makes the UK-terms a bit obsolete is that term "semi-breve", being the longest note typically seen in music since even the Baroque era. The word "breve" literally translates to "short", and "whole note" is only half of a short. You very rarely see a full "breve" (2 whole notes), and almost never see a "longa" (4 whole notes) or "maxima" (8 whole notes) unless you're looking at some very ancient music. Feb 23 at 20:49
  • Great answer, especially when communicating about note values on the Internet, since there are people from many countries on the Internet. Feb 24 at 12:47
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    @DarrelHoffman what is complicated about It? Hemi, semi and demi all means half. The quaver gets halved for every hemi, semi and demi present. The meaning is plain.
    – Neil Meyer
    Feb 24 at 15:19
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    @NeilMeyer "hemidemisemi" works fine up to about 3 of them. Beyond that, it becomes problematic to count them all - not to mention the word just sounds silly. As for "breve" it's not a matter of how frequent they are, but just that the word has completely lost its original meaning of "short", since breves, or double whole-notes, when seen, are about the longest notes you'll see in most music, unless you go back to pre-Baroque era stuff. Feb 24 at 15:27
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This is just personal anecdote, but it seems all the British speakers I've encountered understand the American English terms, but very few American speakers seems to understand the British terms. Unfortunately what I don't know is which English version is used when someone is using English as a second or translation language.

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    I might add that one can always calculate what a, say, sixteenth note is relative to a half-note, but good luck figuring out the relationship between a minim and a quaver! Feb 23 at 19:37
  • Honestly, I've wanted to remember the British terms, after all there are only four base terms, quaver, crotchet, minim, breve, but I just never seem to remember them. Feb 23 at 21:35
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    As a Brit trained deeply in the hemidemisemi world, I find them natural, but I can work out sixteenths etc. So I lose a tiny bit in going the more international route...
    – Doktor Mayhem
    Feb 24 at 16:29
  • @MichaelCurtis the key for me was to focus on "semibreve" and "minim" through the ironic observation that the names of the two longest units in common use mean "half short" and "smallest"; the next step is to remember that "hemidemisemiquaver" and all the related "-quaver" terms denote notes with flags, so "quaver" is a note with a flag, leaving "crotchet," which is without. It's not exactly a concise mnemonic, but it worked for me.
    – phoog
    Jul 5 at 11:20
8

A search of music journals on JSTOR came up with

  • "quarter note": 2,160 articles.
  • "crotchet": 1,824

A brief survey of the articles suggested that "quarter note" is generally used by journals published in the United States, while "crotchet" is more used by journals published in Europe.

I'm an American English speaker and find the British terms confusing but not insurmountable. Over time, without any concerted effort, I'm learning them. Whichever set of terms you choose, a motivated reader will just look up the terms if necessary.

If you think your audience is likely to be unfamiliar with one set of terms or the other, you could include a brief legend at the beginning or end of the manuscript.


The entire question could be avoided by using the symbols themselves rather than words, if that's an option. For example, any reader of print who understands either "crotchet" or "quarter note" will also understand ♩.

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    Unfortunate - that last dotted crotchet..!
    – Tim
    Feb 23 at 13:34
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    @Tim Now don't go getting all crotchety.
    – Aaron
    Feb 23 at 15:32
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    @Tim - don't worry, it will have minim-al impact 𝅗𝅥
    – psmears
    Feb 24 at 10:52
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    @Aaron - aw. gimme a break - I'm breving fast and quavering...
    – Tim
    Feb 24 at 12:26
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    @Tim How longa have you been experiencing these symptoms?
    – Aaron
    Feb 24 at 15:33
7

To try to put some numbers on this, I ran some comparisons in Google Ngrams. It's worth noting that the two British terms that are unambiguously more common in these graphs, "minim" and "quaver", also have other usages that may be throwing these comparisons off.1 Google Ngrams can differentiate between nouns and verbs, which allows it to (hopefully) differentiate the two senses of "quaver", but that doesn't help for "minim".

All in all, I think there's some evidence that the British terms are more common in Google Books's corpus, but the present-day frequencies are relatively close. (The British terms were certainly more common historically, though.)

Whole note vs. semibreve:

enter image description here

Half note vs. minim:

enter image description here

Quarter note vs. crotchet:

]

Eighth note vs. quaver (note that Google Ngrams can differentiate between verbs and nouns if you tell it to do so — thanks to Andrew Leach for pointing this out):

enter image description here

Sixteenth note vs. semiquaver:

enter image description here


1 A unit of volume and a verb meaning "to tremble", respectively.

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    The US stubbornly refuses to adopt the metric system, but we did make the better choice here IMO... Feb 23 at 16:43
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    All those charts just tell how many books published using British v. American English. It doesn't tell now many speakers of each language. Feb 23 at 16:48
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    I don't think the ngram for "quaver" is valid, since that word has another more common definition outside of music, meaning "to shake nervously". The others are close enough to be within a margin of error, but that extreme difference for "quaver" almost certainly is caused by the other usage. Feb 23 at 17:01
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    I'm not convinced, that in musical context the word note will follow in the majority of cases, since it is seldom required for clarity.
    – guidot
    Feb 23 at 17:33
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    Another point these ngrams might be missing is that the fractional notations may be often listed as numbers, so might be worth adding "8th note", "16th note", etc. in addition to "eighth note", "sixteenth note". Feb 24 at 13:57
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I don't think the original English terms such as crotchet or minim are going to fade away too soon, although the fractional U.S. terms do make a lot of sense. The former have been around for far longer, and there are still many who swear by them. (And some who swear at them...).

It would be an idea to include in the glossary what each term means, then use one throughout. Even inclusion of French, German, etc. terms, (French 'croche' = quaver, confusingly). Most of the 'English' terms are actually shorter - 'crotchet'= 'quarter-note'; 'quaver' = 'eighth-note', and I believe all musos ought to be able to understand both, so maybe you need to consider which side of the pond the vast majority of your readers will be from in order to decide.

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  • Including a glossary is all the more important if the targeted readership is not high-level scholarly. Personally, I always want a note documenting how the author intends to refer to pitches by register—C4? C<sub>4</sub>? C vs c? Feb 23 at 14:02
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    "The former have been around far longer": it seems the numeric names arose in German around the same time as the English names, namely in the 17th century. Though of course the English names are closer to the Latin names that have been around since the beginning of rhythmic notation. It's only the use of the numeric names in English that is relatively new, having arisen roughly 200 years ago.
    – phoog
    Feb 23 at 14:29
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    @phoog - interesting! Thanks. What gets me is that the quarter note implies that a full bar is 4/4 - hence 'three-quarter time = 3/4, which is deemed to be bars that aren't filled up properly! Not sure what 5/4 time is called by those 'rules'!
    – Tim
    Feb 23 at 14:57
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    @Tim, no, a quarter-note does not imply 4/4, or any other meter. It merely says it's one-quarter of a whole note. A whole note doesn't exist in 3/4 time. 5/4 time is (duh) five beats each of which is marked with a quarter-note. End of story. Feb 23 at 19:36
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    @CarlWitthoft The real "lie to children" is "a whole note is called that because it takes up a whole measure." Along with "a quarter note is a beat," which causes some tears when they hit 6/8. Feb 23 at 19:52
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This hard to say, as we do not know what you write for which audience. If you are addressing an audience versed in musicology then any such term should be fine. Using the american system is probably a bit more reasonable if you really have an international audience, as the american system is a bit more logically transparent.

4

The American vernacular is only used in the US and Canada. In all the other English-speaking nations the British terms are used. In Europe, if the English terms are used then the British terms are used. In all of the British Commonwealth, except Canada, the British terms are also used.

There are many more countries that use the British terms than the Americans, but then again there is also no real reason you cannot learn both.

1
  • In my experience German and Dutch musicians use the US terms at least as commonly as the British terms. Most European musicians I know -- including English musicians -- are comfortable with both systems.
    – phoog
    Jul 5 at 10:59
3

Are you following British or American usage in the rest of the document? There is something to be said for remaining consistent. If you are writing "colour", "centre", and "lift", also write "semibreve". If you are writing "color", "center", and "elevator", also write "whole note".

If you are writing for publication, follow the guidance of your publisher.

2

Music note terminology varies in different languages, but the American note value terminology is more popular and universally standard. The American version makes sense to more people internationally mainly because the fractional naming convention is easier for learning and rhythm (info from studybass.com). But it also gets tricky if you're working with time signatures other than 4/4 timing. As an Australian, although I prefer the British note value terminology, I also understand the American version and I assume most British readers would too.

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You should use the British terms as the American ones assume you only ever compose in and refer to 4/4

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    That would be true if the American names referred to fractions of a bar; but (as I understand it) they refer to fractions of a semibreve, and so apply equally well whatever the bar length or time signature.
    – gidds
    Feb 23 at 16:55

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