I was always taught to use a certain set of names for the length of a note, such as crotchet, minim, quaver, and so on. I'm aware though that those terms aren't used as much outside the UK, and that terms like "quarter note" and "half note" etc. are often preferred elsewhere.

Where did the British terms come from? Is there a historical reason why they differ from other English-speaking parts of the world?


This direct quote from Wikipedia should answer your first question:

The British names go back at least to English renaissance music, and the terms of Latin origin had international currency at that time. Obviously, longa means 'long', and the rest rarely indicate relative shortness. Brave is from Latin bravis, 'short', minim is from minimus, 'very small', and quiver refers to the quivering effect of very fast notes. The elements sem-, dem- and hem- mean 'half' in Latin, French and Greek respectively, while quasi- means 'almost'. The chain semantic shift whereby notes which were originally perceived as short came progressively to be long notes is interesting both linguistically and musically. However, the crotchet is named after the shape of the note, from the Old French for a 'little hook', and it is possible to argue that the same is true of the minim, since the word is also used in palaeography to mean a vertical stroke in mediaeval handwriting.

For the second question, the first thing I found was this:

[the U.S. names] were originally translated from the German names for the notes because so many German composers immigrated to the United States in the 19th century.

  • 2
    I just have to add that neither of my sources show their sources and I am by no means an expert in history so... take with a grain of salt! Both explanations sound believable, though. – nonpop Oct 24 '13 at 23:19
  • The names are older than the renaissance, but I can't easily support that from here at work. Later, I hope. – Monica Cellio Oct 25 '13 at 15:18

Some corrections to non pop's great answer: Breve from Latin brevis (not "brave"). "Minim" is from the Latin adjective "minima" which was original a subcategory of the semibrevis, the "semibrevis minima" -- it doesn't come from the stroke, since the earliest minimae did not have the stroke; it was a later invention. Why the crotchet has the name meaning "hook" but the first note with a hook (i.e., flag) is the quaver [not quiver] (8th note) comes from a shift that took place in the 15th c. where the notes minim or longer came to be written with hollow noteheads and all smaller notes shifted up a rhythmic level.

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