So, I was wondering why there are only even numbered notes? Like half, quarter, and eighth and so on.

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    I have edited the question so it's only one quesion. @user139024: Ask the other as a separate question. The answers are mostly about the first question, so hopefully I haven't created too much confusion. May 4, 2014 at 8:52
  • "Why" is always hard to answer correctly. "Why" as in, how did it historically come about? "Why" as in, to what higher goal? "Why" as in why not this alternative method. Or "why" as in, how do I create durations outside of the fixed set of durations? May 4, 2014 at 8:54
  • @MeaningfulUsername it is a fundamental problem of the word "why". See here for explanation. jstor.org/discover/10.2307/… Codeswitcher did a great job of explaining it in a evolutionary/historical way. And ontological answer would be: "because if you subdivide note values to generate smaller values, you inevitably end up with even divisions, since 2 is an even division". And a teleological answer might be: to remove the inherent ambiguity in the mensural notation system. We can go on answering why in different ways. May 4, 2014 at 9:08
  • @RolandBouman: I realised I didn't get your point, and when I did I removed my comment. Sorry for the confusion! (But it need not be fundamentally bad that the answer can be answered from different viewpoints...) May 4, 2014 at 9:09
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    Guys please go to Meta for this sort of discussion.
    – user28
    May 4, 2014 at 13:17

3 Answers 3


So, I was wondering why there are only even numbered notes? Like half, quarter, and eighth and so on.

Because, O my child, we are a weak, degenerate people. Because we live in an Iron Age, not like those who came before. Not like before, in days long past, when musicians strode the earth like giants of artistry.

They divided notes into thirds.

This has been how you have been taught: that the basic unit of musical time is a quarter note, and that you build up rhythms by combining quarters, halves, eighths, sixteenths and the occasional whole, like they were different sizes of musical Lego(tm) bricks. You were taught to think of rhythm as additive.

But about a thousand years ago, when musician-scientists were first figuring out how to write down rhythm such that the reader had any hope of decoding what was meant, they thought of rhythm in a very different way.

If you were to ask, oh, Perotin in 1198 AD to explain rhythm, he might say to you, "Look here, music is just like poetry, so we use the poetry terminology from Classical antiquity. For convenience, and because we're big old geeks, we've numbered them. The first rhythmic mode is the trochee: long-short. So music in the first rhythmic mode goes DAH-dah DAH-dah DAH-dah etc." And he'd be singing what we'd notate as quarter, eighth, quarter, eighth, quarter, eighth. Which is to say, what we expect to see in 6/8.

Perotin would go on to explain that mode #2 was the iamb: short-long. Also ternary. But wait! (you might ask, remembering your metrical feet from high school poetry class) What about the dactyl? Isn't that long-short-short? "Yes!" beams Perotin "That's number 3. DAH-da-dah!" Dotted quarter, eighth, quarter, or what we call 3/4.

Binary time in the rhythmic modes is down at #5, the spondee. But it's notated as 6/8 because while it's pairs of longs, they are further subdivided as triplets.

In the late 12th century, ALL the "time signatures" they had were ternary on some level.

(As an aside, because pretty much everybody with access to a pen and ink was clergy, there's apparently contemporary argument that this whole "divided by three" thing had theological significance -- you know, the Holy Trinity -- but that has more than a little of the whiff of post hoc rationalization.)

Listening break! Here's Perotin's Viderunt Omnes from 1198 over the original notation. (Prefer modern notation? Here.) Trivia: first four part piece in the historical record. TTTB.

Our SE founder, Joel Spolsky, once quipped that the great thing about Wikipedia is that if he ever wanted to know something that he couldn't find in Wikipedia, he could just start a new page about the topic and put something down completely and obviously bogus, and somebody would come along, be incensed, and correct it, thereby answering his question. Whenever I think about rhythmic mode notation, I am reminded of that, because while you have to give those guys credit -- the rhythmic modes were the first real attempt to get rhythmic notation off the ground -- it was the absolutely terrible solution that drove the invention of something that actually, you know, worked.

And that was mensural notation. Our irritated Wikipedian-analog was Franco of Cologne, who gave us the crucial innovation that mensural notation was based on: that duration should be encoded in note shapes -- what we do, still to this day.

However, they still thought of musical rhythm from the top down. So in medieval mensural notation, and the variants descended from it for quite some time, rhythm was defined in four layers. The tempus (Latin ="time") of a piece was how many semibreves a breve was divided into. A complete breve was one that had all three counts. Because, clearly, the right, full, correct number of subdivisions for a note to have is three. The Latin for "complete" is perficio, or as we would say (and is still an archaic but used definition of the word in English) perfect. A breve that only gets two semibreves, clearly, is incomplete, and thus imperfect. Thus we can say of a piece where breves are to be subdivided by three that it is in perfect time, while one in which the breves are only divided by two is in imperfect time.

(I'm not making this up. In early music, we actually describe music as in perfect and imperfect time.)

But that's just one level. The semibreve, itself, might be subdivided into either three (perfect) or two (imperfect) minimums. This level was called prolatio, or as we say today prolation. With both tempus and prolation, we have the makings of a basic rhythmic vocabulary. We can say of a piece that it has perfect time and perfect prolation -- three semibreves to each breve, and three minims to the semibreve, or what we'd notate as 9/8 -- or perfect time and imperfect prolation -- what we'd notate as 3/4 -- or imperfect time and perfect prolation -- what we'd notate as 6/8 -- or imperfect time with imperfect prolation -- what we'd notate 4/4.

Additionally, there were two higher layers: how many breves to the longae (this is the modus or mode, and how many longae to the maxima (this is the maximodus). Nobody seems to care about these.

Listening break! Have a Franconian motet, so called because it was notated in the then-new notation of Franco of Cologne. Okay, back to work.

Over the next, oh, three hundred years, music in imperfect time with imperfect prolation slowly became more popular, moving from something about as unusual as 9/8 is today (i.e. totally legit, its just nobody ever much uses it), to... well, I just eyeballed my copy of Odhecaton (pub 1501 AD) and it, of its approximately 100 pieces, has fewer than 10 in ternary times. Peri's Le Varie Musiche (pub 1602 AD) is about 75% binary time.

By the time you get into the 17th century, the roles of binary and ternary time have pretty thoroughly switched. Still, the basic notation system persists, and people are still using the terms "breve", "semibreve", "minim" and so forth.

Here's the part where I get hazy, because, really, if it happens after 1651 and before 1960 I simply don't care. But what I have been able to discover is that the American English terms "half note" and "quarter note" and all the rest, which presuppose binary divisions, came from German into English in the 19th century. So somewhere around there, or previous, ternary time music has become rare enough that it had become natural to consider the subdivisions of the breve and the semibreve into two parts the default and natural order.

And that is how it came to be that Americans (an those who learn our musical terminology) came to refer to one sixth of a bar counted in six as an "eighth".

P.S. One last listen: the 16th century was, as far as I'm concerned, the last great gasp for ternary music. The 16th century saw a hundred year vogue for the hemiola syncopation, which became to dance music of the end of the century what swing was to the mid-twentieth's dance music. The hemiola is when you play 6/8 and 3/4 at the same time. Of course, you can stack them too. The Fairie Round by Holborne, 1599. (Score)

P.P.S. Update: It occurred to me to pull out my copy of Yudkin's translation from the Latin of the "Music" chapter of Freig's Paedagogus from 1582 AD. It says this (yes, it's in the FAQ format so beloved of late 16th cen authors):

How many kinds of note-lengths are there?

Two kinds. The notes are either longer or shorter than a semibreve (which is what determines the mensuration).

Which are longer than a semibreve?

The brevis, the longa, and the maxima. A brevis is two semibreves, a longa is four, and a maxima eight.

Which are shorter than a semibreve?

The minim, semiminim, fusa, and semifusa. Two minims, four semiminims, eight fuase or sixteen semifusae are equivalent to one semibreve.

How many knids of count are there?

Two kinds. Duple and triple.

What is duple?

When one semibreve, or two minims come into one count. That is called tempus imperfectum and the sign is [our "cut time" sign].

What is triple?

When three semibreves or their equivalent are sung in the time of one semibreve. And this is called triple proportion, or tempus perfectum, and the sign is [sign: circle with dot in it] or [sign: circle]. This proportion is twice as fast as taht which is normally called triple....

This is fascinating because he clearly thinks of note values as we do: two eighths to the quarter, two quarters to the half, and so on. That is his default, basic answer to the question of what note values there are. But at the same time, he still thinks of measures in the old way, of duple and triple time, and goes right on to describe triple time as that in which there are three half notes (semibreve) to the whole (breve).

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    I thought this was a highly enjoyable answer. I knew about some of the history re. mensural notation, but I didn't realize the link with the rhytmic modes. Very insightful. Thanks! May 4, 2014 at 8:51
  • I joined the Music Stackexchange site just so I could upvote this very interesting answer.
    – Flounderer
    May 6, 2014 at 5:08
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    @ToddWilcox Only if Macedonians have 11 feet. There's nothing particular about binary time that's more dancable than ternary; there's a rich European history of dance music in ternary time from the medieval estampies through the carols and basse dances to renaissance galliards and salterellos and canaries and country dances on through the baroque minuets and jigs on to waltz and mazurkas... I highly doubt it. Jan 6, 2016 at 2:14
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    @ToddWilcox We don't have a clear why. If I were going looking for a why, the first place I'd start my search is in the idea that musical fashion moved in that direction. I believe I have an example of a similar-but-different thing in the 17th century, so I wonder if it's a product of what composers were finding interesting or exciting to play with. Or possibly it has something to do with the massive influx of amateur musicians that happened in the 16th century. (The rise of printed commercially available scores starting 1501 made sightreading a middle-class pastime.) Jan 7, 2016 at 18:40
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    @ToddWilcox P.S. my specialty is in early dance music, and, now that you've asked and I'm thinking about it, I wonder if the popularization of binary time was a product of moving away from dance music, which was often ternary. Amateurs sight-reading at home might enjoy playing the dance hits they heard at social function (so Danserye 1551 and other dance music compilations) but they didn't need or necessarily want to accompany dancing. Since ternary music of the time was often highly syncopated and polyrhythmic, maybe the market for scores skewed to rhythmically simpler works in binary time. Jan 7, 2016 at 18:48

So, I was wondering why there are only even numbered notes?

Because they add up. :) Two eighth's make a fourth; two fourths make a half; two halves make a whole, etc.

However, there also notes that do not follow this binary pattern. They are called tuplets. The most common form of a tuplet is a triplet. This is a note divided into three equal sections. There are also duplets, quadruplets, pentuplets, etc.

Also, because it's all about note duration, how do we express the duration of a note, say a whole, on a guitar or any other instrument? Like how many seconds?

enter image description here

To start with, every piece has a time signature. Here you can see the 4/4 time signature. This means that every measure will have four beats, each lasting a quarter note. The top number describes the number of beats per measure and the bottom number defines the type of beat (half, quarter, eighth, etc.).

In this piece, I have written a quarter note on every beat in the upper staff (line of music).

The specific duration of a note is defined by the tempo. A tempo marking is written in beats per minute (BPM). So, 120 BPM means 2 beats per second. This is the same on every instrument.

Often, the tempo is not a specific BPM, but a word, such as Allegro. Allegro means the tempo is roughly 120 BPM. So here, each beat (quarter note) lasts .5 seconds.

However, if the piece were marked Adagio instead of Allegro, the tempo would be a lot slower, about 45 BPM. Each beat (quarter note) would last 1.33 seconds.

  • So how many beats per second is a eighth note?
    – user139024
    May 4, 2014 at 14:59
  • user139024 sorry but this question is a bit silly, the answer is already in @AmericanLuke's answer. May 4, 2014 at 15:11
  • I know, but what is the tempo of a eighth note?
    – user139024
    May 4, 2014 at 15:15
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    @RolandBouman No question is silly :) . Each piece defines a tempo for the entire piece (or a section the piece). For example, in Beethoven's Cello Sonata in A, you can see the tempo marking "Allegro Ma Non Tanto". This means "Fast, but not too much". About 120-130 bpm, approximately. So, at that tempo, there would be 220-240 eigth notes in a minute. However, in a piece marked "Largo", the tempo would be about 45-50 bpm. That tempo is much slower than Allegro Ma Non Tanto, so an eighth note would have a longer duration.
    – Luke_0
    May 4, 2014 at 18:00
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    @AmericanLuke: Maybe you should include in your answer something about the relation between beat and time signature. The time signature is telling what is a beat, and the tempo (as you already said) defines the number of beats per minute.
    – awe
    May 5, 2014 at 9:33

"So, I was wondering why there are only even numbered notes? Like half, quarter, and eighth and so on."

I can't say why it evolved this way. However, it does the job. If your question is, how do you create notes that have a duration which is in between these pre-defined values, then there are several extra notational devices:

  • a dot behind the note extends its duration by half. So a quarter note (duration is 2 8ths) with a dot has a duration of 3 8ths.
  • two dots ("double dot") behind the note extends its duration by half plus half of its half. So a quarter note with two dots has a duration of 7/16ths (1 quarter + 1 eigth + 1 sixteenth)
  • notes can be tied to indicate the sound is to last for the duration of the combined length of the tied notes. The tie appears as a curve extending to notes that are immediately adjacent and on the same pitch. Ties can be used to allow a tone to sound beyond the barline, but it may also be used within a measure.
  • to work with odd subdivision of the beats, you can use "tuplets". For instance, the indicate that the duration of a quarter note is to be divided into three notes of equal value, you'd use eighth-triplets. This is denoted by writing the number of notes that divides the beat right above the beam that joins the notes. If the notes aren't joined by beams (for example, in case of say triplet quarters), brackets are used to denote the tuplets that form a group, and the number is written halfway the brackets


Apart from these devices, which act on the duration (the amount of space in time occupied by the sound of the note), there are a number of articulation markers. These do not alter the duration of the note, but they can specify for how long to sound the note within its denoted duration. For example, a dot right beneath the note indicates staccato, which indicates the sound of the note is to be cut off instead of letting it ring for the full duration of the note. For example, a quarter note with a dot beneath it may sound as an eighth note followed by an eighth rest.

EDIT: parallel rhythms are notoriously hard to typeset nicely in notation programs as notes of different length are not usually typeset strictly proportionally in order to save space. I'm adding a variant from LilyPond 2.19 for comparison:Same example using LilyPond 2.19

  • Did you make the diagram, or it is from another website?
    – user139024
    May 4, 2014 at 14:49
  • What is the difference between a single beam and a double beam?
    – user139024
    May 4, 2014 at 14:53
  • And also could you please edit and show a example of a dot beneath a note?
    – user139024
    May 4, 2014 at 14:55
  • @user139024 I made the diagram myself with musescore (FOSS). You can export musescore scores to a variety of formats, including png, which you can upload to SE. Single beam are eighth notes, double beam sixteenth notes. Triple beams would be 32nd notes. And so on. Regarding the dot beneath the note, did you look up staccato in the wikipedia? I bet not. May 4, 2014 at 15:09
  • Why are some quarter notes connected by a double beam are further apart from each other?
    – user139024
    May 4, 2014 at 15:21

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