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I have a question about the term quarter note. I thought of putting clarity in the question by doing a little calculation.

Let us say BPM = 120 .So Beat time is 0.5 s. So in 4/4 signature the quarter note lasts for 0.5 s. Now measure time is 0.5x4 = 2 seconds. And the quarter note really occupies a quarter of measure time.

But suppose we have 3/4 signature. Again,say, BPM is same so beat time is 0.5 s. So this is the duration of the quarter note. But now the measure time is 3x0.5 = 1.5 s. So quarter note really lasts for 1/3 rd of measure time. Still it is called a quarter note? Or is it simply understood that a quarter note is a true quarter note only in relation to 4/4 signature?

  • You could also call it a crotchet or (in older music) a semiminim. The note by itself does not have a fixed proportion to other notes; that depends on the meter. – musarithmia Jul 17 '15 at 16:34
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A quarter note is called that because it is always a quarter the duration of a whole note. This true regardless of the time signature, tempo, or number of beats in a bar. You will notice that in 3/4, a whole note does not fit into a measure.

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    But, a whole rest can be used for a measure of rest in 3/4. – Jacob Swanson Jun 19 '15 at 23:10
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    True. But that's just a minor notational convenience designed to drive people with OCD nuts. – Caleb Hines Jun 19 '15 at 23:11
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    Call 'em crotchets and the whole problem becomes moot. :D – user16935 Jun 19 '15 at 23:48
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    @Patrx2: Indeed so, while creating a host of other problems that are worse, of course. Can you say semihemidemisemiquaver? I can, but only with difficulty after years of practice. :D – BobRodes Jun 20 '15 at 5:21
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    There's an irony in such a short note having such a long name! And there's even shorter ones with even longer names! – Tim Jun 20 '15 at 6:13
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It's true that a crotchet is though of as a 1/4 note - taken from a 'whole note' being a semibreve (worth 4 crotchets). However, the word semibreve comes from half a breve, which actually intimates that a whole note SHOULD be worth 8 crotchets - or - a crotchet OUGHT to be a 1/8 note...

  • Wait, but isn't a breve == 8 crochets? Got a place where I can read more about this? – Josiah Jun 20 '15 at 14:31
  • Tim's point is that a breve is a "whole" entity, so a semibreve, being half a breve, is not; therefore a breve should be a whole note, and a by extension a 128th note should be a 256th note, and so on. The opposing point is that since the semibreve/whole note has been the largest value in general use for at least 200 years, calling a semibreve a whole note is reasonable. I fall in the latter camp. – BobRodes Jun 20 '15 at 21:43
  • @BobRodes - you're right, of course. It's just the pedant in me surfacing. Still a bit odd that we (U.S. particularly) base the system on something somewhat 'spurious'. – Tim Jun 21 '15 at 7:59
  • @Tim I got one of those pedants, too. :) – BobRodes Jun 22 '15 at 18:00
  • @BobRodes - yes, they just keep hanging around... – Tim Jun 22 '15 at 18:27
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Your calculation is correct.

I understand it can be a bit confusing. The best way to think of this is that the quarter note is sort of a unit, like gram or meter. We use it to be able to express how may 'units' we need to fill up a measure. In 4/4 it's four, in 3/4 it's three. (Another often used 'unit' is the eighth note, in 6/8 for example).

The quarter note is used so often because there is some room 'above' for longer durations by doubling (half or whole note) and 'below' by halving (eighth and sixteenth notes) for shorter durations. This system of doubling and halving is just to be able to have longer and shorter note durations. (And what if I need a note duration in between a quarter and an eight? Aha! This is where the dot comes in. But that is another story.)

The quarter note doesn't say anything about how long (in seconds) the note should last. It only exists in relation to the measure.

Important to note in all this is that a whole note doesn't need to fill a measure! (altough it does in 4/4) This is what I think causes a lot of initial confusion.

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