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This looks like a dupe of Why are notes named the way they are? but it isn't. I want to know about rhythm.

I understand that in the international (British) system, a breve is what we Americans call a double whole note.

Semibreve is a whole note, 4 beats in common time.

Minim is a half note.

Crochet is a quarter note, 1 beat in common time.

Quaver is an eighth note.

Once I get below quaver, I get lost. Is it hemi? semi? demi? And what is the logic for choosing which to use?

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    Semiquaver, then demisemiquaver, then hemidemisemiquaver, then semihemidemisemiquaver, then demisemihemidemisemiquaver... You can see the progression, I'm sure: always adding 'semi", then "demi", then "hemi" to the front of the word. – user16935 Aug 16 '15 at 0:24
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    In informal speech, 16th and 32nd notes are often just called "semis" and "demis". There isn't much need for the names shorter than 32nds. The names "semiquaver" and "semibreve" follow the same pattern for "half a quaver", and "half a breve". – user19146 Aug 16 '15 at 1:39
  • I've seen 64th notes in the wild on several occasions, including Pictures at an Exhibition. This is one area where I feel the American naming system is easier and more sensible, in contrast to weights and measures. – Todd Wilcox Aug 16 '15 at 4:42
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Wikipedia has a very good breakdown of how notes are named. Here's a snippet of just the names of the ones that are different:

American Name                  British Name 

double note                 |   breve   
whole note                  |   semibreve
half note                   |   minim   
quarter note                |   crotchet    
eighth note                 |   quaver
sixteenth note              |   semiquaver  
thirty-second note          |   demisemiquaver  
sixty-fourth note           |   hemidemisemiquaver
hundred twenty-eighth note  |   semihemidemisemiquaver

As you can see in the British naming scheme, the quaver is the smallest unit. The prefixes semi, demi, and hemi all just mean half and they all are applied in that order when referring to something smaller. Which is why you see the notes above in the following order. There is no "official" British name for a 256th notes, but based on the naming pattern to that point, you could call it a demisemihemidemisemiquaver. Although this pattern gets wordy very fast, you could name much smaller notes also using this system.

  • Makes sense. Any reason for the semi, demi, hemi order? I didn't see one in the wiki pages. – Josiah Aug 16 '15 at 0:26
  • @Josiah as far as I know, it's historic in nature and that's just the way it is. There's a little more info at the bottom of the wiki page: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Note_value#Origins_of_the_names – Dom Aug 16 '15 at 0:27
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    It appears that "semi" was all there was for more than a hundred years until someone added "demi", and I don't know how many years went by before "hemi" appeared. See the citations in my long answer. If my language knowledge is correct, "semi" is Latin, "demi" is French and "hemi" is Greek. Examples: semicircle, demitasse, hemisphere. – Mark Lutton Aug 16 '15 at 5:57
  • Ironic - the smaller the note duration, the longer the name... Why do you say 'quaver is the smallest unit'? – Tim Aug 16 '15 at 6:20
  • Quaver is the shortest note with a unique name. Then we get into half-quavers, quarter-quavers.... – Laurence Payne Mar 27 '16 at 12:17
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It's kind of a strange story. In an early form of notation there were two kinds of notes, long and short. "Longa" means "long" and "breve" means short.

So the longest note you are ever likely to see in modern music (twice as long as the longest note you usually see) is a "short".

At some point someone needed a shorter note than the short, thus the "half short", or semi-breve.

That wasn't short enough, so the smallest possible, or minimal, note was invented: the minim.

Which still wasn't short enough. A note was invented that looked like a small hook, thus "crotchet". The next smaller note could be used to represent a quavery sound, and after that they just went with every synonym for "half" they could find.

It's like money inflation, but in reverse. Notation deflation. There was a time when you could buy a good meal for a penny and sing four breves in one second. Now a semi-breve is enough for a full second at MM crotchet=120 and a penny won't buy you half a biscuit.

Postscript:

I decided to look for evidence of my assertions, so I got out the Oxford English Dictionary which gives dated examples of early use of words. You can't count on it for the very earliest use of a word but it is helpful.

"Maxima", "longa", "breve" and "minim" (longest, long, short, shortest) seem to have appeared around the same time, with a citation of "minim" and "maxima" from 1440 and "longa" and "breve" from 1460. Also "crotchet" appears in 1440 defined as "semiminima". That would appear to indicate that at the same time they defined the shortest note, they also defined a shorter one!

"Semibreve" appears in 1594; "quaver" in 1570 and "semiquaver" in 1576. I don't know what the relation of breve and minim was in 1460; perhaps the minim was half of the breve and later became one quarter of the breve. An expert in early music notation can clear this up for us.

In 1706, someone named Phillips defines "demisemiquaver" as "The least note in music." By this time of course Bach was using as many beams as he needed so there was no such thing as a "least" note; any note could be split in two.

The OED defines "hemidemisemiquaver" as an example in the entry for "hemi-" but does not give any citation.

  • +1.Don't know if this is all true, but love the rhetoric (if that's the correct word!) – Tim Aug 16 '15 at 6:26
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    Wikipedia seems to agree with your first version, only that semibrevis is older than minima. This notes are said to be used in 13th century. Maybe the Oxford dictionary writes only about usage in English. Wikipedia source is probably Apel, Willi (1962). Die Notation der polyphonen Musik, 900–1600. Leipzig: Breitkopf & Härtel. [=Apel 1961, in German.], but I am not sure whether It covers the whole section or only the last paragraph. – BartekChom Aug 16 '15 at 16:18
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    The OED does only give English examples, being interested in when a word crossed over from French or Latin or German into English, not when it first appeared in the original language. "Maxima" and "minim" no doubt have a long history in Latin, probably going back to the earliest mensural notation. "Crotchet" and "quaver" sound English to me. – Mark Lutton Aug 17 '15 at 1:28
  • Great information Mark. I am familiar with the history of long notes and rhythmic inflation, but it adds a lot of context to the discussion. +1 – Josiah Aug 17 '15 at 15:39
  • As Bartek and Mark noted, the OED only gives examples of English usage; the usage of semibreve goes to the 13th c. in France and minim (originally semibrevis minima -- or the smallest possible semibreve) appears in the early 14th c. The semiminim appears not much later (Karen Cook just wrote a diss. on it). In English usage (Morley 1597) "Large" replaces Maxima. At that time there was not a filled/hollowed note distinction, so the semiminim or "quarter" really did have a hook ("crotchet"); after the note colors changed (c. 1420-50) the hook got passed to the next smaller note. – Michael Scott Cuthbert Nov 30 '15 at 16:43

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