This Wikipedia page says that the double whole note, or breve, is the "longest note value still in common use".

However, breve in Italian means 'short'.

How did the longest commonly-used note value come to be called 'short'?

  • There is an answer to music.stackexchange.com/questions/35917/…, that does mention this, but it doesn't give a lot of detail on this particular point.
    – topo morto
    Dec 24 '15 at 13:16
  • This is something to ponder upon. However,' breve in common use'. I'd have said semibreve. After all, in U.S. it's a whole note.
    – Tim
    Dec 24 '15 at 13:17
  • Yeah if all the non-Americans would get with the program on note length names, this would all be so less confusing. ;-) Dec 24 '15 at 13:58
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    @ToddWilcox - I can't understand why a crotchet is a quarter note, necessarily. Quarter of a semibreve, but so what? Three-quarter time for waltz? What about 5/4? I firmly consider a crotchet to be a ONE BEAT NOTE, but that's just me...
    – Tim
    Dec 24 '15 at 14:06
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    breve is Italian and means short. No need to look for latin when most music related terms are directly Italian terms.
    – Bakuriu
    Dec 24 '15 at 14:14

It does mean 'short'. In medieval mensural notation, it was a short note, either one third or half as long as a LONGA. It appears there were only two note lengths, breve and longa from 13th up to the 17th Century, reflecting the syllable sung. The longa is obviously a longer note length... Music may have been much slower then!

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    en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Longa_(music) says of the longa that by the 17th century "changes in notational practice had rendered it too extended a value for practical use" but I'm still interested in how that came to be - we still have long notes, after all! There's even a en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maxima_(music) too...
    – topo morto
    Dec 24 '15 at 13:36
  • @topomorto - called the breve, as it was a short note at the time. I suppose as written music developed, it was realised that actually, that short note just wasn't short enough, thus semi-breve (which existed, I think) was not even short enough - unless the tempo was very quick,- but even then, shorter duration notes needed to be invented. Bit like, 100 years ago, 'billion' was hardly ever used, so trillion, etc, weren't needed. Opposite idea, true, but analogous.
    – Tim
    Dec 24 '15 at 14:02
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    Would that be because notation was only originally used for slow choral music, but began to be used for other musics too?
    – topo morto
    Dec 24 '15 at 14:26
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    @topomorto There seems to been a period of "note inflation": "Despite these nominal equivalences, each note had a much shorter temporal value than its modern counterpart. Between the 14th and 16th centuries, composers repeatedly introduced new note shapes for ever smaller temporal divisions of rhythm, and the older, longer notes were slowed down in proportion. [...] Thus, what was originally the shortest of all note values used, the semibreve, has become the longest note used routinely today, the whole note." en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mensural_notation#Note_values
    – Ross Ridge
    Dec 24 '15 at 19:32
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    @Tim: In the Psalm 23 example, the first portion of each line could have been a "longa", and the italicized portion a "breve". While the sung syllables of the "breve" would often have been longer than those of the "longa", the total duration of the "breve" would have been shorter.
    – supercat
    Mar 25 '19 at 19:18

Our musical notation evolved over a very long time, during which it became increasingly detailed. This meant that innovation tended to happen at the short end of the time-scale, which probably explains the "inflation" which occurred during the middle ages and early renaissance.

I'm not sure there was ever a time when there were just two values. The story starts with "neumes", which represent whole groups of notes - to the extent that these neumes can be decomposed into individual notes there are many more than two note-shapes, and this visual variety was probably intended to suggest something about the articulation of the notes. In some of the early writings about rhythm the authors can only say that certain notes are "long" and others "short", but this surely reflects the lack of a conceptual framework within which they could speak more precisely rather than implying that only two durations existed.

The idea that a particular note-form (glyph) would exactly correspond to a particular duration (relative to the basic pulse) comes rather late in musical history, and probably only made sense once our ways of measuring and perceiving time had evolved into something close to what we have now. In the 12th century there was no mechanical timepiece which went tick-tock, no unified theory of time which linked musical durations with the hours of the day in one continuum ... there was time, there was music, but there was no 4' 33".

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