Edit: After a lot of discussion I try to restate my question so that it becomes easier to understand:

A concise version of my question, suggested by Stinkfoot:

Why do we always call a quarter note a quarter note. That's applicable to 4/4 where the quarter note represents 1/4 of a measure. But in other time signatures, for example 3/4, that same note does not represent a quarter of measure, but 1/3 of measure. It's not a quarter of anything - so why "quarter note"?

closed as unclear what you're asking by Dom Mar 18 '18 at 21:52

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    Personally, learning music in the UK, I always did think of the crotchet as the 'unit' or '1-length' note; I thought of a quaver as a 'half', and a minim as 'two'. So I'm right there with you already! – topo morto Mar 18 '18 at 8:22
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    I disagree about the quarter note always getting the beat by default regardless of time signature. If the time signature is divisible by three on top and is 8 on the bottom, I assume the dotted quarter gets the beat. – Todd Wilcox Mar 18 '18 at 13:48
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    I actually don't understand, why beats per minute is such a popular unit at all, since some types of music require substantial stretch of the concept beat to become at least somehow applicable. – guidot Mar 18 '18 at 15:28
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    The /4 is more of a handy way to break down the bar than anything. You certainly could have 1/1 time signature, but it wouldn't be helpful. Our ears need some orientation as to how the music is structured. – Luke Sawczak Mar 18 '18 at 17:11
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    @Stefan - this is still unclear and possibly less clear than it originally was. Please do as Dom asked - there is a lot of research into time signatures and we have plenty of posts here on it. – Doktor Mayhem Mar 19 '18 at 9:17

In the most abstract sense, there's no useful meaning to the idea of a "full" or "whole" note. Note lengths are relative measurements of a continuous quantity (time).

So when we call something a "whole" note", the question is - whole what?

It could make sense if a "whole note" mapped to a whole beat - your idea is perfectly logical. However, in the system you're referring to, the note that is called (in some cultures) a 'whole note' actually represents a whole bar (in 4/4). I guess whoever came up with that system (Wikipedia claims it's a loan translation from German - maybe someone will give us more details) thought of the bar as more important than the beat.

As per my comment, there are other ways of naming note lengths - such as the minim, crotchet, quaver.... hemidemisemiquaver system. And there have been different systems over the years.


Practicality. When we play music we count the subdivisions of bars, not whole, complete bars. It might make sense when listening to a band being counted in to the intro of a song.1,2,1234. Not ooonne.

So instead of part of a wall the individual bricks stand out.

At one quarter beat - 60bpm, it's easy to count more accurately at one per second than count one for the whole bar, lasting four seconds.

Incidentally, 6/8 time isn't counted the same. And, what would you have us count in three-quarters time..?

  • What you describe first would also be true for my "alternative convention". I also would count 1,2,1234. The difference is that I would call the "thing that is counted" a full note and not a quarter note. Only the name and symbol would change, not the content. The 3/4 signature would become a 3/1 and the 6/8 would become a 6/2. – Stefan Mar 18 '18 at 9:48
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    This answer does not relate to my question and I don't understand the positive votes. – Stefan Mar 18 '18 at 17:23

This answer was applicable to a previous version of the question.

With other words I suggest to "rename the note values" as follows:

What is to be gained by doing so?

Do you want to eliminate bars entirely and have musicians rely only on the time signature? That's going to make reading a lot more difficult.

So, how would bars look according your system? One bar per quarter note and again, other symbols to denote smaller time slices and some sort of connecting symbol for notes greater than quarter notes?

Is that an improvement, just making things more difficult, or accomplishing nothing but a change for the sake of it?

  • No, I do not want to eliminate bars. The bars in my system would look exactly the same. Only the time signatures would change. A 4/4 would become a 4*1 and a 3/4 would become a 3*1. – Stefan Mar 18 '18 at 21:13
  • >What is to be gained by doing so? A definition that is consistent for both 4/4 and 3/4 bars and that better fits to the concept of beats per minute or frequency. – Stefan Mar 18 '18 at 21:15
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    @Stefan 3/4 and 4/4 are already consistent and neither concepts affects beats per minute or frequency. Frequency has nothing to do with time signatures and time signatures don't dictate tempo. You can have any time signature be any tempo. – Dom Mar 18 '18 at 22:04
  • Only the time signatures would change - you said something entirely different in the question: "Rename the note values". Your question was closed because it is unclear to us. It appears that it is also unclear to you. You should think carefully about what you want to say and try again - edit your question when you manage to figure out exactly what you mean to ask and can express it well. – Stinkfoot Mar 19 '18 at 5:12
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    Whole note doesn't refer to a whole measure, and quarter note doesn't refer to a quarter of a measure. A quarter note refers to a quarter of a whole note. Whole notes aren't used in 3/4 time because then the note duration would cross bar lines; instead, a dotted half note is tied to a quarter note to represent a duration of 4 beats in 3/4 time. The name quarter note is not inconsistent; the idea that quarter notes divide measures is a misunderstanding, in contemporary practice at least. – David Bowling Mar 19 '18 at 18:11

the 1/4 note is mapped to the corresponding time interval per default.

Yes, this is because the quarter note is counted as the beat, the basic rhythmic feeling of the music. This can be changed to any rhythm that the composer feels best represents the feel of the song. For intstance, I could write a very fast waltz in 3/8 and site the beat as a dotted quarter note at 60 BPM, playing the beat only on the one of each measure, or I could write that same waltz at a slower 3/4 with a quarter note equals 60 BPM tempo, giving more weight to each individual subdivision. This drastically affects the phrasing of the song.

the 1/4 note will always take 1 s, no matter if I have a 2/4, 4/4, 6/8 or whatever time signature.

No, but with 6/8 in particular you are now NOT counting the quarter note as the beat, but the dotted quarter note instead. Quarter notes are not always the beat holder.

I would find the musical conventions easier to understand

No offense, but you aren't experienced enough to say whether it would be easier to understand or not yet. All of us had to learn how rhythms, time signatures, and tempo markings worked and we all worked through it just fine. Tempo markings are there to give a feel to the song, not only tell the strict time like a sequencer or DAW might do. Knowing how the beat divides the bar is an important element in phrasing, accents, and ultimately understanding the piece being played.

With other words I suggest to "rename the note values" as follows:

Again, this obfuscates the overall phrasing and structure of a song. Songs are built not from individual notes, but from strings of these notes which we organize into bars. It's similar to how we write sentences and then organize those sentences into paragraphs. If we called the sentences paragraphs then we'd still have to name the old paragraphs something, and it better be a better name than double paragraphs. In music we subdivide bars.

For another metaphor, think of an imperial ruler. You have 12 inches for every foot; think of this like a 12 bar phrase. Next you have within those inches four 1/4" inches, each subdividing the inch equally into four parts. Within those are 1/8" inches, 1/16", 1/32", 1/64", etc until we hit thousanths of an inch.

Let's say you were working on a project that was very small and you had to use the 1/4" for every measurement to make sure tolerances were in order. It could be 1/4", or 1/2", or 3/4", but you need them all. You wouldn't start calling these your 1 inch measurements, since you still are probably using whole inches as well.

In the end, working within the constraints of a bar and subdividing each works better at conveying musical ideas, the names not withstanding. If you feel the common 4/4 bar is not good enough you can change it, and put the emphasis on whichever beat you want. Writing in 4/2 or 4/1 is always an option. Changing the label/tool is not useful nor practical.

  • Maybe I am not able to express my question in a way that can easily be understood. tearing my hairs ;) My suggestion for renaming is not a real suggestion. It is just my way to illustrate the question. Furthermore, I do not get your example with the imperial ruler. If I would rename 1/4", 1/8", 1/16" to x, y, z, you would still be able to do the same measurements, would you? Only the symbols in the measurement report would be different. – Stefan Mar 18 '18 at 21:07
  • I did not suggest to use only one note value. I just suggested to move the scale labels. The note lengths are a relative scale. In order to define absolute values in seconds a reference mapping needs to be defined. The selection of the reference mapping might be arbitrary or not. I had the feeling that I missed something because mapping a full note value to a full bar only works for 4/4. But maybe I am thinking too logically. First principle of music seems to be "If there is a principle, break it!". ;) – Stefan Mar 18 '18 at 21:07
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    I'm saying your suggestion to relabel them is unnecessary. No, it wouldn't make sense to label the measurements as x, y, z because every craftsman here learns the measurement system and it would only confuse them. At this point I'm really not sure what you're asking. As far as I could tell you wanted to rename the quarter note as the whole note, and I disagreed with your sentiment. The naming scheme works well and applies to any situation you could want. Moving the labels creates the same problem you wish to eliminate. – Tama Mar 18 '18 at 21:44
  • "Moving the labels creates the same problem you wish to eliminate." In my opinion it does not. How does it create the same problem of an inconsistent definition for the relation of the concepts of bars and note values? (I agree that moving the scale for imperial ruler only would have drawbacks. You started that metaphor.) – Stefan Mar 19 '18 at 6:15

This is easier in the non-USA terminology, where the following conversion applies:

  • "Whole note" → Semibreve
  • "Half note" → Minim
  • "Quarter note" → Crotchet
  • "Eighth note" → Quaver

A "crotchet" is the unit you seek.

It seems that, in inventing a "simpler" terminology for the American audience, somebody assumed 4/4 time and described notes as proportions of a 4/4 bar ("measure"). This, unfortunately, is ultimately more confusing & inconsistent as you have discovered.

If you really want to "rename the notes", just go back to good old-fashioned original English terminology.

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