In American music a Semibreve is called a "whole note". Here it states that the name "whole note" comes from a German expression (ganze Note):

In the world of music, you may encounter different names for the many notes used. The U.S. and U.K. standard terms differ, but the U.S. names — which were originally translated from the German names for the notes because so many German composers immigrated to the United States in the 19th century — are more universally standard. The U.K. names are also used in medieval music and in some classical circles

Source: http://www.dummies.com/art-center/music/music-theory-for-dummies-cheat-sheet/

It causes some logical problems in time signatures other than 4/4.

Source http://www.studybass.com/using-the-site/american-english-music-terminology/

a) => Is it a German invention that a Semibreve is taken as a reference value and called "whole note"? Who is the inventor of this terminology?

b) => Why did they not map a "Crotchet" to a "whole note" and used the alternative notation 4/1, 3/1 instead of 4/4, 3/4?

Edit 2023:

I asked the questions in some AI tool and still could not find satisfying answers. The AI did not provide a specific person or year, where the term "Viertelnote" (or "ganze Note") originated from. It could also not answer why a "Semibreve" has been considered/mapped to be a "whole".

Alternatively, I could also map a "Crotchet" to be a "whole". That alternative notation would have probably caused less confusion with other signatures (4/4 => 4/1, 3/4 => 3/1). Or do I have a logical error here?

A guess of mine was, that the "Viertelnote" might be related to a specific instrument ("quarter turn of a handle", "quarter length of a string and its typical decay length") or to the length of a heart beat etc. If so, until know I could not find a reference for it.

At least the AI gave some hints on sources that might contain more information:

  1. "A History of Western Music" by J. Peter Burkholder, Donald Jay Grout, and Claude V. Palisca: This comprehensive textbook covers various aspects of Western music history, including the evolution of music notation.

  2. "The Notation of Western Music: An Introduction" by Richard Rastall: This book provides an overview of music notation history, discussing the development of notation systems and terminology.

  3. "The Oxford Companion to Music" edited by Alison Latham: This reference book covers a wide range of topics in music, including music notation and its historical context.

  4. Academic journals and articles: Research articles in musicology and music history journals often delve into specific topics related to notation and terminology. JSTOR and other academic databases can be valuable resources for accessing scholarly articles on the subject.

What are some old books using the term "ganze Note"?

  1. "Gradus ad Parnassum" by Johann Joseph Fux (1725) - This influential music treatise uses the term "ganze Note" in discussing the value and duration of notes.

  2. "Versuch einer Anleitung zur Composition" by Johann Philipp Kirnberger (1771) - Kirnberger, a student of Johann Sebastian Bach, uses the term "ganze Note" in his treatise on composition.

  3. "Musikalisches Lexicon" by Johann Gottfried Walther (1732) - This lexicon of musical terms and concepts includes explanations of different note values, including the "ganze Note."

These are just a few examples, and there are likely many more historical music books that reference the term "ganze Note" and its usage in music notation.

  • 3
    Maybe take a look at Mensural notation.
    – user39614
    Mar 21, 2018 at 14:23
  • 4
    There's a really good Adam Neely video where he discusses this: youtube.com/watch?v=JEFi4SatXso Mar 22, 2018 at 13:16
  • It wasn't so much German composers as German music teachers.
    – phoog
    Jan 3, 2021 at 2:15
  • @BrianTHOMAS it's pretty good if you overlook the many little factual errors and the omission of several relevant historical note shapes.
    – phoog
    Jan 3, 2021 at 2:29
  • 1
    Also Gradus ad Parnassum was written in Latin, so it did not use the term ganze Note. The German translation of 1742 translates semibrevis as halbkurze Note, not ganze Note, so this is yet another example of why AI is a bad tool for research. It just makes stuff up, but it makes it sound very plausible.
    – phoog
    Sep 12, 2023 at 11:07

3 Answers 3


As others have said, the roots of the terminology lie in mensural notation. The short explanation of mensural notation is that they used a circle to represent a three-part subdivision of the beat and a broken circle to represent a two-part subdivision. The broken circle evolved into the modern C sign for 4/4 meter (it does not come from the word "common"). The undivided beat corresponded to the brevis, the modern breve or double whole note. If the mensuration sign was a circle, there would be three semibreves in a breve; if the mensuration sign was a broken circle, there would be two semibreves in a breve.

Another feature of mensural notation was the use of a vertical stroke to indicate that the beat wasn't the semibreve but instead the breve. In other words, it made everything twice as fast. This is the origin of the term "alla breve" and the C-with-a-vertical-slash symbol for 2/2 time.

In some early sources, alla breve isn't indicated with a slash but with the number 2. With time, composers began to use other proportions, notably 3 and 3/2. If you look at sources from the early 17th century, you'll see quite a lot of this. Around the same time, bar lines, originally used to set off different sections of a piece, began to be used to help with alignment. At first, these were not necessarily used at regular intervals, but they soon began to be.

It's not clear when German speakers began to think of the semibreve as the "whole note" or why, since most theorists were writing in Latin. I've been able to find that Praetorius, writing in the early 16th century as one of the first to publish in German, used the Latin names, while Johann David Heinichen, writing in the early 18th century, used the numeric names.

Whenever it happened, the semibreve came to be known as the "whole note" because it corresponded in earlier times to the beat and later to the measure in "C" time. The rest of the fractional note names followed.

Eventually, the mensural proportions evolved into modern time signatures. In the mensural system, signatures such as 4/4 and 2/2 are meaningless because they just mean "1," and 6/8 is similarly meaningless because it means the same as 3/4. With the advent of bar lines, however, the fractions were reinterpreted such that the bottom number denotes the type of note being counted by the top number, giving us modern time signatures.

(C-slash, however, didn't get its unambiguous meaning of 2/2 until later in the 19th century; you can find examples of pieces signed C-slash being barred in 4/2 at least as late as Brahms.)

  • Even if I do not understand all of this, I guess it is so far the closest to an answer. Thinking in German and writing in Latin is an interesting aspect of that "mystery" :)
    – Stefan
    Sep 12, 2023 at 13:27

I think there are two questions here; one has already been answered, but the other—"where does the term semibreve come from?"—I'll try to answer here. (But as shown in the comments, I may have misunderstood your question; I apologize if so.)

It is not a German invention, at least not in the way that the excerpt implies.

The notion of a "semibreve" dates at least to the work of John of Garland in his De mensurabili musica ("On measured music") of approximately 1250. From the information we have, Garland was likely an instructor at the University in Paris.

Within Garland's note shapes (and note names), he included a "semi brevis." But this was early rhythmic notation, and one of its quirks is that it was highly context-dependent; the same notation in one work may suggest something rather different in another.

Furthermore, this early in history, rhythms were divided in threes to reflect the perfection of the Holy Trinity. It wasn't until approximately the 14th century with the ars nova ("new art") composers and theorists like Jehan des Murs and Philippe de Vitry that we begin seeing more and more duple divisions of note values.

All of this to say: it is likely true that German immigrants had an impact on American rhythmic terminology. But this terminology did not originate with the Germans, but rather with authors of several nationalities many centuries earlier.

  • 3
    While your answer is of course correct, I think you've misunderstood the question. OP never implies that 'semibreve' is of German origin, and they're not asking where that term comes from.
    – PiedPiper
    Jan 2, 2021 at 22:49
  • Thank you for these insights. I tried to clarify the question(s). I like the historical terms more, because they do not seem to relate to an absolute scale. If I introduce a term like "quarter note" instead of "crotchet" the question arising for me is "quarter of what"? Surely not the quarter of a tact.. because in 3/4 it is a third of it. => Does not make any sense. Why not shift the notation and call a "crotchet" a whole? Introducing a "new" notation using "quarters" instead of "crotchets" seems to be more confusing then helpful to me. Why did they not stay with the "more logic" convention?
    – Stefan
    Sep 12, 2023 at 7:16

Stuff started rather with mensural notation where the principal "beat" tended to be a semibreve. When shorter notes had to be used, stems were used, then flags were invented. There was an increasing inflation of shorter notes and people became more comfortable with them and used to them. The original durations, clefs, and keys of pieces, typically from early Baroque and earlier, are sometimes indicated in "incipits" at the beginning of pieces. Sometimes even stuff as late as Baroque is retained in this notation, particularly meters like 3/1 (which usually is a fast triple meter).

So basically this is the outcome of subdivision inflation without people wanting to redefine terms at any particular point of time (somewhat like "permanent daylight saving time" adopted by some countries/states which makes less logical sense than just everybody agreeing to get up one hour earlier but is easier than to get everybody to agree).

  • 2
    Thanks for posting an answer! This is interesting, but I'm not sure you've answered the question that has been asked yet. I'm interested in your thoughts on it. The question is 'who invented the terminology' and 'is it a German construct.' I think you've answered a different question relating to why it developed.
    – jdjazz
    Jul 20, 2018 at 21:00

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