# Why is the whole note used as reference for "note length"

We have a whole note, and then half note, quarter note, eighth, etc. I am wondering, why is it that way? If we think in term of beat, then the quarter note is the reference: there are 2 eighth note in a quarter note, 4 16th note, etc. When using a metronome, a beat is also the atomic unit. Thus, why not using a system where a 8th note is... A half note (2 per beat)? I don't think anyone thinks as a 32nd note as a note "that's repeated 32 times in a 4/4 measure". A "note, the length of which is 1/8th of a beat" sounds easier and more concrete to me.

• I'm open to any criticism on my question, however ghost down voting is not really helpful
– user54533
Commented Nov 25, 2018 at 20:44
• This question doesn't make much sense to me. "The quarter note is the reference" is not true. Quarter notes do not always get the beat, so to think of a 32nd note as 1/8th of a beat is not always correct, same for thinking that there are always two eighth notes per beat. Half-notes, quarter-notes, etc. are fractions of whole-notes; what could be more sensible? Fractions of beats are much more confusing, as you seem to be discovering. If you don't want to divide quarter-notes, what is keeping you from using whole notes, e.g., 1/1 time or 4/1 time?
– user39614
Commented Nov 25, 2018 at 21:40
• It is a good question as such. But the idea that, somehow, a quarter note is the reference is not very valid. It might be that a lot of modern music, say most music on "the radio" (or perhaps Spotify) is often 4/4 with a beat on each quarter note. Often with a speed of around 120 quarter note beats per minute. But this is a very modern concept. Music history goes back something like a 1000 years so the last hundred years is not really very significatnt. Commented Nov 26, 2018 at 18:38

A whole note is also called a "semibreve", "half a short note". That should give you a clue that historically it was a comparatively short unit suitable for use as a beat note or shorter. At some point of time, finer subdivisions became necessary for notating music, and the respective shortened durations became more popular so that music was scaled down. Check out "mensural notation" for how things were done in earlier times. Renaissance music and a sizable bunch of baroque music are printed nowadays with faster units than originally written. This is not uniformly so: the baroque 3/1 meter (a fast triplet meter) is often kept as-is. If you sing a lot of early music, you tend to get used to such notation, even if at least the "even" meters are often (but not always) printed in half.

For the kind of music where durations and pitches/keys have been changed to more modern readings, there often is an "incipit" of the original key, meter, and first few notes from the original version.

The term 'whole note' for the English 'semibreve' seems to have well taken hold. Main reason is that it represents a whole bar (measure) in an awful lot of pieces. So many, it's called 'common time - represented by a 'C' at the beginning, but not short for common.

So, if a whole bar is counted as 4 smaller beats, then the note shape that represents a full bar is going to be a 'whole note'. Two minims will become two 'half notes', making the crotchets 'quarter notes'. Note (sic) that in U.S. 3/4 is called 'three-quarter time'.

We have to find a system that works for a many of us as possible, and in 4/4 time, the beat is usually a 'quarter note'. BUT - in 6/8, it isn't. So, it cannot be said overall that the crotchet always takes the beat.

The irony is that, as pointed out by the previous answer, 'semibreve' (whole note) actually comes from the original 'half a short note' - the breve being that short note, which in reality was a very lonnnnng one! We use the word brief and brevity from the same source.

• The thing that looks like a "C" meaning 4/4 time is actually not a letter at all, but a broken circle, signifying tempus imperfectum. "Perfect" time was in three, not four, and signified by an unbroken circle. We inherited the broken circle and 4/4 became more common than 3/4. Commented Nov 26, 2018 at 20:31
• @ScottWallace - exactly. three being the blessed trinity. Three was the circle, so four was the broken one.
– Tim
Commented Nov 26, 2018 at 21:03