Was it just created to make an easier alternative to writing 4/4?

1 Answer 1


It's the other way round. The "C" is a leftover from the earlier mensural notation system, where each note duration was be divided into either two or three parts without the use of "dotted notes" as at present.

Divisions into three parts were called "perfect" (probably because the catholic church invented most of the terminology, and the Holy Trinity was perfect) and two parts were called "imperfect".

The symbols used in mensural time signatures were a complete circle for "perfect" subdivision and a broken circle for "imperfect" - which mutated into the letter C.

The complete system of mensural symbols added a dot in the center of the complete or broken circle, and/or a vertical line through it. The broken circle with a vertical line mutated into the modern "cut time" symbol.

The complete circle symbol became obsolete, because modern rhythmic notation doesn't allow for the idea that a whole note might sometimes contain three "half notes" not two, except by writing a dotted whole note, or using triplets.

  • 5
    Historical note: the circle as a time signature was mostly gone by the time semibreves (i.e. what are now known whole notes) were subdivided into shorter notes. Originally, longas were divided into 2 or 3 breves which were divided into 2 or 3 semibreves - the semibreve (now the whole note) was a fairly short note! Commented Feb 21, 2020 at 4:04
  • 3
    @AlexanderWoo Which amusingly now leads to the word "breve", which literally means "short", referring to the longest note in common modern usage... Commented Feb 21, 2020 at 19:59
  • You might add a word about how modern numeric time signatures evolved from proportional ratios appended to the circles.
    – phoog
    Commented Feb 22, 2020 at 20:28
  • @AlexanderWoo the circles persisted into the 17th century at least, long after the sign that became the modern eighth note and sixteenth note were in use. For example, there are several instances (mostly if not exclusively circle-slash) in Monteverdi's Selva Morale e Spirituale, printed in 1641. Also see medievalists.net/2008/12/… with an image of "quarter notes" in circle mensuration in the Kyrie of the 15th-century Missa Virgo Parens Christi by Jacques Barbireau.
    – phoog
    Commented Jan 6 at 10:34

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