What’s a Quaver? Note Names in the US and UK

If you study music in the U.S. (or with Hoffman Academy), then you know this as an “eighth note:”

But if you’re in the U.K., you probably know it as a “quaver!”

Different countries have different musical terminology. That makes sense, since languages differ. But why are there TWO systems for English-speaking countries?

Where (and When) Music Terms Came From

British terminology – breve, crotchet, quaver, minim – has its roots in Latin. This makes sense considering that in the early days of modern musical notation (around 1000-1200 AD/CE), music was very important to religion. Most of Europe at the time was Roman Catholic, and the Roman Catholic Church only used Latin. Some of the earliest Western Classical composers were monks and nuns (shout out to Hildegard von Bingen!). Masses and prayers were largely sung in Latin, and even if someone couldn’t speak Latin themselves, they could learn to sing along.

Then the Protestant Reformation happened. To greatly over-simplify things, Latin fell out of style in newly Protestant countries like Germany. So, Germany created new terminology for their culture, including music.

New Note Names

The German system was based on fractions:

  • A whole note (semibreve) lasts 4 beats, or a whole measure of 4/4 time (the most commonly used time signature).
  • Half notes (minims) are 2 beats or half a measure.
  • Quarter notes (crochets) are 1 beat or a quarter of a measure.

…and so on. Same notation, different names. Eventually, this system came to the United States as well as to other countries, and was adapted for different languages.

Hoffman Academy uses the fraction-based U.S. system, as we are located in the U.S. For those of you in need of a quick translation, we’ve prepared a handy PDF chart! Click the link to download: 

Download Note Names in the US and UK Chart

Bonus: Music Terms Around the World

    • British note names are mainly used by countries associated with the United Kingdom, like England, Wales, Scotland, Canada, and Australia. It’s also used by the Associated Board of the Royal Music Schools (ABRSM), an organization that conducts musical examinations and assessments all over the world.
    • Other languages, of course, have their own note names; many Romantic Languages (ie Spanish, French, and Italian) call quarter notes “black notes,” for example!
  • Any knitting/crocheting fans out there? You might recognize the British term for a quarter note, “crotchet!” It’s from a French word crochet meaning “little hook,” inspired by its shape.

Want to learn more about how musical notation came to be? Check out this excellent article from Classic FM: How Did Music Notation Actually Begin?  

Further Reading:

Music Terms for the Beginning Piano Students

10 Things Everyone Should Know About the Piano

Counting Rhythms

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