Music Theory

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

By Jesse Preis
What is a quaver in music? Learn about quavers and discover other music note names below

What is a quaver in music? Learn about quavers and discover other music note names below

If you study music in the United States, then you know that we call this an “eighth note”, and as a Hoffman Academy student, you know that it makes the sound “ti”.

If you’re a student somewhere else, you might think that this music note makes a different sound than “ti”, but did you know that in some places the eighth note has a different name too? If you’re from the United Kingdom, you probably call this music note a “quaver!” Different countries have different musical terminology, which makes sense when different languages are spoken, but why are there TWO systems for English-speaking countries? 

Beyond the Quaver: Where (and When) Music Terms Came From

Music terminology from the United Kingdom, such as 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 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. 

Around 1250, a German music theorist named Franco of Cologne created a new system of notation that used squares and diamonds to indicate note durations. Some of the different notes that existed first were the maxima (large or octuple whole note), the longa (long or quadruple whole note), and the breve (brief or double whole note). These notes have all fallen out of use in most modern music. Eventually shorter notes emerged in the 1300s, like the semibreve (whole note) and then the minim (half note), which was considered to be the shortest music note at the time! We know now that the notes can get much shorter. Look at the list below to see how short!

Then the Protestant Reformation happened. After this Latin fell out of style in newly Protestant countries like Germany. These Protestant countries pushed for their own languages to have more importance in religion and government. They standardized new terminology for their cultures, including music and its naming systems – many of these new naming systems were based on fractions. Eventually, this also influenced the American system. Below, you can see how the American fraction-based system works and compare the music note names to the British Latin-based names!

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Music Note Names Comparison

  • A whole note (semibreve) lasts 4 beats, or a whole measure of 4/4 time (the most commonly used time signature).
  • A half note (minim) is 2 beats or half of a measure. 
  • A quarter note (crochet) is 1 beat or a quarter of a measure, meaning that four quarter notes are needed to complete a full 4/4 measure!
  • An eighth note (quaver) is 1/2 of a beat. It takes eight of them to complete a measure.
  • A sixteenth note (semiquaver) is ¼ of a beat. It takes sixteen of them to complete a measure!
  • A thirty-second note (demisemiquaver) is ⅛ of a beat. It takes thirty-two of them to complete a measure! 
  • A sixty-fourth note (hemidemisemiquaver) is 1/16 of a beat, taking sixty-four of them to complete an entire 4/4 measure! That is a lot of notes in one measure!
  • And it doesn’t stop there! There is also a hundred-twenty-eighth note (semihemidemisemiquaver or quasihemidemisemiquaver)! If you want to see some of these in action, listen to the beginning of Beethoven’s Pathetique Sonata!
  • In the American system, we also have eighth rests and dotted eighth notes, which are known as quaver rests and dotted quavers respectively in the British system!

See? Same notation, different names! Since we are located in the United States, Hoffman Academy uses the fraction-based U.S. system.

Bonus: Music Terms Around the World

  • British music note names are mainly used by countries associated with the British Crown, like the United Kingdom, Ireland, 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 music note names; many Romantic Languages (ie: Spanish, French, and Italian) call whole notes “round notes”, quarter notes “black notes”, and half notes “white 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. 

Did you find this article on the quaver note helpful? Want to go beyond the quaver and learn more about how musical notation came to be? Check out this excellent article from Classic FM: How Did Music Notation Actually Begin? 

For those of you in need of a quick translation, we’ve prepared a handy PDF chart! Click the link to download:  Download Music Note Names in the US and UK Chart

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