As the notes get shorter, their names get longer.

This is not absolutely true all the way, but look: breve, semibreve, minim, crotchet, quaver, semiquaver, demisemiquaver, hemidemisemiquaver.

Oh, are those words unfamiliar? Depending on where you’re from, they may be. I had the advantage of learning in my childhood both systems of naming of musical notes, and the disjunction between them – not to mention their internal systemic weirdness – was one of my early clues that the established adult world was, shall we say, inconsistent.

Look. A normal bar of music in 4/4 time (a.k.a. “common” time, marked with a C that was in fact originally a half a circle) has four notes, right? One two three four, one two three four, and so on. Sometimes you join those notes together to make a double-length note. Sometimes you have just one four-beat-long note for a bar. On the other hand, sometimes you split those one-beat notes in half or even quarter.

So what would make sense for us to call those?

If you’re first learning music in Canada or the US, the odds are not bad that you will think that whole note ought to refer to one of those four black notes with stems that populate a bar. But no! It names a note the length of a whole bar. The notes that are a beat each are quarter notes. The ones with tails that are half of those are eighth notes.

OK, fine. Whatever. But then, if you learn as I did, you also learn that they have these fancy-ass names, apparently from the same people who gave us pounds, shillings, pence, halfpennies, farthings, and all that stuff. And a whole note is called a…


Wait, what? So a breve is two whole notes? Yeah! And if you’re a word-oriented person like I was (and am), you will think, “Wait, breve looks like it means ‘brief’, as in ‘short,’” which in fact it does. That’s right, two whole notes was a short note.

And this is where, long before being introduced to physics, I started to understand that time is relative.

Back when music first started being written in bars (and drawing rooms and studios, but bars are where the liquid inspiration is), those long notes really were normal notes. And then it came to be that just one of those short (breve) notes signified a whole bar, and you started adding stems to note marks and filling them in and adding flags to the stems to indicate shorter and shorter notes. Yes, during the baroque and classical eras, the composers started adding quicker and quicker notes, partly because there was a good way of indicating them to the musicians, but also, the conception of a bar was changing. The hierarchy of rhythm was getting more involved.

So half a semibreve, what North Americans call a half note, got the name minim, because it was minimal. And then half of that was a crotchet, probably because it looks (or looked) like a hook (think of that next time you crochet something). And then the note that represented a half of an actual four-in-a-bar beat, what the fraction-naming people call an eighth note, was a quaver, because, well, it was a little twitch or trembling in the music. Quavering. Same word.

By the way, does quaver look Latin to you? It looks Latin to me. It is not Latin. It comes from Old English cwafian‘quake, tremble’, and is related to German quabbeln ‘quiver’.

But if you think a quaver is quivering, well… If you can add one flag, you can add two, and make a sixteenth note, or three, and make a thirty-second note, or four, and make a sixty-fourth note. But, ah, now, what do those note-namers call them? Fillip, twitch, flick? Nope. They start, finally, tossing on words indicating division: semiquaver, using the Latin for ‘half’; demisemiquaver, adding the French for ‘half’; and then, with the corresponding Greek prefix, hemidemisemiquaver. A sixty-fourth note. If each syllable of hemidemisemiquaver were a hemidemisemiquaver, the whole word would equal a quaver. A bar of 4/4 time could accommodate the word eight times. (How quickly can you say hemidemisemiquaver eight times?)

That seems kinda silly in a way, doesn’t it? Absurdly fast? I mean, are we talking musicians on meth here, or a shivery little Dachshund running down a flight of stairs? And yet.

And yet there are even shorter notes. And you might think that only sadistic modern composers would use them, but no. Here’s a piece of music by Johannes Chrysostomus Wolfgangus Theophilus Mozart (that’s what it says on his baptismal certificate), performed by Ronald Brautigam, that uses not only the aforementioned sesquipedalian microrhythms but even one-hundred-twenty-eighth notes and two-hundred-fifty-sixth notes, which are called semihemidemisemiquavers and demisemihemidemisemiquavers, respectively (if not respectfully), and the overall bar time is so long that you can actually hear the individual notes quite distinctly rather than having them all slurry together:

So many notes (too many notes?) and yet you can’t dance to it at all.

But oh, such words. Long words. Excellent words! Take note of them.

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