A Breve History of Time

The Credo as plainchant in neum notation; the C on the second line down represents the position of note C, and the lower case ‘b’s or flats indicate that the Credo is in what we’d call the key of F

Wanderings among Words 3: Time

Plaisir d’amour ne dure qu’un moment,
Chagrin d’amour dure toute la vie.
— Words by Jean-Pierre Claris de Florian (1784), music by Jean-Paul-Égide Martini

In the dim and distant past I sang plainchant. When Latin was the lingua franca for the Catholic Church my school would congregate on high days and holidays to massacre Gregorian chant. Then along came the Vatican Council in the 1960s, vernacular tongues were after nearly two millennia now allowed in Catholic rituals — and plainchant went out the stained glass window. Protestant hymns became more acceptable in services, and in time songs which some call happy-clappy (‘happy-crappy’ according to cynics) came creeping in.

I must admit as a schoolboy I was never much an admirer of plainchant: throughout practices and services I usually had to stifle yawns. Though musically literate I found the old notational conventions bizarre by modern standards, particularly over how long notes needed to be held for — however did any one know how long to hold a note? One of the few conventions seemed to be that a note with a dot after it had to be held a little bit longer.

I knew where I was with modern notation. Semibreves, minims, crotchets — they all made sense to me, having had them drummed into my head from the age of five. It wasn’t till I began to teach music as an adult that I realised that these words made as much sense as calling them Fred or Mary or Voldemort. (Maybe not the latter.) So here’s what I pieced together after some research and the application of guesswork masquerading as logic.

Fred, Mary, Voldemort and friends
Fred, Mary, Voldemort and friends

Contrary to my limited experience with Gregorian chant a system of Neums had in fact been devised in the Middle Ages to distinguish the length of notes. Basically notes were either long or they were ‘breve’ (that is, brief), with double long (aka ‘maxima’) and semibreve to allow for extremes. For a few centuries this seemed to cater for most needs. But perhaps life was starting to move into the fast lane because there arose a need for something briefer than the semibreve (literally half of a short note): along came the ‘minima’. You can guess what happened next. Yes, the double long note was now getting implausibly long and, after the short note (breve), the half-short (semibreve) and the least of all notes (minima, or minim for short — ironic, eh?) the requirement was for something even shorter. Where to go?

In the different European languages different solutions were suggested. The French called the semibreve une ronde (because it looked, um, round). The minim became blanche in French and bianca in Italian (because it was a white blob with a stem attached). Naturally the French and the Italians called the next shortest note noir and nera (‘black’) because the white blob had become … black. Now — and I can see you’ve already got there — what happens after you’ve used up black and white? For the next short note the Italians went for croma (‘coloured’) while the French went for croche (‘hook’) because that was what the note now looked like: a black blob with a stem and a tail a bit like a hook.

quaverThis French word, croche, is related to so many European words for stick: croquet originated from an old French word for a shepherd’s crook; the earliest cricket bat was curved like a hockey stick; a stick to aid walking was called a crutch; crochet is a form of knitting using hooked needles; lacrosse (“la crosse”) is played with a curved stick; and so on. While the French croche note may not now look much like a hooked stick you can see the logic. What’s less logical is that sometime in the late Renaissance or Early Baroque period the English decided to transfer croche — now transformed into the diminutive crotchet — to the noire or nera. (I trust you’re still following me.) So what were they going to call the croche or croma? Here the English went not for visuals but for the sounds: they called this until now shortest of notes a quaver because … Well, there is a lack of agreement why this word was chosen but somehow it seems to refer to the quavering effect of very fast notes, I suspect from extreme vocal techniques such as vibrato or rapid scale-like ornamentation.

Fast notes didn’t stop at quavers; here, at last, the English, French and Italians could agree on procedure. Recognising that the value of notes kept halving they devised nomenclature to reflect this, all based on the quaver, croche or croma. In English the prefixes semi-, demi- and hemi- (‘half’ in Latin, French and Greek respectively) were brought into play: semiquaver → demisemiquaver → hemidemisemiquaver. And when you wanted ridiculously fast you started all over again: semi-hemidemisemiquaver etc.

You will note (sorry) that this system as it has evolved is extraordinarily complicated, mixing obsolete concepts of what is long and short with visual imagery and mathematical mouthfuls. Needless to say, the Germans — followed by the Americans and other English-speaking peoples, but not the British — went with a vastly simpler and logical system. Taking the semibreve as the absolute benchmark or gold standard they called this the Ganze Taktnote or whole note. (Think of this as a dollar, euro or pound, all pretty close to parity right now.) The minim becomes the half-note (50 cents or 50p), the crotchet the quarter-note, and so on; the unwieldy semi-hemidemisemiquaver becomes the slightly more wieldy hundred-and-twenty-eighth note. Personally I find notes with five tails attached to their stem a nightmare to read, but there you go.

In view of this complexity I now think I could have been overhasty in my dismissal of plainchant. To cleanse our palates of this surfeit of time-related terms we could probably do to enjoy Joan Baez’s rendition of Plaisir d’Amour — though perhaps we might reflect that for some it is the pain of learning antiquated terminology that lasts all one’s life.


10 thoughts on “A Breve History of Time

    1. Thanks, Alastair, though I wonder if those brought up on the German system (now universally used in digital composing and arranging programs) will be confused as to why the old inconsistent systems are still used. 🙂

        1. Indeed, or pounds, shillings and pence, or pints, gills and quarts, or rods, chains and perches — had to learn all these as a kid, and fat chance I’ve had to use them since! Album covers, now those are potentially works of art …

  1. earthbalm

    Thanks, a very informative post. You say that as a schoolboy you had little admiration of plainchant, is this still true?

    1. I like to think, Dale, that nowadays I’m a little more mature and thus not only able to give chant a nuanced interpretation but also recognise the words as a kind of poetry, expressive and even emotional at times. I think though I never really believed all the theology and dogma, either then or now.

  2. My goodness you are a knowledgeable fellow. I sing in a small choir where we spend a great deal of time working on our leader’s own Alleluia. She changes it every week. Quite lovely, although no mention of minims and semibreves; half the group can’t read music.

    And that Joan Baez; how it takes me back. How would you describe her voice? A kind of folky coloratura?

    1. Ah, when you’re a teacher on — as I’ve since found out — the autistic spectrum it pays to appear more knowledgeable than you really are! Myself, I find learning by rote quite difficult and think that knowing how to read music is a hindrance in this respect rather than a help. Glad you’re enjoying your leader’s own Alleluia: art music needs new interpretations to keep it fresh and relevant.

      As for Joan Baez’ voice, folky coloratura expresses it just right — ‘folk coloratura’ would sound like ‘faux coloratura’ to the ear, and folkoloratura looks just awful!

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