Minims and crotchets: surviving British musical notation

“It’s simple,” G. tells me. “There are two quavers in a crotchet, two crotchets in a minim, and two minims in a semibreve.”

She’s not explaining the Harry Potter universe but musical notation in British as opposed to American. I give her a panicky nod, but I don’t fool her, because she stops before she gets to the full breve—which has a long E so that it sounds like breathe, in case you need to know that. And crotchet is pronounced like crotchety, with a T you can actually hear, not like that thing you do with a length of yarn and a crochet hook.

I explain to G. that I learned to call them whole notes, half notes, quarter notes, and so on, and she seems to believe that if I learn to translate those into the terms she knows we’ll be able to discuss time—that’s time as in music, not as in clocks. But because the eyelids of my mind fluttered when she said “It’s simple” and shut completely when she got to the quavers, my end of the conversation is mostly hand signals. I’m trying to show her the written notes, for some reason, with my fingers indicating whether the notes have stems and whether they’re filled in or hollow in the center.

Surprisingly relevant photo of a courgette. Or a zucchini is you prefer. Photo by Mmm Daffodils, on Wikimedia.

A courgette. Or a zucchini is you prefer. Photo by Mmm Daffodils, on Wikimedia.

G. and I know each other from the singers night at a local pub. Her head harbors a fine range of folk songs, from the sweet to the raunchy, with several stops in between, and she understands both time and notation, although she can’t necessarily communicate either of them to me. In spite of that, we’ve worked out a couple of songs that we sing together, and she tolerates my musical ignorance—a gift I admire even more than her ability to harmonize spontaneously. We’ve been working on a new song, Les Barker’s “Non, No Courgettes,” which is a mash-up of French and English set to the tune of Edith Piaf’s “Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien.”

A courgette, in case you need to know this, is a British zucchini.

Somewhere in the midst of our run-through, I’ve fallen foul of a hemidemisemiquaver. Or something very much like one. There is such a thing. Really there is, although probably not in “No Courgettes.” I can’t say for sure because I wouldn’t recognize one if it snapped my finger off and added salt. All I know is that they’re very short, but then so are piranhas.

So am I, if that’s at all relevant.

I’m not completely uneducated about music. I took piano lessons as a kid, and I’m sure you could have found a more resolutely untalented student somewhere but you’d have had to look hard. The lessons were about either classical music or some damned silly song about my pretty dolly, and I wasn’t interested in either of them. I don’t remember how long I took lessons for. It seemed like forever, and my teacher must have felt the same way, but given how little I know it could have been no more than two months. I came out of it almost able to read music. I can follow the treble clef if the notes don’t go too far above the stave and the time signature doesn’t get complicated and there aren’t more than one or two flats or sharps. Forget about the bass clef—I can’t read that at all. To translate that, if we were talking about words, I could read the vowels but not the consonants. It’s ever so handy.

No one, in all the time I took piano lessons, ever mentioned a minim, a crotchet, or a quaver.

G. lets the abstract discussion slide—this is both wise and merciful—and we tackle the song again, both of us tapping time on the coffee table. In my head, the words run, “Non (two three), no courgettes (two three four)….”

She manages not to pack up her guitar and leave. It helps that one of the cats has crawled into the case and gone to sleep.

18 thoughts on “Minims and crotchets: surviving British musical notation

  1. Oh gosh, you’ve made me laugh out loud! I was brought up with crochets and quavers and as a child felt very proud to fudge my way through Pachelbel’s canon with it’s demisemiquavers. My ‘joy’ started in Germany – they use the ‘half note, quarter note’ idea. Yes, maths is connected to music but then they make things difficult by calling B flat a B so then of course they need a name for B so it is turned into H!!!!. I played in an amateur chamber orchestra in Cape Town and our German conductor was always getting the notation confused. What fun we had! And no I can’t read the bass clef either without ‘counting it out’.

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    • An H? I’m not sure my already shaky attachment to musical sanity will survive this news. My friend G. is fond of saying, when musical life becomes confusing, “Just launch it into the key of zed”–which of course I call “zee.” But she, at least, is joking. I think.

      Why don’t they call a B flat a B flat???

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      • German notation uses suffixes for sharps (=is) and flats (es, reduced to s after a vowel) and so B is already B flat, hence the adoption of H for B natural. And apparently it’s fairly common in Scandinavian and Eastern European countries, too!

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  2. In Afrikaans we also speak of full, halve, quarter notes, etc. It just makes it so much simpler. I’ve no idea which English terminology they use over here as I was taught music in my own language, but I’m going to go out on a limb and say probably also the British version. We are a former colony of Her Majesty’s, after all.

    What you call a courgette/zucchini looks like what we call a baby marrow over here.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Gahahaha! So funny! And i agree completely… the first time anyone mentioned a crochet in my daughter’s music class, i wondered what on earth they were going on about. Dont get me wrong.. i know my music. Just not English music! :-) :-)

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  4. Pingback: How people find a blog, part 5ish | Notes from the U.K.

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