What is a… Crotchet?

Stephen Johnson explains what one of classical music's technical terms, the crotchet, means and how to use it

DMusic_cmyk-5123d5e-c5540d1.jpg

A crotchet in music is a note that is one beat long in 4/4 time.

Advertisement

Americans call it a ‘quarter-note’ – a straight translation of the admirably clear German ‘Viertelnote’. For the French, it’s a noire – ‘black’ – which is nothing less than the truth. We call it a ‘crotchet’, which, depending on your point of view, is either charmingly eccentric or just plain perverse.

Does etymology help here? Not really. The term crotchet’s direct ancestor is the French ‘crochet’, meaning a ‘little hook’. But the note we call a crotchet doesn’t look like a hook: it looks more like a tadpole with a vertically descending or ascending tail.

The note that does look like a hook, to which the French (with their infallible sense of the mot juste) give the name ‘croche’, we call a quaver – which according to the OED means ‘tremble’ or ‘shake’. All right, quavers (eighth-notes) are twice as fast as crotchets (quarter-notes), but the musical equivalent of the palsy? In music, it seems, terminological inexactitude is a peculiarly English vice.

However, none of this should distract us from the fact that the crotchet, and the system of rhythm/pitch notation to which it belongs, is a stunningly practical invention.

The semibreve, or again more sensibly ‘whole-note’, became the basic unit during the Baroque era, at around the time bar lines were introduced to help synchronise vocal parts in choral music. Gradually, the semibreve-based system replaced the old-style notation based on the breve – double the length of the semibreve (logic at last!), but literally meaning ‘short’ (then again…).

The semibreve symbol is a hollow horizontal oval. Add a tail and it becomes a half-note or minim, a term derived from ‘smallest’ (I know…), and twice as fast as a semibreve. Blacken it and you have a crotchet/quarter-note: twice as fast again. Give the tail a hook and it becomes a quaver/eighth-note; two tails makes it a semiquaver, and so on.

It’s simple to recognise and easy to learn – there really isn’t much excuse for failing to master at least the rhythmic element. Granted, the pitch dimension is harder. 

Perhaps the trick, for newcomers, is to learn those precise American/German terms first, then their whimsical English equivalents – a bit like learning phonetic spelling in school before wrestling with the real thing. But I’d hate to lose the ‘crotchet’, a word which can also signify a fanciful device, a disposition of troops, or an elderly bachelor’s bizarre habits. One can have too much logic.

Advertisement

This article was first published in the September 2014 issue of BBC Music Magazine