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Differences between American and European terminology in Music Theory

Updated on April 10, 2010

Why isn't music terminology the same across the world?

This lens is all about the differences that occur in music theory in different parts of the world. For example in Europe the five lines that music is written on is called a stave, but in the USA and Canada that term is considered ancient and outdated, and the music is written on a Staff. This lens is hopefully going to explore and explain some of these differences.

The major terminology differences in music

Stave VS Staff

This has already been mentioned in the introduction, but the use of the word Stave has almost disappeared in the United States, but it is still in common use in the European and British music theory systems. Searching Stave redirects you to Staff in Wikipedia, perhaps reflecting its American base, but the footnote does suggest that stave is more common in British English.

Bar VS Measure

In Europe, the space in between two bar lines is called a Bar, and in the United States it is called a Measure. The idea of a bar is that there are a certain number of beats in it, (often two, three or four) which is determined by the time signature. Interestingly in Wikipedia, the entry is for BAR, rather than for measure. Gardner Read (1979) suggests that "although the words "bar" and "measure" are often used interchangeably the correct use of the word 'bar' refers only to the vertical line, while the word 'measure' refers to the music contained within bars. Mr Read's definition is a long way from the practice of most musicians today, as most (particularly anywhere except the united state) refer to "bars" as the space in between "bar lines".

Rhythm Notation

The major differences have to do with the Rhythm Names of the music notes. By rhythm names we mean the name that determines how long each note is played for.

The European system uses a list of names which are derived from Italian words. Semibreve, Minim, Crotchet, Quaver and Semiquaver are the common ones.

The American system is more mathematical, starting with the Whole Note, then that is divided into two Half Notes, then four Quarter Notes, eight Eighth notes and so on.

A list of Common Note Types - Here is a list of note types with both the European and American Names

A chart of the basic note types in common use today and both their European and Amercan Names
A chart of the basic note types in common use today and both their European and Amercan Names

Pros and Cons for both Systems:

Opinions on which system should be used varies amongst educators around the world

Users of the American system point out quite correctly that because there is a mathematical relationship between each of the notes that it is easier to understand and remember than crotchets, quavers etc.

Those who have learned this system from day one will certainly agree.

however there is a big issue with this system: A whole note is a whole what? It is an entity on its own, and really has no actual pre-determined length. The value or duration of this note can go for as long as required, as the tempo of the music also has to be considered.

The whole note cannot be said to be worth a whole measure or bar. At least, not truly correctly!

In common music which is written in 4/4 time a whole note fills a bar. But what if the time signature is different? If the music is in 3/4 suddenly there is three quarter notes in a bar.

Surely in an attempt to make things easier to understand, haven't we just made it harder to understand?

I think this topic is extremely interesting. Being a music teacher I’m very interested in teachers opinions on this, as everyone has a different one, and that is why both systems have survived.

Many, Many teachers passionately teach successfully using the European system, as students can understand and recognize each note type separately. Many teachers also successfully use the American system.

In the music worksheets that I am involved with editing both notations are provided. Surprisingly we have found teachers in America using the European notations, and teachers in the UK using American notations, so it really does cross borders.

Other Resources for Music Theory Notation

Here is a couple of resources for further reading on this topic.

This is for teachers and musicians to argue one way or the other about whether European or American music terminology should be the one taught in schools today. Please keep the conversation civil and remember that even though others will disagree with you on this topic we are all friends in music!

Please add your opinions on this topic here - I'm sure you have an opinion, go on - let it be heard!

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    • jptanabe profile image

      Jennifer P Tanabe 

      8 years ago from Red Hook, NY

      Great discussion topic! I was raised in Scotland so I was used to the crotchets and quavers, but moved to the States where my daughter learned quarter notes and such. It is quite confusing to go between the two systems since the "whole" American note is the "semi-breve" or half a "breve" British note, and I always thought of the crotchet as the unit! Ah well, it's like gallons and liters and all the decimals, except that none of these are decimal .... Oh, and did you know the American system seems to come from the German? So Europe isn't united at all!

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