USA vs. UK music theory EXPLAINED

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Music theory resembles a language, and like any language, music theory has regional dialects and variations. and American music theory terms are typically used interchangeably so it is really important to comprehend both systems (even if one system is plainly remarkable).

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0:00 Introduction.
0:45 .
2:23 note names.
6:34 why you must speak both dialects.
8:14 Donner.
8:59 Semitone vs. Half Step.
9:58 Tierce de Picardie vs. Picardy Third.
10:30 Cadence names.
15:20 Conclusion.

vs. music theory

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53 Comments

  1. Great Video. I know the US and the UK say different words for things, but never for Music Theory. Thanks for the information!

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  2. May be the first time the USA is credited as having a better/more logical system of measurement

    1. @T-Rex remember when they programmed the mars lander in meters but did the calculations in feet? good times.

    2. @Flame Beats Except that it is a French work that probably originated in Scandinavia. 😃

    3. Yeah, but where did we get the imperial system from in the first place? 🧐

  3. an interesting thing for me was that i learned music at a very American school, our school mascot was the “Patriot” and had american colors and bald eagles all over the place.

    I learned about the quaver as a fun fact about UK music theory but used the US system. We did use semitones in place of half step and it always threw off my classmates in university when we would discuss music theory.

    I find it interesting that you mention the way you name cadences is very similar to the way I am learning cadences in university, I am going to an American university but we use British terms for cadences everyday.

    1. That’s probably because just about everything in the US is directly influenced by English culture and English Traditions etc etc. We have been around much longer so it makes a lot of sense.

  4. Very interesting. I’d heard some of the UK terms but didn’t know where they applied. Thanks!

  5. Have you ever heard of H chord?
    If no, welcome to USSR music theory 😊

    1. Same in Germany and some other countries. I believe Germany is the origin of the H.

  6. Here in Brazil, because we live in latin country, we call the notes going top to bottom:

    Semibreve
    Mínima
    Semínima
    Colcheia
    Semicolcheia
    Fusa
    Semifusa

    The logic is every two divisions get a New name, and its subdivision gets the prefix “semi” on It (notice that semínima we only ommit on “mi” syllable)

    I think its slightly more complicated than the American system, but still a easy pattern to recognize.

    1. When I searched for tabs I also found in Latin countries they work with the do re mi system. Isn’t there a site called Chiffras?

    2. In Brazil we use dó ré mi fá sol lá si. There’s a website called cifras where you can find chords for songs

    3. @Kendy Ueno Thank you for the confirmation. I used chiffras regularly when I pick up guitar again. Good memories. Here we use do re mi in a relative way, so do is the tonic (I) of the key, the C in C, the F in F etc. But In Brazil I believe do is always C, isn’t it?

    4. @Frits van Zanten yes. We read the C as Do, D as re, and so on. We never call the letters by it’s regular pronunciation (in music)

  7. The American system was definitely influenced by German names for notes and cadences. It seems to me that they just translated the German terms into English as the note length names are exactly the same and the German names for the cadences (V-I „authentische Kadenz“, V-vi „Trugschluss“, „Trug“ approximately meaning deception) are very similar…

    The German name for half-step/semitone is something in between. It‘s called „Halbton“ (half-tone) or „Halbtonschritt“ (half-tone-step) – depending on context – and „Ganzton(-schritt)“ (whole-tone(-step)).

    1. I think Sweden stole from Germany, we have the same mix, half-tone (halvton) and whole-tone (helton).

  8. For the notes’ names, the Italian system is:
    4/4: Semibreve (BTW “breve” means “short”)
    2/4: Minima
    1/4: Semiminima (half a minima)
    1/8: Croma (from the Greek word for “colour”, as in “it’s so short it’s just there to give the melody some colour”)
    1/16: Semicroma (half a croma)
    1/32: Biscroma (“bis” is latin for “twice”, as in a croma to the croma)
    1/64: Semibiscroma (as usual)
    1/128: Fusa (“fused” or “blended together”, though it’s almost never used)
    1/256: Semifusa (as usual)

    1. @Douglas Almeida that’s how it was when the notes got their names. A semibreve was about the equivalent of what a crotchet is now.

    2. Quello che imparai io da piccolo 😉 Simile ma più coerente di quello britannico. Poi ci si mette di mezzo la storia come David ha spiegato. Gli americani semplicemente usano le frazioni
      That’s the one I learnt as a child 😉 Similar to the British one but more consistent. Then history plays its tricks, as David explained. Americans simply use fractions.

      Play 1/4096ths at 320 bpm and you break the universe… or call Cthulhu! 😉

    3. @adb012 Another big difference in spanish is the name of the notes: do-re-mi-fa-sol-la-si instead of C-D-E-F-G-A-B

  9. Honestly never realized that semitone was a British term, I thought they were just synonyms that were used in American English. Maybe it’s just cause most of my music education came from British music theory YouTubers like you 🤣

    1. I’m the opposite, I never realised a whole note was an American term, I thought it was just another name for a semibreve as I’m British xD

  10. As an American student, I’m pretty sure I remember being taught “perfect cadence”, and I don’t recall “authentic cadence” let alone “perfect authentic cadence”. It’s been a really long time though. Certainly that concept (that a cadence would be named differently depending on the inversion of the chords) doesn’t ring any bells for me.

    I also thought an “imperfect cadence” was an alternative name for a plagal cadence (IV-I), but that might just be me misremembering…

    1. That’s funny, im an American too and I don’t think I heard of a perfect cadence. I definitely am familiar with authentic and perfect authentic.

      I didn’t finish watching the vid yet so idk if he explains. An Authentic Cadence is any Dominant to Tonic function (ex: V-I). A perfect authentic cadence is a V-I but the top voice plays the root of the tonic along with the bass (ex: PAC in Cmaj will have a G chord (or G7) move to a C chord and the top voice plays a C)

      I have heard plagal cadences referred to as an “Imperfect cadence” but I also know an Imperfect authentic cadence is the V-I mentioned before but when the top voice plays the third of fifth (G-C and the top voice plays either an E or G on the I)

      My guess is either one of the 4 is the umbrella term, and the other 3 are specific types of said cadence.

    2. I also learned perfect cadence and not authentic. I also learned resolving on the V as a hanging cadence.

  11. American note durations make perfect sense when you interpret them as being “how much of a measure of 4/4 do they take up.” For once, we objectively win the “best way to measure something” contest (though it’s a calque of German musical notation). And I’ve always heard both tone and step used interchangeably in the US.

    1. How is that objectively the best way when various other time signature exist? 😂😂

    2. @D Double E because it is by far the most common. Naming conventions should make as much sense as possible to people who are learning the thing for the first time, and pretty much all music for begginer musicians is in 4/4.

  12. I use the crisp notation. Half a Quaver is known as a Wotsit. Half of a Wotsit is called a Hula Hoop, and half of that is a Skip. Double a Quaver is called a Monster Munch, and double that is a Smiths Salt and Shake.

  13. When I was taking IB Music, we had to learn the British and American musical terms, on top of French, German, Italian, and Latin.

    Anything was fair game for the exam and we had to know what they were talking about.

    My university music theory class used a mix of British and American terms. US note values, interchanged semitones and half notes, and British cadence names.

  14. As a British person who learnt basic music theory in school in the UK, but watches a lot of music Youtube (and has learnt more music theory after I left school)…I feel like I’m in this weird in-between space of American terms and British terms. There’s some stuff that I think of in American terms, and there’s some stuff that is just drilled into me from music lessons. I keep forgetting the British names for stuff and it does make me sad sometimes that I’ve lost this information in my head, that it’s been replaced from American Youtubers and music theory websites etc.

    1. Same. I’m Australian and learnt pretty much exactly the same terms as the UK ones, but I mostly see the US ones online.

  15. My American theory professors used semitone and half step interchangeably – my studio teacher was French (studied at Paris Conservatory and lived in Quebec) so he used a lot of the French terminology you mentioned.

  16. I learned this the hard way on my short stint in Malaysia as a US musical peep. Add onto that that my teacher for awhile was Russian and didn’t speak English. She spoke Russian, some Malay and very little English. Our only common language was Italian & German in purely musical terms.

  17. Well, I’ve certainly heard of quaver and I knew it was a quarter note, but quasi-hemi-demi-semi-quaver?! And since I’m not Bri’ish not 6:25, no. I do agree with 8:07 though, we call it a pavement. 🙂 I prefer semitone as well.
    It’s the beauty of being Dutch, I don’t have to choose, although I veer towards English English, but like you, the Bri’ish note lenghts – thanks, no.
    Albeit. Quaver. Sure.

    1. @nstrug Sorry, wrong symbol. Actually, not sure if 1/8 is a symbol in ANSI. But ¼ is simply right-alt-6 on US International. Simply put: the key next to € (that’s right-alt-5, which we use all the time).

  18. Basically the German and US system are very similar in contrast to the one in the UK although I recognize these terms from medieval ages as well. But as you consider the note names, the confusion kicks in: according to the German system, the note B is called H while we call a Bb a B.

  19. Love how I’ve just been taught in 10 minutes the mystery behind what others have tried to explain to me 10 years ago. It might be that I’m older and have watched many of David’s videos but; yet again you’ve lifted the veil on music theory for a simple guitar player who only knew chord shapes. Until I found the circle of fifths video I had no idea how keys worked, or how to understand them, use them or anything, after that, I understood soo much of what used to be just words, now I’m having that same experience.. seriously David, Thank You.

  20. Gareth Green over in the Music Matters channel has a different terminology for chord inversions. For example, a I chord in first/second/third inversion would be named as Ia/Ib/Ic … Is this another British thing? I had never seen this anywhere except on Music Matters.

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