Writing just after the turn of the first millenium, the anonymous author of De musica
understood lines of chant as having three building blocks or units, in a similar way to
classical metrical poetry, with syllables, words and ends of phrases. He called these
(musical) syllables, parts, and distinctions.
His syllables were small melodic units made of between one and four notes. They would be
called neumes today. His parts were formed by between one to two or more of his syllables.
His distinctions were the sections of chant able to be sung continuously in a single breath.
Anonymus, De musica (post c.1000)
Latin: Scriptores ecclesiastici de musica sacra potissimum, ed. Gerbert, Vol 1, p275
English: Sicut in grammatica by Karen Desmond
in the Journal of Musicology, Vol 16, No. 4, 1998, p483
This three-fold division of musical phrasing is an echo of the three-fold division of phrasing in
Maximus Victorinus, Ars grammatica, 192
The word 'mora' (delay) is the Latin equivalent of the Greek word 'χρόνος' (time), the term for
the basic unit of duration of the syllables of poetic metre.
Here the period, colon and comma are being described along with their associated breaks in
speaking. In psalm-singing, the equivalent positions of the finalis, mese and subdistinctio
would be i) at the end of the termination (closing formula of one psalm verse), ii) at the
mediant (which normally divides the psalm verse in two with a break for breath) or at the flex
(which further subdivides the psalm verse with another break for breath), and, notably, iii) at
any comma written in the latin text of the psalm.
The concepts contained in the above passage from De musica are repeated by Guido
d'Arezzo and expanded upon by making a direct connection betwen the three different sizes
of musical units and the length of the last note in each size of musical unit.
In order to know fully the science of singing,
it is useful to know the ways in which
pitches are joined together. For example,
just as a syllable is normally formed from
two, three, or four letters, and sometimes
from just a single letter, as in "a-mo" or
"tem-plum," so too in music one pitch may
be delivered by itself, but normally two,
three or four will be joined together: this we
may call a musical syllable. Similarly, just as
a part of speech is formed from either a
single syllable, or two or three or more, so
too musical parts are formed, when we
perceive their melody, and understand their
measurement, from the joining of one, two
or more musical syllables. ...
A phrase (distinctio) in music is, the amount
of the chant (cantus) that we can join
together and deliver within a single breath
What is a distinctio? By an applied dot, a
mark at the end of the sense or a mora of
suspension. In how many places is it put?
In three. In which? In the highest when it
finishes the sense, and it is called final by
us, 'end' [recte: τέλος] by the Greeks; in the
middle when it gives the reader a space to
breathe, and it is called 'mese' [Greek: μέση
(middle)]. It is placed in the lowest when a
mora (hitherto to be proceeding to
something else) of the reading suspends the
interrupted course and it is called
'υποστιγμή' [comma, lit. 'dot below'] by the
Greeks, by us a subdistinction.
Ad cantandi scientiam nosse, quibus
modis ad si invicem voces iungantur,
summa utilitas est. Nam sicut duae
plerumque litterae aut tres aut
quatuor unam faciunt syllabam, sive sola
littera pro syllaba accip-itur, ut amo,
templum: ita quoque et in musica
plerumque sola vox per se
pronuntiatur, plerumque duae aut tres
vel quatuor cohaerentes unam
consonantiam reddunt: quod iuxta
aliquem musicam syllabam nominare
possumus. Item sicut sola syllaba aut
duae vel tres vel etiam plures unam
partem locutionis faciunt ... ita quoque
et una vel duae vel plures musicae
syllabae ... iungunt, quarum dum et
melodium sentimus et mensuram
intelligentes musicae partes ...
Distinctio vero in musica est, quantum
de quolibet cantu continuamus, quae ubi
vox requieverit, pronuntiatur.
Distinctio quod est? Apposito puncto
nota finiti sensus vel pendentis mora.
Quot locis ponitur? Tribus. Quibus?
Summo, cum sensum terminat, et
vocatur finalis a nobis, a Graecis telis;
medio, cum respirandi spatium legenti
dat, et dicitur mese; imo ponitur, cum
mora lectionis interruptum tenorem aliud
adhuc inlatura suspendit, et vocatur a
Graecis υποστιγμή, a nostris