Reading Gregorian Chant Notation

By kind permission of Pastoral Music, the journal of the National Association of Pastoral Musicians, here is my article from the January 2011 issue, “Reading and Singing the Church’s Chant: The Basics


  1. Thank you for writing this accessible article. I read it when it appeared in _Pastoral Music_ and it clarified several questions I had about chant notation. Recommended reading for anyone interested in the subject…even a beginner like me :-).

  2. “The starting point for singing Latin chant is the text” – When I first read the article, this statement jumped off the page at me as being about 98% of the work one has to do in order to chant – – even those of us who have had some schooling in chant and/or sang metricized/Solemnes-influenced chant along the way. The current sonic environment for all music, including liturgical music, is dictated or at least governed by the music and its notation (in the case of much “contemporary” music, it’s dictated/governed by the recording).
    Chant invites us to make a 180-degree turn in the way we pray in song. One of the many benefits that learning how to chant will provide is opening us up to making the texts of all our sung prayer the starting point.
    Thanks very much for this article – the entire issue of the magazine was great and well worth reading!

  3. In the diagram at the middle right of the first page, a standard flat symbol is shown as representing “flat,” but then the same symbol is shown again as representing “natural.” Is that right — that you can cancel a flat with another flat — and I’ve somehow never realized it, or is this a misprint?

    I agree that this is a very accessible article. It seems like it would have been worth mentioning (perhaps without citing specific ones) that there are a lot of online resources for chant now as well. For me, at least, I recognize the importance of learning the climacus, podatus, pes, and so on, but hearing the chants as I’m following with the music is the best education.

  4. An excellent article that demonstartes very clearly Fr. Ruff’s expertise in this field.


    I don’t have the article in front of me, and I didn’t catch the issue with the flats, but if what you’re describing is what’s on the page, it’s either a misprint (very likely) or a mistake by the author (highly unlikely).


    Probably the best, easy and accessible online resource for learning basic chant notation is at

    I use this for my students and they have all had great success with it, although it is best to have an instructor present this material along with it.

  5. Corrected! Gordon Truitt at NPM promptly sent me the corrected version which is now up. Thanks for catching this, sharp-eyed readers.

  6. “Sing in natural speech rhythm.”

    The historical authorities, such as St Augustine, Remigius, Guido and Aribo amongst others, are united in advocating a 2:1 ratio of long and short durations for the notes of Latin chant. Some authorities criticise departure from this rhythmic ratio (or ‘nuancing’). Some provide theological reasons for the use of the ratio. Communal Byzantine chant commonly makes use of the same ratio.

    Modern chant scholars use the excuse of the debatable quantities of the notes in the earliest chant notations to justify their “free rhythm” interpretations which originate in the Romantic era. It is high time that this academic opportunism was seen through.

    The only strong connections between spoken Latin and Gregorian melody are those between pitch and verbal stress and liquescent consonants. Rhythmically, there is no direct connection. Latin has long and short vowels and, unlike classical metres, the Gregorian melodies often pay no regard to the difference in duration between long and short syllables (exceptions being hymns built on metres). Melismas can be found on short and long Latin syllables at any position in a word. Later on, the chant was actually altered by contrivance to make the chant conform rhythmically to verbal stress, moving melismas onto stressed syllables. This deliberate change to the chant demonstrates how wrong the whole ‘speech rhythm’ notion is.

    The simplistic view that the rhythm of Gregorian melody is shaped to the verbal rhythm of the text has no factual foundation and furthermore contradicts all historical authorities, the melodic structure of the chants, and the evidence of certain notations from the Nonantola and Laon traditions.

    Anyone interested can check out a number of the relevant historical quotes at as their existence paints the picture of a chant tradition which was continuously proportional in rhythm until broken by the innovations of Solesmes in the Romantic era.

    1. Mr. Codona wrote, “The simplistic view that the rhythm of Gregorian melody is shaped to the verbal rhythm of the text has no factual foundation and furthermore contradicts all historical authorities, the melodic structure of the chants, and the evidence of certain notations from the Nonantola and Laon traditions.”

      This is an overstatement, and it dismisses a lot of contemporary scholars. I’m pretty close to the chant scene in Europe. The very large, international Associazione Internazionale Studi di Canto Gregoriano ( supports text-based rhythm in all its scholarly studies and periodicals in various languages. Broadly speaking, AISCGre follows the lead of Eugene Cardine, monk of Solesmes, who began the field of semiology. This has led to the revised notation of the official chant books since 1983, intended for speech rhythm.

      The main proponents of proportionalism (mensuralism) were Vollaerts and Murray. Cardine has critiqued Vollaert’s scholarship. Cardine always said that one had to go to the manuscripts (the early lineless notation, especially of St. Gall and Laon), not the treatises and tractates of Augustine et al. It is exceedingly difficult to translate the treatises. Furthermore, It is exceedingly difficult to derive actual performance practice from treatises. Their proposal of design, proportion, and balance may have more to do with their theological cosmology than their musical views.

      There have been several approaches to rhythmic interpretation in the 20 century: proportionalism; free rhythm (or equalism or “Old Solesmes”), and semiology which in some ways builds on the instincts of the earlier “oratorical” approach of Pothier of Solesmes.

      I grant that scholars disagree about chant rhythm. There is no consensus. I object to dismissing one approach out of hand – especially when that approach is so predominant in Europe today.


      1. If I might add, as a non-chant specialist but as a liturgical musician for the past three decades, that the categorical arguments of certain chant proponents has served to deepen the marginalization of chant as a specialist’s No Man’s Land rather than an area where people in the trenches may dare to tread.

      2. And we should be aware that Gregory Murray later publicly withdrew his mensuralist views and ‘returned to the fold’. I have the complete set of his writings on the subject and fascinating they are.

        That being said, I have to say that I have never been entirely convinced by Cardine’s semiology. While there is something very attractive about looking over the scribe’s shoulder and down the arm to the point of the pen, some of the conclusions he drew don’t appear to have any more justification than Mocquereau’s views. They both had their own personal opinions. I am keeping an open mind….

        If only we had a time machine. Having read Dom Jean Claire regarding Pothier’s views and approach, I am not inclined to view the latter with a huge amount of sympathy either. I want to be transported back to a time centuries ago, which is manifestly impossible, where I can see and hear exactly what was going on at the time St-Gall, Laon, etc, were written down. We will never know the whole truth, alas.

  7. I am proudly an NPM member and I read this article in the NPM journal Pastoral Music Some of the terms that are used are a bit technical and deserve further clarification and explanation. But over all, an excellent article. Good job Fr. Anthony!

  8. Mark- actually a sharp can cancel another sharp, but it’s a natural sign if the key signature is of a major or minor scale that does not contain a flat for that particular note.

  9. If Fr. Ruff can quote an ancient historical authority clearly advocating free rhythm and departure from the 2:1 ratio, I would be very pleased to see it. Likewise, the Nonantolan and Messine notations most frequently show long signs rather than short signs on syllables with one note (ie, virga with episema rather than a plain virga in the former and a tractulus rather than a punctum in the latter). If they can be demonstrated to show otherwise, I would be pleased to see that evidence. For every melisma on a stressed syllable, I can present a melisma on an unstressed syllable. The paragraph quoted contains no overstatement.

    The views of Delorme and Vollaerts caused Murray’s views to change towards mensuralism and renounce the alternative. The views of a lot of contemporary scholars are not more important than the factual evidence that such views are either based on or contradict. The fact that Cardine criticises Vollaerts’ view is in itself inconsequential as a fact. The factual validity of the argument of either is what matters, not whether they consider it valid or otherwise.
    Of course Cardine elevated the manuscript notation above historical quotes. That is precisely my point: he interprets the notation the way he wishes against the historical descriptions of chant. There is much in the treatises which is quite straightforward in translation and, in the context of rhythm, the words “one”, “two”, “simple” and “double” are such terms. Again, if Fr. Ruff can quote any historical source relating to chant rhythm where such terms are not clear in their meaning, I would be very interested to see that.
    The authorities are united in describing chant rhythms in terms of duple time and some actively criticise departure from that model (such as free rhythm). They do not do so “out of hand”. It would be clutching at straws to describe a passage such as the following by St Augustine as having more to do with “theological cosmology”…

  10. … than explaining how human sense (via memory) can tell that some syllables are twice as long as others.

    Ambae sonuerunt, avolaverunt, praeterierunt, iam non sunt. et ego metior fidenterque respondeo, quantum exercitato sensu fiditur, illam simplam esse, illam duplam, in spatio scilicet temporis. neque hoc possum, nisi quia praeterierunt et finitae sunt. non ergo ipsas quae iam non sunt, sed aliquid in memoria mea metior, quod infixum manet.
    Both have sounded, have flown, have passed away, and are no longer; and still I measure, and I confidently answer (so far as is trusted to a practised sense), that as to space of time this syllable is single, that double. Nor could I do this, unless because they have passed, and are ended. Therefore do I not measure themselves, which now are not, but something in my memory, which remains fixed.

    With regard to the 2:1 ratio, it is quite easy to derive actual performance practice from treatises, especially given the relative ease with which the early notational signs can be divided into sets of longs and shorts. It makes a great deal of sense that the authorities’ proposal of design, proportion, and balance has just as much to do with their theological cosmology as with their musical views. It makes less sense that their musical practice be disjunct from their theology.

    My point is that the current approach is only predominant in Europe because historical authorities are being consciously ignored and their practical descriptions of the rhythm of the chant are being nullified in order to justify a Romantic-era “free rhythm” interpretation (of semiotically malleable notation) which the historical record only criticises! The obvious and valid import of repeated mention of a 2:1 ratio of long to short in the ancient record should given due regard by most scholars, not one or two. This kind of stripping of the historical quotations of their importance and meaning should not be par for the course and continue…

  11. … to pass without comment.

    My article gives people easy internet access to the main references to the 2:1 ratio so that they are not reliant on Romantically-inspired musical scholars for an evaluation of how chant should be sung. Discussion of facts and evidence does not marginalise: it educates.

  12. Mr. Codona,

    1. Please observe the comments word limit like the rest of us. If you have posts that long, go start your own blog.

    2. We might be using some terms differently. Semiology (not semiotics, please note) is not based on Romantic “free rhythm.” In all the literature I’ve read, “free rhythm” is the term for the innovation of Old Solesmes equalism over against the mensuralism of the late 19th and early 20th century. There are three different things: mensuralism; Old Solesmes free rhythm (quasi-equalist); semiology. Please don’t conflate the second and the third.

    3. Frankly, I don’t see evidence that you’ve studed the European semiologists (little of their literature is in English), only that you dismiss them out of hand. This is rather foolhardy, given how numerous are the specialists and scholars holding semiological views. To engage and critique them would be another thing, and I would welcome it.

    4. I do not wish to join in a debate about the meaning of the treatises. That debate has already been had. I respect all sincere views on the question. You clearly have your position. Fine. I’m happy to leave it at that, since your writing suggests that you mischaracterize views you reject.


  13. Fr. Ruff,

    There is no need to number your paragraphs on my account and I hope that you feel no requirement for me to number points in reply. I made no statement to the effect that “free rhythm” was the foundation of semiology. Indeed, I haven’t mentioned the 17th century term “semiology” at all. I will ignore your advice not to conflate what you call quasi-equalism with the teachings of Cardine as they both bear qualities which mark them off from the 2:1 ratio approach of simple to duple.

    The fact that you don’t see evidence that I have studied the European semiologists is irrelevant to a discussion of the early notations. You have no facts to back up your defense of their rejection of proportional durations except the same fact which they have to back up their positions, namely, semiotically malleable notations, which is no fact at all in relation to measuring durations. If anything is foolhardy, it is to nullify the implications of the historical record which should guide our interpretation of the notations.

    I have already made reference to the fact of certain features of Nonantolan and Messine notation. It is your privilege not to comment but ignoring a point about musical signs is hardly welcoming discussion of musical signs.

    I reject your notion that I have mischaracterised the relationship between modern chant scholarship and the facts of the historical treatises. The musically unbiased reader can peruse the main quotes in my article and my comments on them and make their own decision about who is right about the reality of what they describe and the rightness of modern scholarship’s response to them. In my view, this whole issue needs timely reappraisal.

    The correctness of a view is not inevitably related to the number of people holding that view. The facts of the historical record are what I would draw people’s attention to rather than Romantic, nullifying viewpoints based solely on a semantically dubious notational system.

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