What is a Breve?

A breve is a note of two semibreves.

The breve was invented about 1200 A.D.

The breve was originally the shorter of two notes in which the earliest music was composed. Its length was the value of two semibreves.

These two notes, which corresponded to the long and short syllables of the text to which they were sung, were termed longa and brevis.

The proportion which they bore to each other was not always constant, the longa containing sometimes three breves, in which case it was called perfect, and sometimes only two, when was said to be imperfect.

After the introduction of a still shorter note called semibrevis, the brevis could be either perfect or imperfect, and consist of three or two semibreves.

A composition in which the breve contained three semibreves was said to be in perfect ‘time’ (tempus), and a composition in which it contained only two semibreves was considered imperfect ‘time.’

The word ‘time,’ in the old measured music, had no reference to rhythm, or, to the number of beats in a bar, but denoted only the value of a breve.

A ‘fuga tium temorum’ means a canon in which the second voice enters after three breves’ rest.

These variations of proportion remained in use until about the middle of the 17th century were dependent on the order in which the longer and shorter notes followed each other, and also upon the appearance of certain time signatures which were placed at the beginning of the composition (a circle indicating tempus perfectum, in which the breve contained three semibreves, and a semi circle open to the right indicating tempus imperfectum in which the breve contained two semibreves.

Franco of Cologne attempted to define the duration of a breve as ‘illud quod est minimum in plenitudo vocis.’

Machettus of Padua defined it as ‘id minimum tempus in quo potest formari plenitudo vocis.’

In an old 1688 Psalm Book the breve was said to be ‘about the duration of eight pulses at the wrist of a person in good health and temper.’

The breve, together with other notes belonging to the same epoch, was originally written black, the more modern white notes written in outline being introduced about the end of the 14th century.