Towards a new taxonomy of medieval music writing? Part 1

For the past month or two I have been writing a grant proposal for a detailed study of late medieval music writing (or notation). Beside the obvious aim of attempting to secure funding for future research, grant writing is often a useful for focusing one’s ideas about research and also identifying those fundamental problems that lay at the heart of one’s field. Here I reflect on one of those problems.élot,_Brussels.jpg
Jean Miélot at his desk. Public Domain (

The study of music notation is generally referred to as music palaeography. Essentially, music palaeography concerns itself with the appearance and nature of musical writing. This term, however, encompasses a range of approaches. The dominant approach consists of studying music notation for the purpose of transcribing it into standardised notation or, for the more adventurous, singing from it. In the case of late medieval rhythmic notation, this involves learning the relative musical durations of different notes and how these relate to each, as well as dealing with questions of pitch or changes of pitch (commonly referred to as musica ficta) and dealing with contingencies such as tempo and ensemble. In practice, this often involves lots of transcription exercises that involve translating medieval notation into today’s standardised notation, although I prefer teaching people to sing from the notation from the outset. This approach is very much focused on what the written signs denote insofar as it concern performance codes, eg. this note is sung at certain relative pitch for a certain length of time. This is obviously essential for recreating medieval music in performance, although the distance between music notation and a present-day musical performance is considerable. Its benefits are obvious for anyone who cares to walk down the early music section of a music shop (or increasingly browse online music collections): much of this music would have remained known were is not for music palaeographers/music historians (the terms are often synonymous) writing notation handbooks and transcribing the the music from old notation.

Another approach to music palaeography focuses less on the “semiotic” features of music notation (i.e. what the signs “mean”), instead concentrating on how the music notation is written, how it as a whole is formed by a scribe. After all, before the invention of the musical printing pressaround 1480 all music was handwritten. In fact, because printing remained a fairly expensive undertaking, handwritten music remained de rigueur for many more centuries. In general, handwriting, even today, is usually distinct from one person to another in the way that individual letters are formed due to the learning experiences, behavioural traits and physiological dispositions of each individual. Sure, a person’s handwriting can be forged by a less-than-honest individual, but, aside from this, most handwriting is habitual, the result of deeply learnt motor skills acquired in their formative years that are subsumed below several layer of cognitive process. Writers seldom think about how they form a letter, indeed most writers seldom think about letters but whole words and phrases when they write.

Despite the modern field of music history (historical musicology) having existed for over 100 years and an undiminished concern for teaching and studying early music notations, the methods of late medieval music palaeography remain undeveloped compared to its sister field of textual palaeography. For one, there is no established comprehensive terminology for the more complex features of rhythmic musical writing. Textual palaeography possesses a detailed set of feature descriptors central to the methodologies of script identification. Although there is some disagreement over these descriptors, the presence of several methods vying for the attention of textual palaeographers indicates the ongoing vigour of their discipline. The same level of nuanced descriptors for late medieval music scripts is absent.

The challenge for music palaeographers is to develop methods for describing how scribes wrote music. The angle of their pen, length of stroke and various distinguishing elements (such as serifs on certain notes) a poorly accounted for by today’s music palaeography. In the past I have found myself discussing the pen angle of a particular scribal hand using some rough hewn measurements and estimation. Such methods surely could be more scientific, more quantitative?

To be continued …

One thought on “Towards a new taxonomy of medieval music writing? Part 1

  1. So interesting, all that you’re doing Jason. Hope you get the funding! So glad you got the research post (miss your teaching though!)

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