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Music notation during the medieval period Essays

I. Introduction

During the medieval period, music was not written. The Gregorian chant reached the high point of its development about 900. The same era marked the beginnings of polyphonic music. In organum, one of the earliest types of polyphony, one voice sang a pre-existent melody called cantus firmus (fixed melody) while a second voice sang the same melody at a fourth or fifth interval below. The voices sang in parallel motion. Discant was a more complicated form of part singing. The voices went in contrary motion, one voice moving upward while the other voice went down.

In the 11th century Guido d’Arezzo, a Benedictine monk, invented the four-line staff. Using both lines and spaces he named the tones on the staff ut, re, mi, fa, sol, la. (During Guido’s time the scale had only six tones) (See Guido d’Arezzo).

Thesis Statement: This study scrutinizes what musical notation is and knows about the music notation during the medieval period.

II. Background

A. What is musical notation?

Musical notation is a system for writing down the pitch and duration of tones so that they can be read or performed. A tone is represented by a sign called a note.

Staffs. Music is written on a series of horizontal lines and spaces collectively called the great staff. The great staff consists of 11 lines and 10 spaces. To simplify the reading and writing of music, only a portion of the great staff is used. Made up of fives lines and four spaces, this portion is simply called the staff. When notes are either too high or to low to be written on the staff, extra lines, called leger lines, are added above or below the staff.

The lines and spaces of the staff are given alphabetical letter names from A to G; these letters also identify tones. The starting point for the sequence of letters is the middle line in the great staff, which is always C.

Clefs. At the beginning of the staff is the clef, a sign that fixes the position of one not. The two clefs most often used are the treble (G) clef (for high pitches) and the bass (F) clef (for low pitches). A third clef, C clef (variously called alto and tenor clef), is used for a few orchestral instruments, such as the viola and bassoon. It is a movable clef adjusted to show which line on the staff corresponds to middle C.

Pitch. The pitch of a tone is indicated by the note’s position on the staff and by the clef sign used. Those pitches that occur between the letter names and cannot be represented by lines and space alone are identified by symbols called chromatic signs. A sharp (♯) raises the pitch of a note by a half tone; a flat (b) lowers the pitch by a half tone. A sharp or flat in the key signature, at the beginning of a composition, indicates a note that is to be sharped or flatted wherever it appears, unless it is preceded by the natural sign. Accidentals—the natural sign and sharps and flats placed before individual notes—affect only those within that measure.

Time Value. The time value (duration or length) of a tone is shown by the design and shape of its note. In the course of a composition there are often periods of silence. Each has a rest of corresponding value. The longest note normally used is the whole note (o). A double whole note is sometimes used.

A note by itself shows only the relative duration of a tone. The actual duration depends on the speed of the music to be played. The duration of tones is related to rhythm, one of the basic elements of music.

The Measure. Also related to rhythm is the measure—a musical unit of time containing a fixed number of beats. Measures are set off by vertical lines (bar lines) crossing the staff. The terms measure and bar are often used synonymously.

            Other signs and Symbols include the following:

o   Staccato, a dot above or below a note indicates the note is to be separated slightly from the note that follows.

o   Legato, or slur, a curved line over several notes indicates they are to be played as one, with their time values combined.

o   Tie, a curved line that connects two notes of the same pitch. The two notes are played as one, with their time values combined.

o   Hold, or Fermata, over a note shows that the note should be prolonged.

o   Repeat, a double-dotted bar indicates that the music before it should be repeated.

o   Trill, the rapid alternation of two adjacent notes.

B. Nature of Musical Sound

            Musical sounds, or tones, are produced by regular vibrations of air. (When the vibrations are irregular, noise is produced). Musical tones are not pure, but are a blend of many tones. When a violin string is plucked, for example, the string vibrates as a whole and produces a tone having a definite pitch. The string also vibrates in two, three, or more sections, producing a number of tones. The loudest tone heard, called the fundamental, and determines the pitch; the indistinct tones are overtones or harmonics (also called partials) (Arnold, 2003).

            Pitch is the height or depth of a tone as related to other tones in the scale. Accurate pitch is determined by the number of vibrations per second produced by a particular sound. The faster the rate of vibration, the higher the tone. All other things being equal, a short string produces higher tones than a long one. The same applies to a column of air in wind instruments. This explains why the tones of a violin are higher than those of a cello, and why the tones of a piccolo are higher than those of a flute (Arnold, 2003).

            Timbre, or Tone Color, is the distinctive quality of a musical sound. No two musical instruments have exactly the same timbre. A single tone of the same pitch has a different sound when produced by a violin, trumpet, or flute. The cello has a darker, richer timbre than the violin. Tone colours differ according to the size and shape of the instrument, quality of materials, and skill of the performer (Dearling, 2003).

            Intensity refers to loudness, volume of sound, or fullness of tone. The intensity of a tone is determined by the amplitude of the vibrations that are produced. The greater the force, the larger the amplitude and the louder the sound.

            The following words and their abbreviations, called dynamic marks, tell musicians how loud or soft, music is to be played:

            Pianissimo (pp) ………. Very soft

            Piano (p) ……………… soft

            Mezzo piano (mp) ……. Half soft

            Diminuendo or decrescendo (dim; decresc. Or >) …… growing softer

            Mezzoforte (mf) ……… half loud

            Forte (f) ………………. Loud

            Fortissimo (ff) ………… very loud

            Crescendo (Cres. Or <) …growing louder

            Fortepiano (fp) ……….. loud, then soft

            Sforzando or sforzato (sf; sfz) ……… sudden, strong accent

            Duration is the length of time a tone is sounded.

C. Elements

            Rhythm is the feeling of movement in music. Found in popular dance music as well as in great symphonic compositions, rhythm has universal appeal. Most people have a desire to tap a foot, drum their fingers, or sway their heads in response to strong rhythmic music.

            Technically, rhythm can be described as a flowing movement of sound, accented by heavy and light beats repeated at regular intervals throughout the composition. Waltz rhythm is accented on the first beat of each measure: one-two-three, one-two-three. Martial music is strongly accented on the first and third beats: one-two-three-four, one-two-three-four. Accented notes are normally long notes. Syncopated rhythm places the accent on short notes or rests (Short, 2003). This intriguing rhythm, with its unexpected accents, is often used in classical music but is usually associated with jazz.

III. Discussion

A. Music notation during the medieval period

            The symbols used to write the chant were “unmeasured neumes.” They were originally written above the text, and there were no lines to indicate exact pitches. The neumes themselves had no fixed time values, and a single neume could indicate a combination of two or more tones. During the eleventh century, after the association of Latin letters with pitches, the neumes were placed on colored lines assigned to specific pitches: the line for F was red, for C green or yellow. The monk Guido d’Arezzo as mentioned earlier devised a staff of four lines, each separated by the interval of third (such as the interval C-E). The use of a clef (French for “key”) on the staff originated this time. The clef fixed a given pitch on a given line, making it unnecessary to draw colored lines as indications of pitch. F, C, and G clefs, the most commonly employed, were at first ordinary letters which later developed into symbols of varying degrees of abstraction.

            Solmization. Guido apparently also instituted the technique known as solmization. With this technique a new melody could be learned by relating the notes of the melody to the pitches of certain syllables previously associated with a well-known tune. Taking a hymn to St. John the Baptist in which choirboys ask the saint’s protection against hoarseness, Guido noticed that the pitches on which the initial syllables of the first six lines were sung formed an ascending scale, C, D, E, F, G, A:

                          C   Ut queant laxis

                          D   resonare fibris

                          E   mira gestorum F famuli tuorum

  G solve polluti

  A labii reatum

By applying these syllables, ut, re, mi, fa, sol, la with their associated pitches, to the notes of any melody the singer could sing it without having previously heard the melody. This did away with the time-consuming practice of teaching new tunes by rote. The syllables, with the minor change of ut to do and the addition of si (or ti) for the seventh degree of the scale, are still used today for the same purpose for which they were devised over nine hundred years ago.

·         Secular Monophony of the Middle Ages

            To judge from the homilies against its all-pervading influence, secular music must have been entrenched in Christendom during the era of the early Church Fathers, Representative of their attitude was the admonition of St. John Chrysostom (c. 345-407):

“As swine flock together where there is a mire… so demons congregate where there ate licentious chants… And those who bring comedians, dancers, and harlots into their feasts call in demons and Satan himself and fill their homes with innumerable contentions, among them jealousy, adultery, debauchery, and countless evils.”

            Ars Antiqua (“old art”) is a name often given to the music of the 12th and 13th centuries. New forms of polyphony were developed by the school of St. martial in Limoges and by the school of Notre Dame in Paris. In the two- or three-part conductus, a freely composed melody instead of a plain-song was used for the cantus firmus. In the three-part Paris motet, or 13th-century motet, two or three different texts, sacred and secular, were sung at the same time. Leonin and Perotin of the Notre Dame School are the most important composers of the Ars Antiqua period.

            Leading musicians of the 14th century referred to their music as Ars Nova (“new art”). New forms introduced at this time were largely secular. The technique of the canon was developed in the Italian caccia (a hunting song) and was often used in two-part Italian madrigals. Guillaume de Machaut of France and Francesco Landini (or Landino) of Italy were leading composers. Machaut is credited with the earliest polyphony setting of the Mass by one composer.

            In the Ars Nova period a system of notation was devised that indicated rhythm. Notes were called puncta (“points”), and the terms “counterpoint” and “contrapuntal writing” come from the phrase punctum contra punctum (“note against note”).

            A large body of folk and popular music grew up beside the liturgical music of the church. Little is known about secular music before the 10th century. Songs, probably more rhythmic than the plainsongs, were sung to instrumental accompaniment. The love songs and dinking songs of wandering students known as goliards were popular from the late 10th to early 13th centuries. From the 11th to 14th centuries the troubadours and trouveres in France and the minnesingers in Germany composed and sang a rich body of songs.

            In the first half of the 15th century the center music shifted to the Low Countries. The medieval period was brought to a close by the Burgundian school, led by Guillaume Dufay and Gilles Binchois. Influenced by John Dunstable, an English composer, the Burgundians wrote highly expressive songs. They gave unity to the Mass by using recurring themes.


Apel, Willi (1053). The Notation of Polyphonic Music, 900-1600. Mediaeval Academy of America.  Cambridge, MA. Publication Year: 1953. Ardley, Neil (2001). Sound and Music (Watts). Arnold, Denis (2003). The New Oxford Companion to Music (Oxford University). Baskerville, David (2005). The Music Business Handbook and career Guide (Sherwood). Boynton, Susan (2005). Ardis Butterfield. Poetry and Music in Medieval France from Jean Renart to Guillaume Machaut. The Romanic Review, Vol. 96 Citron, Stephen (2005). Songwriting: a Complete Guide to the Craft (Morrow). Dallion, Leon (2006). Listener’s Guide to Musical Understanding, 9th edition (Brown). Dearling, Robert (2003). The Guinness Book of Music Facts and Feats (2003). Gordon, R.D. (2002). The World of Musical Sound (Kendall-Hunt). Hornby, Emma (2005). John Haines, Eight Centuries of Troubadours and Trouveres: The Changing Identity of Medieval Music. Medium Aevum, Vol. 74. Keily, Dennis (2006). Essentials of Music for New Musicians, 5th edition (Prentice-Hall). Short, Michael (2003). Your Book of Music (Faber & Faber). Guido d’Arezzo. http://www.goldbergweb.com/en/news/goldbergnews/2007/06/54479.php Gregorian Notation. http://interletras.com/canticum/Eng/notation_ENG.htm


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