|§ Summary and Motivation||§ Music in Byzantium|
|§ Ancient Egyptian Cheironomy||§ The Early Middle Ages|
|§ Ancient Greek Musical Notation||§ The High Middle Ages|
|§ Music in the Early Church||§ Transition to the Renaissance|
|§ The Dark Ages||§ The Question of "Performance"|
In this role, music notation served as an aide-mémoire for someone who (with a bit of prompting) could remember how the melody ought to sound. Music notation was not -- until the Renaissance -- expected to be scientifically accurate, i.e., that the melody could be reconstructed solely from the notation. Actually it is questionable whether a writer of music expected that the song should be performed in exactly the same way each time it was sung. The idea that one could correctly sing a melody just by sight-singing the notation (and never having heard the melody before) seems to be a relatively recent idea.
I would add that music notation also has had a mystical function to humans. Ancient Egyptian tombs and burial chambers of many other cultures too, included implements, food, pictures, and writing that would in some way help the deceased person in the next life. Religious inscriptions on the walls of a tomb could bring good fortune to the spirit of the tomb's inhabitant. Likewise for the living, documents containing sacred texts, pictures, and music can be embued with mystical qualities. Sacred books can be thought of as embodiments of prayer, belief, and spiritual doctrine. As such, they are what the Catholic Church calls sacramentals (sacramentals are physical objects where the spirit realm touches the physical domain). One of my tenets is that books of chant served a mystical function in the Middle Ages: apart from any practical use they might have had, the books themselves were considered to be holy objects.
A major church or monastery that possessed such books owned objects of spiritual power. (Compare the cave paintings at Lascaux, France, shown here, ca. 13,000 b.c.e., suggestive of the mystical power that graphic representation has for humans.) The presence of these books could increase the holiness of a place and confer spiritual merit upon those who were near them, touched them, or looked upon them. I would add that, in some cultures, a person's knowledge of writing might have been considered to be a mystical art—a type of shamanism—not just a credential of education.
To actualize the desire to write down music, a technique needed to be invented. Several methods were tried over the millennia. Today we take for granted the naturalness and efficacy of the modern music-notational system (called common practice musical notation), where sound is divided (or quantized) into discrete pitches that sound for various lengths along a timeline of regular beats. Common practice notation is now in use throughout the world. This method of writing music (a sort of Cartesian view of sound) was not, however, an obvious concept for the ancient mind.
Medieval chant notation—the subject of our study—differs from modern notation in significant ways. These dissimilarities comprise both the obvious visual differences (that is, graphological differences) and more subtle, conceptual differences (or, semantic differences). Despite the inexactness of medieval notation compared to modern notation as a method of quantization, it is important to bear in mind that both systems have their strengths and weaknesses. Common practice notation is not necessarily better; we shall see that medieval notation is able to capture subtlties of semantics that are practically impossible to capture in modern notation.
The oldest examples of music notation from Western Europe were written as annotations to sung texts. (Typically the chant text was written on the manuscript sheet first, then the music notation was added, perhaps by a different scribe.) Scholars who specialize in early medieval manuscripts date the earliest, surviving Western European examples to the 9th century of the current era (c.e.). The idea of music writing as text annotation remained the dominant form of music notation until fairly late in the Middle Ages.
The concept of using vertical placement of musical marks to indicate pitch was a novelty of medieval music writing in the West. We take this concept for granted in common practice notation, because it seems so natural and useful, but it was a significant breakthrough at the time it was invented. The notion of using distinct symbols to indicate the duration of notes, too, was also novel; as the Middle Ages progressed into the Renaissance, this idea of measured time took firmer hold.
In some ways, the semantics of medieval notation were more expressive than what we have available to us today; it was possible to notate subtleties of vocal rendering that were richer than what is possible to represent in modern notation. Knowledge of the correct interpretation of many of these subtleties of medieval notation was, however, lost with the decline of the oral tradition in Western chant. Today, reconstructing this lost meaning is an active area of research among medieval musicologists.
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Cheironomy is still in use today in the liturgical practice of some Middle Eastern sects. In particular, cheironomy is in use by some traditional Jewish synagogues to direct the singing of liturgical songs, and it is used also in several other Western religious traditions of ancient origin. Because we know that Egyptian cheironomy was in use by (at the latest) the twenty-fifth century b.c.e., and that the Hebrew people spent a substantial period under bondage in Egypt after that time, one plausible hypothesis is that the Hebrews adopted (or adapted) the Egyptian cheironomic system to their own use. An ancillary argument is that Egypt was a wealthy, highly centralized society in which art and abstract learning could flourish, whereas the Hebrews were then a nomadic people without permanent buildings nor the other accoutrements of a leisure society.
In more modern times, Hebrew cheironomy came to be written down in the form of mnemonic signs on Hebrew scrolls of religious texts. (Mnemonic signs are symbols to aid the memory.) These signs guided the cantor in the proper rendering of the text to be sung, basically by indicating the shape of the melody. These signs are written at the beginning of a verse, or immediately above the text to be sung.
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writer Boethius, who had access to Greek documents that are no longer
extant. There do remain several stone tablets (see example at
right) and papyri from ancient Greece that include song texts and
accompanying pitch letters. The Greek notational system indicated the
pitch of notes but not their durations; consequently, we can only guess at
note durations. Presumably the indication of note durations was not
necessary for someone already familiar with the melody. Several informed
guesses have been made about how these ancient songs might have sounded
Some scholars believe that the ancient Greeks were aware of the Egyptian system for writing down cheironomic signs. We know for certain that both Pythagoras and Plato were educated in Egypt, which had been the center of learning in the Western World for many centuries. Thus far, however, there is no indication that the Greeks adopted Egyptian cheironomy. Furthermore, no strong argument has been forwarded to suggest that scholars in medieval Europe were aware of the Greek system of writing notes using letters. The system of Church modes that arose during the Middle Ages was related to the Greek system of modes in name only; there appears to be no other connection.
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No evidence has surfaced to indicate that the early Christians attempted to write down the music of their liturgy. The earliest evidence of Christian music notation comes from the Eastern Christian Church in Byzantium, dating from perhaps the fourth century c.e. Indeed, judging from the poor quality of their written Latin, it seems safe to assume that chroniclers of the early Church did not possess sufficient education for this. Furthermore, before the year 1000 c.e., the Church's faith in immanent return of their Savior gave little incentive for committing such things to writing.
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During the Dark Ages, literacy in Western Europe was sustained almost exclusively in the Catholic monasteries. They were insular and economically self-sufficient. It was not until much later that universities would be established or that monarchs would take any interest in reading, writing, and the transmission of culture. For hundreds of years virtually the only material that was committed to writing was liturgical texts, administrative documents of monasteries, and a few ancient texts that were copied principally for pedagogical purposes. Writing was done on parchment (or, sheepskin). Most documents were seen to be of only practical and temporary value. We see many examples of parchments where the ink of earlier writing was scraped off so that they could be reused for later scribal needs. Still others were cut into strips for use in binding of later books. Virtually no secular texts were written down and Europe relied heavily on oral tradition for the transmission of songs, histories, and epic poems. Well into the Middle Ages it would continue to be the case that monasteries and major churches would continue to be the only centers of education, and that only documents of ecclesiastical importance were committed to writing.
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b.c. The city was subsumed politically by the Romans in
a.d. 196, but its population and culture remained predominantly Greek.
In 330, the Roman Emperor Constantine ("The Great") moved the capital of the Roman Empire from Rome to Byzantium,
and renamed the city 'Constantinople'.
In 1453, the fortified walls of Constantinople fell due to a long seige by Ottoman Turks, since which time the city has
been called 'Istanbul'.
Nearly all written music that has survived from Christian Byzantium is religious chant and hymns. Byzantine chant has a free rhythmical flow, and often uses microtonal intervals (that is, less fixed on 'exact pitches' that Western listeners are accustomed to hearing). In this sense, Byzantine music is more closely tied to ancient religious music of Christian Syria, Lebanon, and Jerusalem, than is the religious music that evolved in Western Europe.
Regarding the texts of Byzantine chants and hymns, one sometimes finds remnants of the metrical schemes of classical Greek poetry. The early Western (Latin) Church apparently borrowed texts from Byzantine chant, as for instance, the Kyrie ("Kyrie eleison. Christe eleison. Kyrie eleison."), which consists entirely of Greek words even though it is chanted as a core part of the Latin Mass. Indeed, some early manuscripts containing Western neume notation have texts in Greek as well as the standard Latin that was used throughout most of medieval Europe.
Byzantine music notation is distinctly different to Western neume notation, principally in the fact that glyphs denote (among other features of singing) whether the voice moves up or down. Of course, in the West, musical notation evolved using the concept of 'heighting', that is, glyphs that are placed vertically higher above the text are sung at a higher pitch than glyphs placed lower. Leo Treitler  explains that Western musical notation is largely "iconic" (i.e., that the shape of writing is analogous to the up-and-down movement of the voice), whereas Eastern (Byzantine) notation is "symbolic" (that is, the glyphs have a meaning that is not pictorial of melodic motion).
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Example 1. This "Pascha hieron" is an historical recording either of Lakovos Nafpliotes (died †1942) or Konstantinos Pringos (died †1964), both protopsaltae of the Orthodox Patriarchate of Constantinople. It is the stichera aposticha for Pascha (Easter) in Mode I Plagal. The tone in the background is called the 'ison' or 'isokratema'; it is basically the accompaniment that holds the base note of the tetrachord in which the melos is working (similar to the concept in Latin chant of a 'tenor', meaning 'held'). This is an ancient chant found in a book called the Pentekostarion.
Example 2. The "Cherubic Hymn" was written by Ioannes Kladas for the Divine Liturgy (the Mass) of St John Chrysostom in Mode 1. Originally, it was performed in the Hagia Sophia Cathedral at Byzantium for festive liturgies in the presence of the Emperor. This recording was made by the Romeiko Ensemble under the direction of Yorgos Bilalis.
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a.d. 870 . One of the goals of the
present project is to help bring the power of computers to bear on the
analysis of manuscripts for assigning dates trace the evolution of musical
notation in Western Europe. The early history of music writing in Western
Europe is exclusively the history of liturgical chant, known popularly as
Gregorian Chant. It would not be until fairly late in the Middle Ages that
popular music appears to have been written down.
Both Charlemagne and his father before him were deeply religious. One can argue too (perhaps cynically) that they saw, in narrowing the gap between Church and State, that they could gain a more firm control over the minds and behavior of their subjects. For either or both of these reasons, Pepin and Charlemagne wished to standardize the liturgy of the Catholic Church. In many, isolated regions a form of liturgical song had evolved; at the major churches and in the monastic communities their members clung fiercely to their traditions of song and liturgy. Pepin undertook to suppress these local traditions. Charlemagne continued his father's policy; he brought from Rome representatives of the Papal chapel to instruct his clerics in the 'authentic' Catholic liturgy. A program of propaganda spread the idea that the chant used in Rome came directly from Saint Gregory the Great (died a.d. 604), who was universally venerated. Pictures were made to depict the dove of the Holy Spirit perched on Gregory's shoulder, singing into his ear God's authentic form of chant for the liturgy. For many years a struggle between local autonomy and central authority raged on. Eventually most of the local traditions were suppressed. This is significant to musicology because, in most cases, the only record we have of these local traditions of music is the manuscripts that have survived. Ironically, some of these traditions may have been older and more 'authentic' than what was received from Rome.
The standardized form of Gregorian Chant is largely the music that is still in use today; it is the official music of the Roman Catholic Church. It is compiled in a large book called the Liber Usualis using a modern, stylized form of square-neume notation.
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An important consequence of the plague, or Black Death [1346-61], was the loss both of personnel and income by Church entities. An estimated 25 million people died in Europe, or about a quarter of the population. I propose elsewhere (Silent Music, in progress) that this was the main factor in bringing on an end to the Middle Ages. Because of the huge decline in population, fewer men were joining the priesthood and religious orders. The vast land holdings of Church entities were producing far less income, because there were not enough laborers to bring in the harvests. The power of the Church had traditionally offset the power of kings, but in the generations following the Black Death, the Church's power waned. By 1516, Francis I was so powerful compared to the Church that he forced an agreement, whereby he would have the authority to appoint bishops and heads of monasteries. The ages-old tradition of Church leaders rising through the ranks was replaced by, essentially, political appointments. These political appointees had not been raised in the oral traditions of the Church; when they had to sing in choir, they needed books from which to sing; unlike their predecessors, they had not memorized the Church's complex body of chants. This, in my view, was the central factor that caused a shift away from oral tradition to written tradition.
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c.e., and also in Europe by the fourteenth century, but it
is inarguable that movable type vastly increased the facility with which
documents could be printed.
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Despite the great care taken—particularly in the St Gall (or, Sankt Gallen) style of notation—to accurately record the nuances of melody, early manuscripts were probably not thought of as "scores" in the modern sense, i.e., they were not used as things from which to sight-sing. Craig Wright  argues convincingly that singing from manuscripts in choir would have been impossible: there was not enough candle light to permit reading during the night offices, the manuscripts were too small for group reading, and the manuscripts were produced in too small quantities for each choir member to have a copy. For this and other reasons, it is anachronistic to think of the early manuscripts as being associated with a musical "performance." The considered opinion of musicologists today is that for the first several centuries notation served primarily as a guide to the complex liturgical calendar and prescribed chants for each liturgical occasion, that is to say, as a reminder to the cantor about chants which he and the schola cantorum knew intimately by heart. A small number of the early manuscripts apparently were used for pedagogical training.
In addition to the purpose of musical manuscripts as aides mémoires, I argue elsewhere (Silent Music, in progress) that early chant manuscripts had a "book fetish" function. The cost in labor and materials of producing a chant book was very high, on the order of the cost of a new house today. The books were ordinarily kept locked in a cache box within a locked scriptorium. Their sometimes bejeweled covers and meticulous illuminations, sometimes in gold leaf, attest to a relic function rather than as books to be sung from. A central doctrine of the Church has been the sacredness of the Word, and by extension, the written Word of the Scriptures. Particularly after Charlemagne [reigned 768-814], the musical liturgy was raised to about the same level of sacredness, and so we can fairly infer that chant books were sealed away as precious and mystical sacramentals, much as were the bones and other artifacts of the saints. Some early examples of music notation were in books that were used for musical instruction.
In any case, it would be several centuries before music notation would be evolved to the point where it could accurately represent the important musical features of a "performance." As an oral tradition, the learned methods of chant were arguably obscure to us today. Despite the efforts of the Benedictines at Solesmes, starting at the end of the 19th century, and of others to "restore" Gregorian chant, we cannot know with any assurance what medieval chant sounded like.
For these and other reasons, it is our position that there exists, and probably cannot exist, any reliable "performance" tradition of the early manuscripts. The urge to provide an automated playing back of neume chants is quite alluring, but intellectually without good foundation. We therefore dispense with design criteria that would allow manuscripts to be translated into MIDI code, for instance.
On the other hand, there is a wealth of valuable information to be gleaned from the written manuscripts themselves regarding, for instance, the provenance and transmission of individual chant melodies, the dating of manuscripts, the culture of monastic calligraphy, and many other, related matters. In our representation we focus entirely on the logical and graphical aspects of these manuscripts. The logical aspects concern modelling the manuscripts in a paradigm that is at the same time useful to the musicologist and practical for computer implementation. The graphical aspects, in summary, concern preservation of as much detail from the manuscripts as possible (a so-called "lossless" digital representation) to permit analysis of their content as data tokens, and to maximize the latitude of known and anticipated use of these data.
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| For a discussion of the theory of Egyptian hieroglyphs as musical notation see Hans Hickmann, "La dans l'Egypte ancienne," Zeitschrift fur ägyptische Sprache und Altertumkunde, 83, 2, 1958.|
| For examples of plausible interpretations of the surviving Greek songs, see the recording by Atrium Musicae de Madrid, Musique de la Grece Antique, (France: harmonia mundi, CD #1901015, 1979).|
| James W. McKinnon, "On the Question of Psalmody in the Ancient Synagogue," Early Music History 6; Studies in Medieval and Early Modern Music, (Cambridge: Cambridge University, 1986), pp. 159-91.|
| See The Monks of Solesmes, La Notation Musicale des Chants Lituriques Latins, (Solesmes, France: Solesmes, 1991), p. 14.|
| See, for example, Leo Treitler, "The Early History of Music Writing in the West," Journal of the American Musicological Society, (vol. 35, nr 2).|
| Craig M. Wright, Music and Ceremony at Notre Dame of Paris, 500-1550, (Cambridge: Cambridge University, 1989).|
| For a discussion of music printing after a.d. 1455 see A. Beverly Barksdale, The Printed Note; 500 Years of Music Printing and Engraving, (New York: Dacapo, 1981).|
|Initial 'S' from Metten (Lower Bavaria), Bibliothek der Benediktinerabtei, fol. 64v. [Reproduced from Bruno Stäblein, Schriftbild der Einstimmigen Musik, (Leipzig: Deutscher Verlag fÜr Musik, VEB, 1975), pl. 45a, p. 164.]|
|Lascaux picture reproduced from the Bridgeman Art Library.|
|Egyptian picture reproduced from Hans Hickmann, Musikgeschichte in Bildern; Agypten, (Leipzig: Veb Deutscher Verlag fur Musik, 1961), p. 27.|
|Greek picture reproduced from Stanley Sadie (ed.), New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, (London: Macmillan, 1980), vol. 7, s.v., 'Greece', p. 669.|
|Eckphonic example reproduced from Egon Wellesz, A History of Byzantine Music and Hymnography, (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1949), p. 256.|
|Gregory picture: Munich, Stadtbibliothek clm 17403.|
Revision: 12 October 2008