The Neume Notation Project

Louis W. G. Barton

µ General Discussion of the Project

§ 1. Definition of Neumes

§ 2. Purpose of this Project

§ 3. Larger Considerations

§ 4. Operational Characteristics

§ 5. Design Goals

§ 6. Long-term Objectives

1. Definition of Neumes

Neumes are the symbols that were used in medieval Europe for writing down of chant melodies for the Christian liturgy. They are the precursors of modern-day musical symbols. There was a wide variety of regional styles of notation in medieval Europe; these are all grouped together under the general category of neume notation.

One theory about the etymology of the word neume (pronounced to rhyme with "broom") is that it derives from the Latin word pneuma, meaning breath (which, in turn, derives from a Greek word of the same meaning). The term was used in the early medieval period to refer to the particular melodic inflection of a chanted syllable (viz., signum neumarum). By the eleventh century, however, the term was used to denote the notational symbols themselves [1]. Eugene Cardine points out [2] that a neume is really a "written gesture," since it depicts more than just the pitch and duration of a note (as is the case in modern notation). Neumes go beyond that to depict much richer information about intonation or vocal rendering.

The liturgical texts—all of them in Latin—are from the religious ritual and prayer life of the medieval Catholic Church. These include the Holy Mass, the Psalms, and the Divine Office (i.e., the religious observances of churches and monasteries, sung in community at various times throughout the day and night). In popular parlance this music is called Gregorian chant, but that is somewhat of a misnomer; the more accurate term for this music is plainchant.

2. Purpose of this Project

John Caldwell [3] points out that, since the invention of inexpensive photographic reproduction, . This project seeks to provide, as nearly as possible, a lossless data representation of medieval chant manuscripts. We anticipate that such a representation will be useful to musicologists around the world for sharing and analysis of medieval chant manuscripts. We anticipate that such sharing might take place primarily over the World Wide Web (WWW) as a "distributed database."

3. Larger Considerations

This project seeks to provide, as

4. Operational Characteristics

(i) A "score" is defined as the workspace that the user has in which to create a document. A "manuscript" (loosely defined) is one or more transcriptions that run in parallel in the workspace. For instance, if there are three manuscripts, W, Y, and Z, each with measures 1 through 6, alignment of their measures might be as follows:

                     | w1 | | w2 | | w3 |
                     | y1 | | y2 | | y3 |
                     | z1 | | z2 | | z3 |

                     | w4 | | w5 | | w6 |
                     | y4 | | y5 | | y6 |
                     | z4 | | z5 | | z6 |

where w(n) is a measure of W, y(n) is an element of Y, and z(n) is an element of Z. See the example below [4]:

Example of musicologist's parallel transcriptions

(ii) Control of certain visual parameters: The setting of certain spacing and typographical characteristics are set for sub-classes at the levels of score() and manuscript(), and can be overridden at the level of note(). Setting some of these values to zero will cause the default value to be inherited.

5. Design Goals

(i) The user should be able to place text and note objects either by "snapping" to the nearest gridline, or by "free-form" placement of the objects. Snapping can be done to the nearest horizontal grid line, or to the nearest vertical grid line, or both. Additionally, a moveable vertical hairline will provide the user with a second method of snapping, such that neumes can be aligned horizontally over a vowel in the chant text.

(ii) The user should be able to insert a note in a measure and, if necessary, have the measure lines move over automatically to accommodate it, maintaining measure-line alignment across manuscripts in the score.

(iii) Horizontal alignment of notes should optionally "pack" across the measure proportionally, be monospaced, or be placed at the user's discretion in the measure. Examples:

         proportional spacing:      |  a      b      c  |

         monospacing:               |  a  b  c          |

         discretionary placement:   |  a b         c    |

(iv) The user should be able to build up "composite neumes" from primitives in character set, and be able to manipulate, and reuse these composite forms as units.

6. Long-term Objectives

(i) Display should be in two layers, with each layer separately movable in the display window, separately scaled, and separately brightened/dimmed. The goal is to allow a photographic image (or, "diplomatic facsimile") of an original manuscript to be displayed behind the edited document; this should make data transcription easier and more accurate.

(ii) Output routines should be available to translate our Neumatic Manuscript data stream to one or more ASCII encoding schemes that are used by medieval music researchers currently. Obviously, one can copy areas from the GUI and paste them into word-processor documents.

(iii) One possible configuration might be to store data streams in a "distributed," Web-based data store. We envision this as an object-oriented database that is platform independent, with ODMG object-binding to Java programs A distributable Java application package, that would perform the editing and interface with the database, likewise would be platform-independent. The manuscript editor software would permit off-line (off-Web) creation and editing of manuscripts and on-line sharing of manuscripts in read-only mode by other users.

[1] Leo Treitler, "The Early History of Music Writing in the West," Journal of the American Musicological Society, Summer 1982, p. 244.
[2] Dom Eugène Cardine, Gregorian Semiology, Robert M. Fowells, tr., (Solesmes, France: Solesmes, [1970] 1982).
[3] John Caldwell, Editing Early Music, (Oxford: Clarendon, 1985).
[4] Transcription example: Thomas Forrest Kelly, The Benevantan Chant, (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1989), p. 201.

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Revision: 13 December 1999
Copyright © 1997-1999, Louis W. G. Barton