Musical Notation: Then to Now

Hello Medieval Manuscripts people,

As a part of my folio, I have been looking into medieval music notation, and how it has shaped the modern notation taught today. This has been especially challenging as the type of notation used in my manuscript has a four line staff, as opposed to modern notation, which uses five line staff. This, in addition to the changing of where the C or F may fall on any given staff depending upon a symbol at the beginning of each line, makes transcribing the basics a challenge. Being a hymn, my notation  would have likely been written as a choral direction as opposed to an instrument. My way of trying to understand this section of my folio is to use a modern music writing app on my computer, and transcribe the hymns into modern day notation the best I can.

The first, and one of the most challenging, aspects of the medieval notation I had to learn about was the differences between the four-line and five-line staffs. When I first got my folio, I thought that the red highlight over the hymn lyrics was an additional staff line, as I didn’t know that I had one less line than modern notation. This made transcribing a challenge right from the beginning, as I had to do more research into figuring out each intended note. When reading medieval music, the indication of where the C or F note will fall is found at the beginning of each individual staff, and it can change multiple times throughout the song. The indicator for a C note is a written C which wraps around the beginning of the line, and the F indicator is typically a stylized F, which in my folio looks a bit like a vertical line with two diamonds, with the two prongs enclosing the correct line. This meant that while transcribing, I had to make sure I was paying close attention to exactly where I was in the hymn, and I have tried to keep a visual marker of where C or F will be in order to prevent confusion. 

The next challenge I have run into is the lack of time measurements for each note, and how this affects the sound of the music. In modern notation, each specific time signature for a note has a way of being written (ie, half-notes, quarter-notes, eighth notes, etc.) but this isn’t the case for medieval notation. Primarily writing for choral direction rather than instrumental in these types of hymn and prayer books, the length of each note would have likely been learned as a combination of note patterns commonly found in these hymns and people learning the song in person with instrument accompaniment. This means that when I took my first few tries at transcribing, I made all the notes the same length, instead focusing on finding the right pitch. As I have looked more into the Cantus Manuscript Database I have learned about the patterns that were commonly used in written music, with the length of these notes being specified by the pattern (such as long-long-short, or short-long-short). Though this has been helpful in understanding the basics of how it would be written, I have found it very challenging to apply it to my folio, and am still trying to work out the patterns there. 

Another challenge with my specific folio is the placement of the notes on the staff, with many being very close together, making it hard to distinguish the order in some places. Unlike modern notation, which has a pattern of vertical line breaks on the staff depending upon the amount of beats, there is no separation between the notes of my folio’s hymns. This makes it so not only are some parts of the music hard to distinguish, but it also doesn’t give a hint to the time signature and length of notes like modern notation. The lack of these line breaks means that the organization of the staff can be very cramped and confusing, so in some sections of the notation it can be unclear as to the correct order. This can also be affected by the note patterns I mentioned before, with some notes specifically being written directly above or below one another, adding to the confusion. Thankfully, a majority of the more confusing notation on my folio is structured as increasing and decreasing scales, but some are still challenging to understand.

Though one of the most complex parts of my folio to try to understand, I find the music to be endlessly interesting and I have really enjoyed trying to figure out the transcription. It is definitely a slow process and has less clear answers than I was hoping, but it has been a unique experience that I look forward to continuing next semester