Styles & Forms | Medieval Era | Classical

Before music was written down, musicians either memorized or improvised what they played or sang. Very little is known about the earliest European music because it was not recorded in notation. The music theorist Isidore of Seville (c. ad 559–636) even said that melodies could not be written down, and two centuries passed before a system of notation was established.

This happened during the reigns of Pippin III and Charlemagne, when the need arose to organize the plainchant repertory. Early developments in notation are thus bound up with the history of music for the church; secular music continued to be based in traditions of memorization and improvisation until the eleventh century. The interaction between the tradition of improvisation and the need for notation is at the heart of the history of medieval music, and it led to the development of diverse techniques of musical composition, both sacred and secular.

The Development of Notation

Methods of encoding pitch using letters had been proposed as early as the sixth century, but the earliest notation – dating from the eighth – was made up of neumes, which were shapes indicating the contours of the melody. Because plainchant melodies were largely memorized, singers did not need precise pitches to be notated. In about 1030, Guido of Arezzo set out a new system of pitch notation based on a staff of lines representing notes a third apart. Alphabetical letters (C or F) at the start of a line indicated pitch, as did the use of differently coloured lines – yellow for C and red for F. The notes themselves were written on the staff as traditional neumes (although the shapes no longer strictly represented melodic contours). In theory it was possible at this stage for a person to sight-read a melody accurately.

Notating Rhythm

In the late twelfth century a method of notating rhythm was developed, possibly in response to singers who habitually slipped into trochaic (long–short) or iambic (short–long) rhythm. The system of rhythmic modes indicated rhythmic patterns by the way that notes were grouped together. It was superseded in about 1260–80 by a new system of rhythmic notation devised by the German theorist Franco of Cologne. Now, for the first time, the shape gave the singer fundamental information needed about its likely duration. Franco set out rules for the relation­ship between three main note values (long, breve and semibreve): there could be either three or two of a smaller value within the next value up, depending on whether the music was in perfect (triple) or imperfect (duple) time. This method of measuring the relationships between note values is called mensuration. A further development is found in the works of the French theorist Petrus de Cruce (fl. c. 1290), who divided the breve into up to seven semibreves; the smaller note values became known as minims.

In fourteenth-century France, the minim achieved independent status with Vitry’s Ars Nova (‘new art’). There were again three principal levels of mensural relationship, with...

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