Musical notation

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The earliest musical notation dates from the very end of the eighth century in Carolingian Francia. Charlemagne's court set out to standardise the liturgy across the Frankish world by introducing a single consistent set of service-books based on those used in Rome (which, ironically, had to be heavily modified to cover assorted rites and conventions which the Frankish church felt it couldn't do without). In the early medieval world (and beyond) much of the liturgy was sung - 'cantus' in Latin. Bringing in new antiphons, responses etc meant learning new tunes. The solution seems to have been for major churches to send their cantor to one of the reformed centres (principally Metz) to spend a year there singing the services and memorising the chant. The cantor would then go back home and teach the new liturgy. This is the point where "staffless neums" first appear - notation using various squiggles, written over the line of text, indicating whether the musical line goes up, down, has decoration etc.

The trouble with staffless neums is that they only indicate the general direction of the line, not exactly how it moves. They are a useful aide-memoir if you already know the tune, but you can't sightread from it. Around 1100 neums began to be presented on a stave, so you can see the intervals the music moves, ie a recognisable forerunner of modern notation.

Reading staffless neums is best described as uber-geeky. It's a skill currently reserved for a handful of musicologists (we're talking a few dozen academics around the world) who don't always engage well with historians, and so published editions of liturgical manuscripts skip the squiggles and only print the text, meaning that a rather important element of liturgical history (itself merely "very geeky") can be overlooked. There are exceptions, including Jesse Billett, who straddles both worlds. He looked closely at several centuries of liturgical manuscripts from a selection of Anglo-Saxon monasteries, including Muchelney in Somerset. By and large the liturgical texts don't change between the tenth/eleventh and fourteenth/fifteenth centuries. Close examination of the pre-Conquest neums and the late medieval staves shows that the musical lines go up and down at the same point. Even if we can't read the staffless neums directly, we can be pretty confident that the tunes written down in the late medieval period were substantially the same.

Staffless neums weren't the only form of early medieval notation. There are a few eleventh-century liturgical manuscripts which also use an alphabetical notation, in some cases alongside neums. These manuscripts tend to be from very prestigious centres (including either the Old or New Minster, Winchester, if memory serves) and the suggestion is that more precise notation was needed for pipe organs. Descriptions of the rededication of the reformed Benedictine centres at Old Minster Wincs, and of the new monastery at Ramsey in the 970s both mention the sound of pipe organs, and I think there is a depiction in the Utrecht Psalter (c.820s Rheims).

Credit:Benedict Coffin