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This content is taken from the University of Basel's online course, From Ink to Sound: Decoding Musical Manuscripts. Join the course to learn more.

Skip to 0 minutes and 7 seconds A warm welcome to our course, From Ink to Sound, Decoding Musical Manuscripts. My name is Matteo Nanni. As a professor of musicology, I taught at the University of Basel, and I’m now teaching at University of Giessen. In this course, we would like to take you on a journey through time, and explore with you the history of musical notation. During the next weeks, we will be your guides to the world of musical script. You will discover how to read musical manuscripts from the past.

Skip to 0 minutes and 50 seconds My name is Angelika Moths. I’m teaching history of musical notation at the Schola Cantorum Basiliensis and music theory at Basel University. I also would like to welcome you to this course.

Skip to 1 minute and 10 seconds To turn ink into sound, it needs voices and instruments. The ensemble Gilles Binchois under the direction of Dominique Vellard and musicians of the Schola Cantorum will ensure that this course will not only be an intellectual, but also, a sensual experience for you.

Skip to 1 minute and 34 seconds Every day, at home or in the street, in the car or at the supermarket, we are surrounded by music, and do never ask if and how it’s written down. We hear the passing of the ephemeral sounds, but we are a little stumped if somebody asks us to write them down.

Skip to 2 minutes and 0 seconds Otherwise, we must think, that without written music, we wouldn’t have access to the music of the past. In the course of the centuries, musical notation evolved out of the oral tradition of singing and playing.

Skip to 2 minutes and 25 seconds Our actual system of musical notation is the result of a long term process, which began in the Middle Ages, and still goes on.

Skip to 2 minutes and 40 seconds In this course, we are going to discover, and to deepen the insight, into the most important occurrences of the development of notation. Through this course, you’ll get acquainted with different kinds of musical notation, and you will learn how to decode and transcribe them. Finally, you will be able to reflect on historically informed performance, to look hopefully at ancient music with fresh eyes.

Hearing and writing music: close-ups on musical notation

Music is an ephemeral object, its existence defined by the flow of time and bound to the present of its performance. If music would not be written down, how could we know the musical compositions from times remote? Notation supplies a unique access to music from the past.

In this course you will learn how to understand the theoretical and practical principles of reading musical notation from the Middle Ages until the Early Modern period. You will get the basic knowledge needed to decode and transcribe early notational systems. We would also like to encourage you to reflect upon the challenges and principles of musical notation as we take into consideration semiotic approaches and visual theory. In addition this course offers several recordings of ancient-music performances provided by musicians of the Schola Cantorum Basiliensis. This will ensure that you will experience the music also aesthetically.

Some of the central questions we shall tackle during the next seven weeks are the following:

  • What do we know about the materiality of musical notation?
  • How can we learn to read music written in its original notation?
  • Are we able to reconstruct music from the past?
  • How did the way we note music evolve through history?
  • With which strategies did people visualise music in medieval and renaissance times?
  • What can we learn from the history of musical writing in order to deepen our understanding of music?

These are questions for anyone who has ever picked up a manuscript or a facsimile with original notation from the Middle Ages or the Renaissance and enjoyed it. For the answers, we must look to our best current understanding of how notation works – and that means entering into the field of musicology and music philology.

From Ink to Sound provides the basic knowledge you need to read original notation. At the same time the course starts with the assumption that there is a gap between the philological study of musical sources and their reflection in cultural history that should be bridged.

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Let us, at this occasion, also introduce the mentors of this course Anna Maier, Matthias Ion Hörmann and Mirjam Oswald, who will help to guide the discussions.

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This video is from the free online course:

From Ink to Sound: Decoding Musical Manuscripts

University of Basel