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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 8 seconds After the consolidation of the pitch quality, due the introduction of staff lines, the question that arises around 1200

Skip to 0 minutes and 18 seconds is the representation of temporal quality: duration. As we learned last week, the discrete pitch is based on the analogy of high and low and can be easily depicted graphically on the parchment. The musical rhythm, however, has no visual equivalent. As we will see, in the modal notation of the 13th century, rhythm is codified in a special manner. For the first time in music history, it is inscribed in notational signs. In this step, we will learn to recognise and decode these signs.

Skip to 1 minute and 8 seconds Learning how to read an early score means, first of all, distinguish between different signs. Here is a picture of an early 14th century fragment from the Basel Library with modal notation. What do we see here? What are we able to read? At first, we see a parchment with four staffed line systems, each with 15 lines. We also see a page filled with musical notes and little portions of text.

Skip to 1 minute and 50 seconds This helps us to recognise the number of the voices. They are three.

Skip to 1 minute and 59 seconds We also recognise a score notation with the three voices, one above the other. Maybe a bit more difficult is to decode the single signs and distinguish the notes from the clefs. Actually we can see here the beginning of the verse, two C clefs and one F clef.

Skip to 2 minutes and 30 seconds Musical notes are written in two different ways, as single note, nota simplex, or ligature, nota ligata.

Skip to 2 minutes and 45 seconds There are two-note ligatures, as here, and there are three or more ligatures, as here.

Skip to 2 minutes and 59 seconds The shape of these square notes originates in the neumes. This figure, for example, comes from the neume called pes. This figure is drawn from the clivis. This three-note ligature comes from the porrectus. And finally, this ligature comes from the torculus.

Skip to 3 minutes and 33 seconds In order to read this early score, we have to get acquainted also to the different little lines that can assume distinct meanings. The vertical lines can be interpreted in different ways. They can be, in some cases, just short rests, as here.

Skip to 3 minutes and 58 seconds In other cases, they are not only rests, but they mark the ending of an ordo, like here.

Skip to 4 minutes and 9 seconds Ordo indicates a rhythmic metrical unit, as here.

Skip to 4 minutes and 18 seconds Finally, a line can mark formal parts of the composition as, for example, here.

Skip to 4 minutes and 30 seconds [SINGING]

How to read an early score

In order to read a score we need to be aware of different conventions concerning different semiotic aspects that range from the direction of reading to the meaning of single signs as clefs, notes, rests. Scores from the Middle Ages are based upon particular conventions that are not always self-evident. In this video we will share with you some of the most important reading skills for getting familiar with early scores.

The example we have chosen for this video is a fragment from the Basel University Library that was discovered by Professor Wulf Arlt and Professor Max Haas more than 40 years ago. Since then it almost fell into oblivion. You will have the chance to discover the organum Alleluya: Vox Sancti Bartholomei that might have been sung for the first time in 700 years especially for this course by the Ensemble Gilles Binchois under the direction of Dominique Vellard. This organum is preserved in the fragment-manuscript Basel, Universitätsbibliothek, F X 37, fol. 2.

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This video is from the free online course:

From Ink to Sound: Decoding Musical Manuscripts

University of Basel