Want to keep learning?

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.
4.3

University of Basel

Skip to 0 minutes and 7 seconds Around 1280, the principal music theorist of mensural notation, Franco of Cologne, describes the notion of perfection. Musical notation is based on a threefold entity of a time unit. Franco of Cologne writes, ‘This unit is called perfect because it is measured by three tempora.’ We can keep in mind that the perfect unity consists of three parts.

Skip to 0 minutes and 49 seconds The rationale of this assumption is based on the theological concept about the status of perfection of the number three. Franco of Cologne points out that the ternary number is the most perfect number because it takes its name from the Holy Trinity, which is true and pure perfection.

Skip to 1 minute and 18 seconds Three tempo units - that is three breves - yield one perfection. If three breves make one perfection, what value has a longa?

Skip to 1 minute and 36 seconds Actually, it is not possible to give a definitive answer. Learning mensural notation means to face the problem of ambiguity of notational signs. The temporal duration depends on the context. A longa for instance, can assume a value of two or three breves. There are a couple of rules that help us to know how to read this notation. Those rules are formulated by Franco of Cologne.

Skip to 2 minutes and 16 seconds The first basic rule says that a longa remains perfect if it is followed by another longa. This rule in Latin is called similis ante similem perfecta. Thus, if there is no further note, we cannot determinate if a longa is perfect of imperfect.

Skip to 2 minutes and 43 seconds A second rule implies that a longa is also perfect if it is followed by two or three breves.

Skip to 2 minutes and 58 seconds A third rule that Franco mentions describes the concept of imperfection. A longa becomes imperfect or is imperfected by the shorter value of the breves.

Skip to 3 minutes and 13 seconds In this example, this happens by a following note: a parte post, as it’s expressed in Latin.

Skip to 3 minutes and 22 seconds Here, the same happens by a preceding note: a parte ante in Latin.

Skip to 3 minutes and 32 seconds The fourth rule defines the relationship between the breves. If in a frame of two longae there are two breves, the first longa must be perfect (rule 2).

Skip to 3 minutes and 47 seconds Because the time laps between the two longae has to fill up a perfectio - a threefold time unit - but there are just two breves, the second will be doubled or altered.

Skip to 4 minutes and 2 seconds Finally, if between the two longae there are three breves, there will be no alteration.

Skip to 4 minutes and 12 seconds The perfection and alteration rules by Franco of Cologne you learned in this step represent one essential feature of the mensural notation from the 13th until the 16th century. As we go further, you shall also learn the rules about ligatures that describe the combinations of two or more tones. If you know the perfection and alteration rules as well as the ligature rules, you will be able to read and transcribe mensural notation of the 13th century.

Find yourself between perfection and ambiguity

Many sciences grapple with ambiguities that are specific to their subject area. An ambiguity distinguishing notational science is, that temporal duration depends on the context.

This is particularly true for mensural notation; and this might make it difficult as you start to delve into it. Luckily, there are some rules that may help us.

In this video Prof. Dr. Matteo Nanni and Angelika Moths explain the perfection and alteration rules formulated by Franco of Cologne, which are a central feature of the mensural notation from the 13th to the 16th century.