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New notational signs I

A series of treatises on musical notation were written in Paris around 1321. One of the most influent texts was Philippe de Vitry’s Ars Nova. In this text the author suggests a reformation of the notation system of polyphonic music.

The notation of the French Ars Nova period is to be understood as an enhancement of the former notation system established by Franco of Cologne. The notational signs are adopted into the new system with the only addition of the shorter note value: the minima. The perfection and alteration rules as well as the rules concerning ligatures are still in force, and the manuscript layout roughly remains the same as earlier. The central innovation of the Ars Nova notation was that, besides the ternary division of musical time, the binary division got approved as well (Step 5.3). Here you have an overview of the notational symbols of the Ars Nova:

Notational signs and their values

And here the notational signs are listed following the arrangement medieval theorists suggested in their treatises. For each notational sign (signum) there is a corresponding name (nomen) and a number which indicates the ‘meaning’ (significatum) of the note value. Thus each symbol has a name and a numeric proportion that indicates the relative duration. The unit of measure is the minima.

Table of notational signs and their relative duration

The notation of rests was also put in a systematic order. For each note value a separate sign was introduced to indicate the rest:

Notational signs indicating the rests

Please note that a rest cannot be altered (neither become imperfect, nor double its value). It can, however, cause the alteration of a note.


Philippe de Vitry. Ars nova. G. Reaney: CSM 8, 1964.

Johannes de Muris. Notitia artis musicae. U. Michels: CSM 17, 1972.


Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale, Ms fonds Français 1586, (ca. 1350–55) [Machaut C]

Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale, Ms nouv. Acq. Fr. 6771, (14th–15th century) [Codex Reina]

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From Ink to Sound: Decoding Musical Manuscripts

University of Basel