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How does this course work?

Thank you for enrolling in our course on musical notation from the Middle Ages to Early Modernity. We are very much looking forward to working with you over the next seven weeks. During this time you will gain a thorough understanding of how medieval and renaissance musical notation works, how it can be decoded, and how its signs and symbols were conceived through history.

Musical notation is more than just a system that fixes sound on paper in order to be used in a performance. It is also a fascinating, material-based cultural technique that has evolved throughout history. Musical notation discloses many different ways in which the sound of music may be visualised. This course approaches musical notation as a practice that creates meaning: the way people wrote down music reveals a lot about how they conceived of music through all the centuries.

Throughout this course, you’ll get acquainted with the most important European systems of musical notation from the Middle Ages to the Early Modern period. The course includes findings that stem both from the theory of images and from sign theory. They help you to handle these notation systems with ease and discern their distinctive features. As you learn how musical notation evolved through history and as you reflect on their use, you will gain insight into what it means to perform music in a historically informed way. You will be able to look at music sheets with fresh eyes – and to hear music with fresh ears. Besides the theoretical and practical parts, this course offers recordings of ancient music performed by musicians of the Schola Cantorum Basiliensis, the renowned institution for ancient music in Basel, which will give you the opportunity to listen to many of the musical pieces we will discuss during the coming weeks.

We shall cover the most important steps in the history of musical notation. There will be plenty of practice activities, including quizzes and tests for checking your own improvement. You will also be invited to discuss each topic with your peers.

This online course won’t make you an expert music philologist, but it will give you a solid basis to build upon in the future. After completing this course you will be able to transcribe medieval and renaissance music into modern notation understanding the visual logic that was applied at the different stages of music notation. To be sure, transcribing ancient music should not be an end in itself. Instead, it should throw light on how musicians from the past understood and conceived the composition of music. You will learn how to read the original notational signs in order to gain access to the music. This is the central concern of this course and, in a broader sense, of music philology in general.

This is how the course is structured:

Week 1: Notation as script

In the first week you will get a general overview of the main questions of this course focussing on visual theory and the materiality of musical writing.

Week 2: ‘From sound to ink’ – early forms of musical notation

During the second week we are going to deepen our analysis of the different manifestations of musical notation from the Middle Ages until the Early Modern period starting with early neumes and square notation.

Week 3: Coordination in rhythm – modal notation

Modal notation, used in the early 13th century, is one of the oldest systems of encoding musical rhythm. This important step in the history of notation will be studied in the third week.

Week 4: Notation of the so called Ars Antiqua

In the late 13th century, rhythm started to be codified in the shape of the notation symbols. This important historical shift in the history of musical notation will be the subject of the fourth week, together with the basic technique of transcribing mensural notation.

Week 5: Ars Nova – mensural notation in the 14th century

The evolution of notation during the early 14th century brought new possibilities for combining rhythm. In the fifth week we will deepen our understanding of this kind of notation. You shall also hone your skills to transcribe it.

Week 6: ‘Black and White’ – mensural void notation in the 15th century

The emergence of void notation during the first half of the 15th century shows how black mensural notation changed and developed in the direction of our modern way of notating music. In this week you will learn to compare void notation with the older system getting more and more practice in reading and transcribing late medieval music.

Week 7: Instrumental music of the 16th century – tablatures and idiomatic writing

The last week will introduce you to the notational systems of instrumental music showing how music can be visualised in many different ways. Keyboard and lute tablatures will be explained using a selection of music examples.

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This article is from the free online course:

From Ink to Sound: Decoding Musical Manuscripts

University of Basel