Encoding musical rhythm – how to recognise a mode

As we have learned previously (Step 2.8) the pitch was the first musical dimension that was fixed in medieval music notation due to the introduction of lines. After the very first emergence of the Dasia notation in the 9th century (Step 2.4) exact pitches were notated systematically with diastematic neumes introduced by the Aquitan and the Italian neumatic notation (Guido of Arezzo) from the 11th century onwards. Rhythm is the second musical dimension that was fixed in musical notation.

During the early 13th century medieval musicians had to solve the problem of how to visualise musical rhythm. If pitch could easily be represented following the spatial analogy of high and low, rhythm needed to be notated in a different way.

With the Parisian practice of polyphonic music at Notre Dame, which began around 1150 and was further developed until 1250, a new musical repertoire was composed stimulating the implementation of a new type of notation which was able to fix rhythmic patterns. Modal notation is the first example of rhythmic notation in western music history.

Ancient music sheet with modern transcription belowFour-Part Graduale Viderunt omnes written in modal notation, modern transcription below. © Firenze Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, Plut. 29.1, fol. 1r

In Step 3.2 you were introduced to the signs of modal notation. We distinguish 6 modes and their rhythmic patterns. Now you can find out how to recognise a mode from the original notation. The principle is simple: each modal pattern is tagged by the sequence of ligatures or single notes you find at the beginning of a phrase.

Table of different modi

  1. The sequence of a ternary ligature followed by binary ligatures marks the first mode.
  2. A series of binary ligatures followed by a ternary ligature marks the second mode.
  3. A single note followed by ternary ligatures marks the third mode.
  4. A series of ternary ligatures followed by a single note marks the fourth mode.
  5. A series of ternary ligatures isolated by a stroke marks the fifth mode.
  6. The sequence of a four-note ligature followed by ternary ligatures marks the sixth mode.

The key to recognizing a mode is the combination of the signs. In the table you can see the schematic overview of that: 1 is a single note; 2 is a ligatura binaria (two-note ligature); 3 a ligatura ternaria (three-note ligature) and 4 a ligatura quaternaria (four-note ligature).

But what kind of logic did the medieval musicians from Notre Dame follow to encode rhythm in their compositions? As you can observe here the duration of the notes in modal notation is not inscribed in the single notational figures. Rhythm cannot be read from the shape of the notes, but instead it has to be deduced by scanning and counting the ligatures. Compared to modern notation rhythm is here codified in a more abstract manner which is based on the concept of the number (numerus).

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This article is from the free online course:

From Ink to Sound: Decoding Musical Manuscripts

University of Basel