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Preparing a transcription

Transcribing music from the past can have different aims. It can be done for practical reasons helping to play that piece of music easier, or it can also have a theoretical aim, ie giving the possibility to study and analyze an ancient composition. A transcription should always fulfil certain scientific requirements. It is important that the core aspects of the original manuscript are always recognizable in your transcription. But sometimes there is the necessity to correct errors or add further information. You should always indicate all modifications or additions.

First pages from Montpellier Codex with a 3-voice pieceThe beginning of the Three-voices Ars Antiqua Motet Amours mi font souffrir / En mai, quant rose est florie / Flos filius eius. © Montpellier, Bibliothèque interuniversitaire, Section Médecine, H 196, fol. fol.153v–154r

If you take a look at a music manuscript you might find the following difficulties:

  1. Early music uses C- and F-clefs and not the modern G-clef.
  2. The different voices of polyphonic music are in most of the cases not as neatly written in the scores as we are used to today.
  3. Early music often uses signs (eg ornaments) or notational techniques (eg ligatures) that a modern score cannot display.
  4. In some circumstances musicians of earlier times knew that they had to add flats or sharps to observe certain ‘unwritten’ rules, although these accidentals do not occur in the manuscript.

For these problems, the following solutions have been found:

  1. The use of a so-called incipit: You start your transcription with a copy of the very beginning of the original. This incipit indicates the position of the clef, the existence or non-existence of accidentals and the original note values. Once you have given this information to the reader in the incipit, you can decide which modern equivalent note value suits your purpose better. For instance in the Ars Antiqua repertoire it is common to transcribe the original longa with the modern note value of a minim (half-note). And don’t forget to indicate the source from which you are transcribing!
  2. With the exception of modal score notation, the voices of polyphonic music are arranged in a vertical way in manuscripts from the 13th century, although not as accurately as we are used to today. In the Ars Antiqua the voices may be placed next to each other. In later music, as we will see, they are written in so-called choir-book notation or even in different books (as you may know it from a string quartet). Nothing speaks against putting these voices into a single score. Bear in mind that the use of bar lines drawn through the staff can lead to misunderstandings. Rhythm in medieval music is not confined to closed beat structures that distinguish between stressed and unstressed metrical units (as for example in a waltz); medieval and renaissance music is based on a quantitative concept of time division.
  3. To indicate ligatures it is common nowadays to connect the notes in question with a bracket. Sometimes they can be ambiguous, but by adding brackets in the transcription this ambiguity can be eliminated. In the music of the Ars Antiqua the so-called plicae are still in use. Today it is common to transcribe them with a smaller note slurred to the main note.
  4. If you decide to indicate a flat or a sharp on a particular note you have to put it above the note in question.

And here some more practical hints:

Beginning of a a five-line staff paper with place for incipit and transcription

The first step is to identify the different voices of the polyphonic composition. In this case it is important to realise that the staff line at the top belongs to the end of the previous piece. On the left-hand side you find the triplum (with the initial ‘A’); on the right-hand side, the motetus (with the initial ‘E’) and at the bottom the tenor, introduced by the illuminated letter ‘F’. After identifying the voices, take a five-line staff paper, copy the incipits and draw a line through the staff. Insert the modern clefs considering the range of the original voices (in this example we had to put octave-transposing clefs). In Ars Antiqua music rhythm is always ternary, so you can easily assume a three-four time, as this music is conventionally transcribed. This means that a longa will be transcribed as a dotted minim (half-note), a brevis as a crotchet (quarter-note) and a semibrevis as a quaver (eighth-note).

Relations between square notation and modern values

Please note that if there are three consecutive semibreves, they will be transcribed as a triplet. Of course, if a longa is imperfected by a brevis, the longa will be transcribed as a non-dotted minim (half-note). And if a brevis is altered, it will become a minim (half-note) as well.

After finishing your preparations, you can start your transcription. Always start with the lower voice and then add the upper voices one after the other. After having reached the end of the tenor check whether it is correct, so that you have a solid foundation upon which you can build a successful transcription. Now you are ready to start!

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This article is from the free online course:

From Ink to Sound: Decoding Musical Manuscripts

University of Basel