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Signs and meaning

While, for the most part, the previous weeks of our course dealt with music as a practical art, including sounding reconstructions of medieval music and its notation, this week we will start with a little change of perspective and look at how musical matters were seen from a theoretical perspective in the early 14th century.

The emergence of universities in the 13th century had an immense influence on society. And music, as part of this society, was not left untouched by the work of scholars at the nascent universities. In fact, as part of the seven liberal arts, music had played a crucial role in medieval education. While musica in the early Middle Ages had mainly been concerned with mathematical operations, measuring intervals and constructing tone systems, the reflection on music reached a new level at the new universities as it increasingly turned to practical matters and sounding music. How does music exist in time? How can it be notated? In what way does notation signify music? These questions, still discussed today, were at the centre of attention in the writings of theorists like Marchetto da Padova, Johannes de Muris and Philippe de Vitry.

These theorists could draw on numerous innovations in music notation at the dawn of the 14th century. There were so many changes and novelties that some contemporaries spoke of a ‘new art’, an Ars Nova. Manuscripts like the famous Roman de Fauvel manuscript in the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris are clear testaments to that. However, this Ars Nova was not entirely new. Rather, it was more of an enhancement of what had already existed, as we will see in our next steps when we turn to the technical details of the Ars Nova notation.

Theoretical approaches to music notation were characterised by a deep interest in the nature of signs (figurae). From a theorist’s perspective, signs were not only part of music notation, they were also used for writing language in the form of letters. Spoken language was also composed of signs and even nature itself was seen as being full of signs. The genuine interdisciplinary approach that medieval scholars adopted was based on the synthesis of the knowledge provided by different scholastic disciplines. The theoretical reflection on signs thus transcended the boundaries of individual disciplines and was equally part of music theory, grammar and logic. From a modern perspective, aware of the numerous ‘turns’ in the debates within the humanities, we may label this increased interest in signs as a medieval ‘semiotic turn’. (Please see the article Medieval Semiotics in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy). This debate was based on the distinction between a sign and the object it represents. Accordingly, a sign was conceived as a conventional term that represents a thing by means of a conventional expression.

As we saw last week, one of the main difficulties in dealing with mensural notation is that we have to recognise the perfection or imperfection of notes, we have to see, for example, if a longa is perfect or if it is imperfected. Johannes de Muris, a scholar at the University of Paris, saw the problem of the ambiguity of signs and tried to give a theoretical account of it in his treatise Notitia Artis Musicae (c. 1321). For Johannes, a notational sign consisted of two parts, its graphic form (figura) and its signified (significatum). Johannes started from the assertion that the graphic form, as a sign, is always perfect, and can never be imperfected as such. What is imperfected in music for Johannes is the signified, the musical matter (res musicalis). For Johannes, this strict separation of sign and signification meant that the fact that one sign has two possible realizations was not a problem anymore. His idea of the sign was informed by contemporary thinking in other disciplines dealing with signs, mainly speculative grammar (grammatica speculativa), a discipline that emerged at the University of Paris in the second half of the 13th century and that sought to establish a universally valid grammar. Grammatica speculativa dealt with signification in a broader sense as it tried to figure out what actually signifies in language. Unlike descriptive grammars of actual languages, it could not start at the sound of the language but had to search for ‘universal’ signifiers.

From a modern perspective, it is highly interesting to notice that both the concept of the separation of signifier and signified and the idea of a universal grammar return in the 20th century, in modern semiotics and in linguistics, respectively.

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This article is from the free online course:

From Ink to Sound: Decoding Musical Manuscripts

University of Basel