Notational signs of modal notation

The signs of the modal notation are derived from the square notation which was developed in northern France during the 12th century. In square notation, as in chant notation, we find the four-line staff. In later examples, such as in the fragment from the Basel University Library shown below, there are groups of five-line staffs.

Image of a manuscript from the Basel University with five staffs per voiceImage 1: Manuscript from the Basel University Library with four 15 staff-systems. Each system contains three voices with five staffs each. © Basel Universitätsbibliothek, F X 37, fol 2r

The note shapes of modal notation are based either on figures that represent single notes or figures that represent joined notes (the latter are called ligatures):

Single notes: Images of three single notes

Ligatures (binary, ternary, quaternary, conjunctura): Six images of different ligatures

Please note that the dashes you see here (on the left or on the right side) are part of the note shapes.

In order to know which pitch is meant, there are clefs at the beginning of the line. In the upper staff you can see a clef marking the note c and in the lower staff a clef marking the note f:

Image of a clef

In some cases single notes or notes within a ligature have little downward or upward dashes attached to the end of them. These little strokes are called plica and have the function of decorating notes inserting a shorter note value into the rhythmical flow (see more on that in a later step).

Image of a plica

Compositions notated in modal notation are structured into musical phrases, called ordines, from the Latin word ordo (that is series, succession). Ordines are marked by vertical strokes that can be short or, if the end of a formal section is reached, can occupy the whole four-staff. These strokes are generally interpreted to mean a rest.

Image of an ordo-line

If the strokes are very short and appear in the middle of a phrase, they are called suspirium (breath) and indicate a short break as marked by the modern comma.

Image of a Suspirium

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This article is from the free online course:

From Ink to Sound: Decoding Musical Manuscripts

University of Basel