multimedia introduction
Figure 1. A page (folio 111r) from Paris, Bibl. Nat., MS latin 1118. It shows part of a tonary, the beginning of the materials for Tone VII. This part of the MS is illustrated profusely with pictures of musicians, but there is no obvious connection between what they are playing and the music on the page. The notation is Aquitanian (diastematic, without clefs), middle of 11th century.

Design and Engineering
of Infrastructure Software

During the Middle Ages all documents, books, charters, etc., were handwritten. Called "manuscripts" - from the Latin words for hand (manu) writing (script) - they were produced before mechanical printing was developed in the mid-1500s. The art of manuscript writing persists somewhat even today, especially in Eastern European cultures. In the early Middle Ages, the domain of writing and books was almost entirely in the hands of monks, nuns, and clerics of the church (monasteries were, indeed, the bastions of literacy for hundreds of years). It is not surprising, therefore, that the earliest forms of musical notation were devoped for the purpose of recording religious chants.

The early forms of musical writing are called "neume notation." Pronounced noom or nju:m, the word likely comes from the Greek πνεύμα (breath, spirit) or νεύμα (nod, sign). As an emergent system of writing, it existed in many early forms that are precursors of modern musical notation. Neumation was eventually standardised as "square-neume notation" on a four-line "staff," as it appears in mechanically printed sources. Around the time of the Renaissance, so-called "mensural" notation for music was invented, whereby the durations of notes could be explicitly shown. It is important to remark, however, that neume notation provides no explicit information about the durations of notes. (CF., Figure 1: for one thing, the musical notation obviously lacks the 'bar lines' of modern musical notation, which are used to mark regular intervals of time.) Each chant melody is strongly tied to a religious text, and it is likely that the natural cadence of recited text governed the 'rhythm' of chant melodies. Furthermore, in early species of neumation, little or no information was provided about pitches of the notes. One must conclude, therefore, that early neumed manuscripts were only references for singers who had already memorized the melodies from oral transmission.

It is generally accepted by musicologists today, that early neume notation conveys subtleties of vocal expression that are impossible to depict in modern musical notation. Discovering what these subtleties are might be accomplished by comparative study of many manuscripts. Such comparative study, however, has been hampered by several factors:

  • the inaccessibility of the manuscripts (they are widely distributed in rare book collections, and permission to inspect them is highly restricted);
  • for some species of early neumation, only a handful of experts in the world are capable of accurately reading them; and
  • transcription to computer data is highly problematical, due in part to the problems mentioned above.
Recently, a computer data representation has been developed by Louis W. G. Barton at Harvard University [see, the NEUMES Project] specifically to accommodate the difficult, early notations. The NEUMES data representation allows all types of neume notation to be encoded, in a manner that preserves the native characteristics of the original notation while, at the same time, allowing the neumatic symbols and melodic information to be systematically compared across notational types. The present project seeks to use this data representation in building a software infrastructure for a distibuted digital library of chant manuscript transcriptions.

Eduserv Foundation Supported by Eduserv. This project is supported by a Research Grant awarded to The University of Oxford by the Eduserv Foundation: "Developing the infrastructure for a distributed e-library of medieval music transcriptions in standardised format"; March 2005 - August 2007 (extended to February 2008); Professor Peter Jeavons, Project Co-Ordinator.

Copyright © 2005-2007, The University of Oxford.
Contains software or other intellectual property protected by one or more of the following copyrights.

Copyright © 2003-2005 by Louis W.G. Barton.
Copyright © 2002-2003 by The President and Fellows of Harvard College.
Copyright © 1995-2001 by Louis W.G. Barton.
All rights reserved. The copyright holders provide this intellectual property online as reference material for educational, cultural, and charitable purposes. The material is provided "as is" without any warranty whatsoever.