Expanded History of Musical Notation – Part 3

In the course of time the requirements of rapid writing led to the introduction of white notes, called ‘empty notes.’ Notes were also colored red to show change of value, but the rules on this point were complicated, and Philip of Caserta says that if a scribe has no red ink at hand he may leave the notes open. Philip of Vitry (circa 1290-1361) says that red notes change what was imperfect by position to perfect: but in some cases they are used to show that the passage is to be sung in the octave above.

New notes, gradually introduced, are variously described by different theorists:



Objection was taken to the innovations on the ground that splitting up the notes caused the music to be too much fracta, or ‘broken into divisions,’ and that since minima meant ‘smallest’ it was impossible to have a note smaller than the smallest; but the rapidly developing art of music swept away all objections, and by the end of the 15th century the following ‘simple’ figures were in general use:


The expedient used by the tablature makers of dividing the stave into measures by bar lines was not adopted by the Mensuralists, and the rules for time values were difficult and complicated.

A note was perfect if it was followed by a note or rest of its own denomination; e.g. long followed by long, or breve by breve.

A note was imperfect it is was followed or preceded by a note of the next denomination below it; e.g. a long followed or preceded by a breve, a breve by a semibreve: such a note became imperfect by position.


These examples illustrate the rule of Perfection and Imperfection in its simplest form, fiz. ‘by position’; further modifications were produced by the rules of mood, time, and prolation, and by ‘points.’

Mood, the oldest of the rhythmical divisions, was concerned with the large, the long, and the breve. Mood could be major or minor, and each of these forms could be perfect or imperfect.

  • In Major Perfect Mood, the large was equal to three longs
  • In Major Imperfect Mood, the long was equal to three breves
  • In Minor Imperfect Mood, the long was equal to two breves

Mood was indicated by certain signs at the beginning of the stave, in the place occupied by the modern time signature. The signs varied at different epochs, and in different countries; the following are some of the most usual forms:


Time was concerned with the breve and semibreve. It was perfect and imperfect.

  • In Perfect Time the breve was equal to three semibreves
  • In Imperfect Time the breve was equal to two semibreves

Time signatures were as follows:


Prolation was concerned with the semibreve and minim. If was major and minor.

  • In Major Prolation the semibreve was equal to three minims
  • In Minor Prolation the semibreve was equal to two minims

The prolation signatures were as follows:


These signatures were not arrived at without many experiments, some of which are referred to by Johannes de Muris the Norman, in his Speculum Musicae, written in 1321, where he complains that ‘to show Perfect Mood (the moderns) use three lines enclosed in a quadrangle, and for Imperfect Mood two lines in a quadrangle. Some again presume to use M for Perfect Mood, and N for Imperfect Mood, saying that as O and C are used for variations of Time, so the matter, and use O for Perfect Mood and C for Imperfect Mood. Others use for Perfect Time a circle containing three strokes, and for Imperfect Time a semicircle containing two strokes. Such and many other things do the moderns, which the ancients never did; and thus they have added many burdens to the art, which was formerly free, but has now become like a slave in such matters.’

The general principles of ancient time signatures are that three strokes or a circle or the figure 3 denote perfections, or ternary divisions, and two strokes, or a semicircle, or the figure 2 denote imperfection or binary division. A line drawn through a circle or semicircle, or the inversion of these figures, shows diminution of the value of the notes to the extent of one half, so that longs are to be sung as if they were breves, breves as if they were semibreves, etc.


The line still survives in the modern signature called alla breve, in which two minims are counted in a bar of common time, instead of four crotchets.

Double diminution, in which the notes were reduced to one fourth of their natural value, was shown by two lines drawn through the circle or semicircle, but such cases are rare. The late Mr. W.S. Rockstro makes the following remarks: ‘These rules, though applicable to most cases, were open to so many exceptions, that Ornithoparcus, writing in 1517, and Morely, in 1597, roundly abuse their uncertainty. In very early times the three rhythmic systems were combined in proportions far more complex than any of the compound common or triple times of modern music. In canons, and other learned compositions, two or more time signatures were frequently placed at the beginning of the same stave. In a portion of the Credo of Hobrecht’s Missa “Je ne demande” we find as many as five:


These complications were much affected by Josquin des Pres, and the early composers of the Flemish School; bu tin the latter half of the 16th century – the so called ‘Golden Age’ – the only combinations remaining in general use were, Perfect time, with the lesser prolation, or Imperfect time, with the lesser prolation the greater prolation alone and the lesser prolation answering respectively to the alla breve, and the common time of our present system.’

The rules for notes were equally applicable to the Rests, called Pausae or Pausationes in Latin, whose forms were:


With the addition of a single rest extending above and below the stave, indicating the end of a period, and a double rest of the same kind, marking the ‘end of the song.’ The latter became our double bar:


The values of notes and rests were modified by the use of points or dots, the rules for which varied in different countries. Prosdoscimus de Beldemandis (1422 A.D.) complains that while the Italians had given up all points except that of division, the Gallic musicians used many, and it was difficult to know what was the effect of a dot. The general rules may be summarized this:

  • The point of addition or augmentation was placed after a note which was followed by a note shorter than itself, and was therefore imperfect by position
  • The effect of the point was to restore perfection to the note after which it was placed, and it was practically equivalent to the modern dot, which by adding one half to the value, makes a note worth three, instead of two, of the next lower denomination.

But occasionally, instead of a point of addition, two black notes were written, the first of which represented the note with a point, and the second, a shorter note, completed the beat. Passages are constantly written in both ways in the same composition:


The point of perfection was used in two ways:

  1. It was placed in a circle or semicircle in the signature, to indicate perfect time or major prolation
  2. It was placed after a note, in order to complete the triple beat, when the note was perfect by signature, but imperfect by position.

There was no practical difference in the effect of the points of addition and augmentation, but the first was used when the signature was binary, and the second when it was ternary.

The point of alteration or duplication, produced what we should call syncopation. It was placed after a long note followed by two short notes and another long one, its effect was to restore perfection to the first and last (long) notes, and to double the length of the second short note. It thus affected three out of a group of four notes, and to distinguish it from the point of augmentation it was usually, though not always, placed above the level of the notes it affected; and its place was sometimes taken by black notes in the 15th and 16th centuries.


Black notes are used to show syncopation ion the Cantate e canzonette of Legrend, printed at Bologna as late as 1676, thus:


The point of division or imperfection was placed between two short notes, which were themselves between two longer notes; its effect was to show that the two long notes were to be imperfect, and it was, like the point of alteration, placed at a higher level than the notes.


The last point was unnecessary, since the notes were already imperfect by position, and Tinctor in the 15th century calls them Puncti asinci, ass’s points; yet the continued to be used by Palestrina and his contemporaries, who, however, sometimes omitted the point, and wrote the last two notes of the passage black, with the understanding that they were to retain their full value. The result was that there were three ways of expressing the same thing:


The above rules refer to the ‘Simple Notes’ used by the Mensuralists; the ‘Compound Notes,’ or Ligatures, must now be described.

Taking the compound notes of plain song which had no time values, as their models, the Mensuralists, adapted them to their needs, under the name Ligatura (Latin), Legatura (Italian), Liaison (French), Ligatur (German).

The word Proprietas applied to a ligature refers to its first notes; the word Perfection to its last.

  • A Ligatura cum Proprietate has a breve as its first note
  • A Ligatura sine Proprietate has a long as its first note
  • A Ligatura cum opposite Proprietate begins with two semibreves

One semibreve alone is not used in a ligature, says Franco, nor are more than two.

Ligatures are ‘ascending’ or ‘descending,’ according to the relative positions of the first two notes; if the ligature commences with a low, and proceeds to a higher note, it is an ‘ascending’ ligature, and vice versa. The remaining notes in either form may be higher or lower than the two first.

An ascending ligature, with no tail, is cum proprietate, i.e., its first note is a breve.

An ascending ligature with a tail descending on the right or left of the first note is sine proprietate, i.e., its first note is a long. A descending ligature with a tail descending from its left side is Cum proprietate, i.e., its first note is a breve. A descending ligature without a tail is sine proprietate, i.e., its first note is a long.

A ligature, whether ascending or descending, which bears a rising tail on its left side, is Cum opposite proprietate, i.e., its first two notes are semibreves.

The ligature is ‘with Perfection’ if the last note stands immediately over its predecessor, or under and separated from it; i.e. its last note is a long.

A ligature is ‘with Imperfection’, if the last note stands obliquely over or under its predecessor, and is joined to it; i.e., the last note is a breve. All the intervening notes are breves, unless one of them has a tail ascending on its left side, when it is a semibreve.

The above is an epitome of the rules given by Franco; a table of ligatures, by Guilielmus, contained in Coussemaker, Scriptures, vol. ii. P. 276, marked with the letters L for long, B for breve, S for semibreve, agrees with them, if allowance is made for probably slips of the pen in so complicated a matter.

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