Expanded History of Musical Notation – Part 4

For music of the 15th and 16th centuries the rules are as follows:

Two white square notes in ligature, or an oblique note ascending, are generally breves:


The same descending may be sung as breves or as longs, or as a long followed by a breve; the latter two cases are rare, and can only be decided by the context:


Two square white notes in ligature, with a tail descending on the right side, are longs, whether they ascend or descend, and whether they are separately formed, or are joined in a single oblique figure:


Two similar notes, with a tail descending on the left side, are breves:


Two such notes, with a tail ascending on the left side, are semibreves:


Ligatures of two notes, with a tail ascending on the left side, and another descending on the right, are to be sung as a semibreve followed by a long:


In ligatures of more than two notes all except the first and last are called ‘middle notes,’ and, according to Ornithoparcus (1517), every middle note, however shaped, or placed is a breve, unless the first note has an ascending tail on the left, in which case all the notes are semibreves.

Morley tells us that if a note which should be white is written black, it loses one third of its value; but he means one fourth, as in the following example:


There is, however, often a little uncertainty with regard to the degree in which a black note is to be shortened; more especially when the same ligature contains both black and white notes, as in the following examples for Palestrina:


A very little experience will enable the student to discover the intention of such forms as these at a glance. Though the three we have selected seem at first sight to offer unexpected complications, it will be found, on close examination, that the laws laid down above leave no doubt as to the correct solution of any one of them. Even when an oblique note is half white and half black, it is only necessary to remember that each color is subject to its own peculiar laws.


Cases, however, frequently occur in which black notes are to be treated precisely as white ones. It is true that these passages are more often found in single notes than in ligatures, but it is difficult, sometimes, to understand why they have been introduced at all.

Sometimes a ligature is accompanied by one or more points of augmentation, the position of which clearly indicates the notes to which they are to be applied.


In some old printed books the last note of a ligature is placed obliquely, in which case it is always to be sung as a breve. The student will meet with innumerable other forms, more or less difficult to decipher; but those we have illustrated will be sufficient to guide him on his way in all ordinary cases; and in exceptional ones he will find that long experience alone will be of service to him.

The ligatures, in spite of their ambiguity and complexity, died but slowly. They lasted into the 17th century, and even into the 18th, for they are found in the examples of Martini’s Esemplare ossia Saggio de contrappunto, printed at Bologna, in 1774, thought by this time they had long been confined to two notes only.

Mood, Time, Prolation, Perfection, Imperfection, Major, Minor, led to the construction of enormous time tables, many examples of which are found in medieval treatises. Hothby and Prosdoscimus each give no less than twenty sixe such tables, the complication of which can be gathered from a remark of Hamboys, that, if a larga be perfect, it contains 3 double longs, 27 breves, 81 semibreves, 241 minor semibreves, 721 semiminors, and 2187 minims, and each of the notes, perfect and imperfect, is similarly described in detail. In the 16th century we find evidence of a revolt against the complications of the time tables, which led to the gradual disappearance of the system of Mensural music and the adoption of simpler and more practical methods of indicating rhythm.

The expression ‘The Moderns love brevity’ begins to occur in the treatises, and the ‘Musical Time called Natural,’ that is to say, the duple division of notes, which obtained in the tablatures, began to reassert its supremacy in vocal music, from which it had been banished for centuries by medieval confusion between music theory and the Doctrine of the Trinity. The old rules are collected by Zarlino, in his Institutioni armoniche, 1558, not because they were any longer of practical value to musicians, but ‘lest they should be lost.’  ‘Some musicians might like,’ he says, ‘to read some ancient cantilena; but isf the modern composer should not number his cantilena according to the Moods, he could really say that the matter was of little account, and the he had no knowledge of such things.’

Thomas Morely collects the rules in his Plaine and Easie Introduction, in 1597, and regrets the loss of the old teaching, saying that, ‘a more slight and superficiall knowledge (is) come in steede thereof; so that it is come nowadays to that, that if they know the Common Moode and some Triples, they seeke no further.’ The expression ‘Common Moode,’ for duple rhythm, shows how completely the binary division of notes had by this time taken its natural place as the foundation of time division.

By the beginning of the 17th century the semibreve was the basis of the time signatures, as it is with us; the circle still continued to show three semibreves in a measure, but it disappeared in the course of the century, and the only remnant of medieval signatures now is use, is the C, or semicircle, indicating the ‘Common,’ or ‘Natural,’ or duple division of the semibreve, and the same figure, with a line through it to show diminution.

Measures were called ‘Bars’ in 1584 by William Bathe, in his A Brief Introduction to the True Arte of Musicke, and in 1597 by Morley; and about this time bar-lines, which had already been used for more than a century in the Tablatures, began to take their place on the stave. They were sometimes placed at irregular intervals, though there is so much method in the irregularity that it would almost seem as if our forefathers had a finer perception of the varying strength of rhythmical accents than we have. Bar-lines did not come into general use until about a century after their introduction. Caccini’s ‘Euridice,’ composed in 1600, is barred throughout; while a book of Solfeggi by Caresana of the year 1693 in unbarred.

Like other features of our notation, the stave passed through many vicissitudes before its general acceptance in the form that we know it. While plain song has found a stave of four red or black lines sufficient for its needs, measured music, whose whole raison d’itre was the notation of two or more simultaneous melodies, made use in early times of staves containing lines varying in number from 4 to 15 and even to 25, on which all the voice parts were written.

Clefs were given to several lines, and sometimes to all the lines, and even to the spaces. Vertical lines were roughly ‘scored’ through the staves at indefinite intervals (hence our word ‘Score’) as a guide to the eye and a help to keeping the singers together; perhaps they were used at rehearsals in the same way as the capital letters or numerals printed over modern scores, to aid the choirmaster.

In course of time the inconvenience of so many lines was felt, and they were divided into groups of four for each voice, by the insertion of red lines in the stave, on which no notes were written. The next step was to make a space between the several voice parts, by omitting the red lines, and it was found convenient to use five instead of four lines of reach voice part, though sometimes, as in the famous rota, ‘Sumer is icumen in’ (13th century), six lines are used.

The stave of five lines first appeared in the 12th century, and its convenience caused its gradual adoption to the exclusion of all others. It must not be imagined, however, that its general acceptance by musicians can be assigned to any particular date, or even any century; on the contrary, just as we find unstaved neumes continuing to be written for centuries after the invention of so important an improvement as the stave, so we find, in measured music, staves of eleven to fifteen lines in the 14th century, long after one would have expected composers to have recognized the more practicable and convenient smaller staves.

A little two part composition of the 12th century in the Bodleian Library (Douce MS. 139), ‘Fowles in ye frich’ published in facsimile by the plain song and Med. Mus. Sec. (‘Early English Harmony,’ Plate 7), written in squared headed neumes, therefore not in measured notes, shows two separate five lined staves, bearing the soprano and tenor clefs, and, except for the shape of the notes, it might have been written in the 17th century; while a book of theological treatises and hymns of the 14th century, has staves of varying numbers of lines, from fifteen downwards.

The vocal stave was fixed at five lines by the 15th century, but this was not the case with instrumental music, which continued to use large staves till well into the 17th century.

The Fitzwilliam, and other contemporaneous collections of English harpsichord and organ music, make use of staves of six lines; while the Bolognese, Venetian, and Neapolitan organists of the end of the 16th and beginning of the 17th centuries, use a stave of six lines for the right hand, and eight for the left hand and feet combined. The so-called ‘Great Stave’ of eleven lines, has never been used except for the purpose of illustration in modern theoretical works: De Muris, and others certainly use staves of eleven lines in the treatises, but not in the sense of the ‘Great Stave.’

The invention of Ledger or Leger Lines in the 17th century enabled composers not only to reduce the instrumental stave to the convenient number of five lines, but also to lessen the number of changes of clef; though they were slow to perceive the latter advantage, for changes of clef are as frequent in music for keyed instruments in the 18th century as they are in viola and violoncello music today.

Lozenge shaped breves, semibreves, minims, crotchets, etc., slowly gave way to the more rapidly written and more easily read oval and round notes of modern music. Black lozenges are used as lately as the last decades of the 16th century to show syncopation, and while lozenges are still used in the hymn books of the Dutch Reformed Church. In the beginning of the 18th century a new method of saving time and facilitating reading was found by joining the crooks of quavers and semiquavers, etc., instead of writing each crook separately. This had been done in the Tablatures some centuries before. Playford in 1712, describes notes thus joined as ‘the new tyed note.’

Repetition dotes were placed by the Mensuralists on each side of a ‘Period’ rest, which was double or triple, etc., according to the number of times the passage was to be repeated. When words were to be repeated a smaller sign was used. The modern Segzo was borrowed from the tablatures. The Presa ‘S’ was used in canons, to show where the various voices entered, and the Fermata, called in English, Pause, showed where the closed. The pause was also used both in the tablatures and in mensural music, in its modern sense of showing an indefinite dwelling on a note.

In the 17th and 18th centuries, common time is often signified by the figure 2, and three crotchets in a bar by 3.

The simple modern system which made C show the semibreve, and every other time signature a fraction of ‘Proportion’ of the semibreve, did not find general adoption until the first half of the 18th century.

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