Eleanor Selfridge-Field and Edmund Correia, Jr.
© 1994 Center for Computer Assisted Research in the Humanities
Reproduced by the IEEE Technical Committee on Computer Generated Music by permission

Category 5. Early Music

Type 2. Time signatures and neumes in mensural notation.

The representation of durational values was very imprecise in music of the Middle Ages, but it steadily gained in sophistication in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Music was "measured" hierarchically. The more general tier was that of tempus (or proportion); the more finite was that of prolation. In the world in which mensural notation evolved, "perfect" tempus or prolation was organized, like the Trinity, in units of three, while "imperfect" tempus or prolation was organized in units of two.

Perfect tempus was indicated by a circle, imperfect tempus by a semicircle. A dot was placed within the circle or semicircle to indicate perfect prolation; a vertical line ( or ) created imperfect prolation.

Mensural notation brought with it a gradual tendency towards simplification and standardization of note shapes. Rectangular notes similar to the modern breve and oval notes became common. However, some durational relationships were expressed by the "color" of the notehead such that what appear to be black breves and black whole notes, unfilled eighth notes and the like can occur. In some manuscript traditions of the early Renaissance, noteheads could be red, black, or white.

All of these phenomena are present in the following set of examples.

Ex. #31, which is of music from fourteenth-century Italy, requires red, black, and white neumes. These colors were accurately reproduced in the original plotter output. Following the original manuscript, the staff lines were red. The clef signs and text underlay were black. The red neumes and the staff lines look grey in this reproduction.

Ex. #32 shows a series of examples with diverse tempus and prolation as well as reverse color ("black" or "colored") notation.

Ex. #31. Colored notation. This illustration was produced using a color plotter by John Griffiths and John Stinson as part of the SCRIBE project at La Trobe University in Melbourne, Australia. It appeared in the Directory of Computer Assisted Research in Musicology 4 (1988), 101.

Ex. #32. Mensural notation with coloration. This illustration was produced by Etienne Darbellay using the Music Processor, a forerunner of Wolfgang. It appeared in the Directory of Computer Assisted Research in Musicology 2 (1986), 23.

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