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Frequently Asked Questions

The medieval equivalents of FAQ's were questions and answers in the form of teacher (magister) and student (discipulus) dialogues. We have found this format most suitable for our Nota Quadrata "Frequently asked questions" page. In the following dialogues, the discipulus asks questions and the magister provides the answers.

Discipulus: What are "neumes?"

Magister: Neumes are the early characters of musical notation. These characters are derived from the basic shapes of the punctum and the virga , which indicate a lowering and rising in pitch respectively. From these two basic signs the characters for all other melodic gestures are made, such as the climacus, which is comprised of a virga and two puncta thus: There are a number of different neume scripts that vary greatly with respect to nuance and appearance. In general, however, it can be said that most, if not all, neumes lack rhythmic specificity. Certain notations have been known to use significative letters to aid performance, though the exact meaning of these symbols, whether rhythmic, timbral, or dynamic, is still unclear.
The shapes of neumes also change according to whether or not they are written diastematically, that is, whether they are written according to staff lines with specific pitches, or are written without pitch-specific "heightening" in campo aperto (in an open field). Depending on their placement on the staff, certain elements of the neumes may appear greatly expanded or contracted, though the characters themselves usually maintain their identifiable features.

Discipulus: What are the basic characters of nuematic notations?

Magister: The basic (simple) characters are the punctum, virga, pes, clivis, scandicus, climacus, torculus, and porrectus. They are written in modern square notation as follows:

These characters can be combined in a number of ways to create "composite" or "compound" neumes. There are also a number of expressive characters including liquescent and repercussive forms as follows:

Discipulus: What are "square" notes?

Magister: We call a note or character "square" or "quadratic" when it exhibits a ductus of separate strokes illustrating a clear head and stem relationship. We call a notational script "square" or "quadratic" when its general aspect is that of distinct heads and stems. In quadratic notations, the strokes used for note heads are significantly broader than those used for stems. The basic shape of such scripts is a square or a rectangle.

Discipulus: Are all notations either square or neumatic?

Magister: No. A notational script whose characters are somewhere between early neumes and fully quadratic characters is a "transitional" script. It has an overall aspect of neumatic notation but is identified by the presence of two or three simple neumes (the virga and pes, for example) that have quadratic characteristics. The identification of such scripts is very important for the study of the development of quadratic notation.

Discipulus: What is the difference between a finial or serif and a head?

Magister: When a finial becomes visually pronounced and signifies the precise point of a pitch in a diastematic notation, it may be described as a head. This is a very fine distinction, and one for which there is no sure formula for identification. In deciding whether or not to call a stroke a finial or a head, one should also consider the prevalence of substantial finials throughout the script. If most of the basic characters have finials that fit the above criterion, then "head" is probably an appropriate term, but if only one or two of the characters have this feature, then the label "finial" may be best.

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