Nota quadrata is the expression used by music theorists in the thirteenth century to name a new kind of music writing. The square note completely changed the way music was written and read. Prior to square notation was the neume, a squiggly, swervy shape used from the ninth to the twelfth centuries. Regardless of its merits, the neume or neumatic notation failed to communicate to the reader one essential ingredient. It did not give the duration of the note, that is, it did not tell time; and, for most of its lifespan, it did not tell exact pitch either.
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The new nota quadrata of the thirteenth century was a revolution in music writing; it came at a revolutionary time. On the heels of the scholastic revival of Greek through Arabic learning in the twelfth century, the great universities of Europe, notably in Oxford and Paris, provided a new intellectual framework in which the study of music changed very rapidly. Over the course of a few decades writers developed a brand new conception, terminology and writing for music. Together with a major increase in book production thanks to the political stability and economic prosperity especially in France, the writing of music flourished like never before. The result is that the music writing accomplishments of the thirteenth century are on a par with other major accomplishments of this time, such as Thomas Aquinas' theology or the Gothic cathedral. Not only did square notation introduce a new shape, but, more importantly, a more precise way of writing and reading music. By the end of the thirteenth century, in fact, all of the basic characteristics of Western music writing were set: a staff with individual shapes making clear both pitch and duration. No longer would music readers have to rely partly on memory to decipher neumes. Performers could now read a completely unknown piece without any outside assistance at all. Square notation fulfilled what Guido of Arezzo had hoped to accomplish two centuries before, to enable a musician "to sing correctly by themselves ... and without a master."1 Today, we are still indebted to square notation when we open up a book of Beethoven's piano sonatas and instantly reproduce at sight two-hundred year old German music. Thus square notation is arguably the most significant single advance in music writing in the West.
And yet, just how and where we moved from the neume to the square note has not been studied until now. This fact is astounding, considering that the scientific study of medieval music notation is well over a century old. The reason for this neglect becomes clear if we briefly look at early medieval musicology. It is sometimes assumed that early musicology was exclusively concerned with the technical aspects of music writing rather than its meaning. However, we need only open the first volume of the monks of Solesmes' Paléographie musicale from 1889, and skim through the first few pages to see that an obsession with the semiotics of music is not a recent innovation, but an old and venerable practice. In this publication now well over a century old, we find the study of music allied with linguistics and philology. Even though Solesmes' Paléographie musicale ostensibly dealt with music writing, or paleography, their publications were really about a very particular musical semiotic, or theory of signs. Their semiotic rather than paleographic goal set the course for medieval music study - and indeed, all of musicology - in the twentieth century. One respected writer has asserted the need for musicology to "re-orient from the paleography to the semiotics of music-writing."2 Though it is perhaps true that a certain kind of semiotics remains to be done for medieval music, it is not at all true that musical paleography has been exhausted. For the paleography of square notation, in fact, nearly everything remains to be done.
The ironic upshot of this unfortunate history is that the venerable field of medieval music is behind other fields of study, and this in a most basic area. We are missing firm criteria by which to differentiate basic types of script and by which to date musical documents. Let's compare this to the study of medieval text script or the study of Beethoven's symphonic works, to take two quite different examples. In both areas, scholars have produced definitive studies on the various stages of written transmission, and can thus date and locate written artifacts with a certain amount of confidence. Nothing like this exists for square notation, despite its fundamental importance to music and the Middle Ages. This fact is a constant source of bewilderment to other medieval colleagues whose disciplines developed such basic tools long ago. A sophisticated set of criteria by which to date medieval music notation does not yet exist. The most important first task is to identify all manuscripts with music notation during the crucial period of transition - the twelfth and thirteenth centuries - which can be dated with some degree of accuracy. Only then can we begin to draw up a secure chronology of the development of square notation. Here again, musicology is behind other disciplines. For the study of medieval texts and literature, for example, several important catalogues are available, especially the series entitled Manuscrits datés which so far provides entries for all datable manuscripts in France, Belgium, and the Low Countries. There is as yet no musicological equivalent to this.
One crucial step in dating manuscripts with music is understanding the technology which produced them. Here too, nearly everything remains to be done. More often than not, there was a separate scribe for music called the notator in Latin sources - although even this is badly studied, so still somewhat open to question. Certainly the different steps leading up to the writing of the note are poorly studied at best. There is much we do not know. What kind of writing support (i.e. desk) did scribes use, and how did this affect the way in which they wrote? Even before setting quill to parchment, how were more complex page layouts planned - entirely by memory or on some temporary surface like wax? Skipping questions on parchment choice and cutting patterns for the gatherings, we may then consider the first phase of writing where a grid or ruling pattern was drawn lightly on the parchment, presumably by a separate scribe or book supervisor. In planning out the manuscript folio, did the person ruling the page know that music was intended in the first place? And did this person make special adaptations to the ruling pattern to accomodate music? Following this stage, how did the text scribe, or scriptor who came next know exactly how much space to allot for music? In most cases, the text writer needed to know just how many lines to skip and just how the text should be spaced, since the amount of notes per syllable would often vary. Next came the scribe who drew the red staff lines above the text. What kind of ink did this scribe use? Did the scribe draw the lines one at a time, with or without a ruler, or with a special multi-nibbed tool called a rake or rastrum in Latin?
Finally, we come to the music scribe, or notator as this person is called in Latin sources. First of all, was the notator usually separate from the scriptor or was this one and the same person? Then, what kind of training would a notator have received prior to being allowed to write in some of the most expensive books ever made? What tools did this scribe use and how would these tools have influenced the note shapes? What models or exemplars did the notator consult, if any? How much did this scribe rely on memory and how much on now lost sources such as fragments of parchment or wax tablets? Finally, did the scribe erase while writing, and if so, how much and with what sorts of tools?
In addition to addressing such questions, Nota Quadrata proposes to develop a graphic classification of square notation. From what little has been studied until now, it is at least clear that certain regions favoured different styles of notes, and that the square shape seems to have been favoured in certain areas, possibly northern France. But it is also clear that the progression from neume to square note was not at all a straightforward one. Neumes continued to be used well into the late Middle Ages. And a wide variety of square notes were used in the thirteenth century; some of these are verging on neumes, and can hardly be considered "square." An initial study of the datable sources, together with careful attention to the production of writing will yield some positive results.
Nota Quadrata also considers the terminology used by medieval music writers. In general, writers on music in the Middle Ages steer away from the more practical considerations of how music was written down. They probably assumed their readers already knew or did not care about the basic music writing processes and technologies of their time. But it is clear, as I suggested earlier, that to write music required at least a minimum amount of training. A few authors, though, relate precious information about the notator and the nota quadrata. Like most of the material in this field, these important passages have been virtually ignored up until now.
Our Nota Quadrata project just outlined is ongoing at the University of Toronto. Started in the spring of 2003, it currently employs a handful of researchers thanks to funding from the federal government of Canada. It is a joint program with the Faculty of Music and the Centre for Medieval Studies. Thank you for visiting our website. We welcome your comments and feed-back.
1. From Guido of Arezzo's Prologue to His Antiphoner (ca. 1030), translated by Oliver Strunk and James McKinnon, in Source Readings in Music History, ed. Oliver Strunk and Leo Treitler (New York: W.W. Norton, 1998), p. 212.
2. Leo Treitler, "Reading and Singing: On the Genesis of Occidental Music-Writing," Early Music History 4 (1984), p.208, n.140.