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On the need for a method in musical paleography

The study of scripts or paleography has long been an essential tool for medievalists. This branch of medieval studies often plays a role in the dating and localization of manuscripts. This is also true of a number of musical manuscripts from the Middle Ages, though musical paleography is unfortunately far less advanced in its methods of enquiry and analysis, and especially in its terminology.

One reason for this shortcoming is that, while some of the nomenclature of traditional paleography can be employed to describe musical note shapes, a great majority of it is insufficient for this purpose, especially with regard to late quadratic types. The categories for textual ligatures, the distinctions between cursive and book hands, and between majuscule and minuscule scripts, for instance, are difficult if not impossible to apply to musical shapes. Letters of text are also defined largely by the lines of ruling that contain them - we call a "bilinear" script one whose letters are contained between two lines of notational ruling - but though musical notation is often written on staff lines, the lines do not confine the shapes themselves. Instead, the musical characters are stretched and compressed across the lines and spaces to reflect the disjunct or conjunct motion of the melodies they transmit, making them unclassifiable in terms of linearity.

There are many reasons why musical paleography has been slow to develop. One reason is that it has taken a long time to determine what the symbols mean and how they are to be interpreted. Another reason is that the task of categorizing note shapes is simply enormous. Presently, it is not known precisely when and where the change from early neumes to quadratic characters occurred, only that by the thirteenth century the use of quadratic notation across Europe had erased many of the earlier regional characteristics. Library manuscript catalogues, when they are thorough enough to include such information in their entries, commonly only relate that a manuscript is "noted," "partly noted," or they remark equally vaguely that it includes "notation on four lines." But neumatic and, indeed, quadratic notations were neither the same across geographical boarders nor were they unchanging even in the late Middle Ages. We believe that musical notations, however late in history, can inform us of their origins and descent as much as their alphabetic cousins. This electronic site is the beginning of a broad enquiry into the elusive history of the so-called "square note" and the inception of a new musical paleography.

Draft for a New Musical Paleography

Just as letters are broken down into their component parts in text paleography, stroke-by-stroke, so must a paleography of musical notation describe the basic elements of its characters. Nota Quadrata has developed the following scheme and lexicon for approaching, analyzing, and describing early neumes and quadratic notations. Much of the terminology represented in these pages will be familiar paleography lexis, but we have supplied neume-specific terms where requisite.

In terms of semiotics, early musical notations fall somewhere between the realms of alphabetic symbols and pictographs, being as close to visually representing aural nuance as possible, but they still leave us a considerable amount of flexibility regarding interpretation. For this reason, it will be necessary for the reader to become familiar with the functions of each element of a neume or quadratic character. In order to distinguish between certain features, such as between an arm, a shaft, and a flexus, for instance, one must know the difference between a line that represents an ascent in pitch and one that represents a lowering of pitch, though the two may appear graphically very similar. To become familiar with the functional aspects of notational elements, please refer to the lexicon of musical paleography and the diagrams of neume and quadratic character anatomy on this website.

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