ABSTRACT

For most of the period of scientific research on medieval music, which is to say the last 200 years or so, the music notation of the Middle Ages has been studied primarily to elucidate, decode, or recreate past performances of songs—from the exact pitches of melodies 1 to their general outlines, 2 from the rhythms used by singers 3 to their vocal mannerisms. 4 In other words, notation has been treated as the medieval equivalent of a modern score. Seldom have these signs been recognized for what they were in the Middle Ages: not just music notes in the modern sense, but also figurae intended to transmit meanings having little to do with the execution of this or that trope or motet. 5 What we might consider the extra meanings of the nota were in fact primary meanings in medieval semiotics, to use an expression favored by Leo Treitler, meanings that ranged from straightforward symbolism to esoteric ciphering. 6 True, medieval writers do attest to musical notation being written for the practical purposes usually advocated by musicologists: to cite Guido of Arezzo, so that a “studious person may learn the chant by means of it.” 7 But medieval writers also speak of musical notes’ other functions, of their being shaped after things divine, for example, of individual notes as lacking perfection (perfectio), or of groups of notes as having different kinds of properties (proprietates)—all three citations, incidentally, found in no less obscure a source than Franco of Cologne’s Ars cantus mensurabilis (c. 1270). 8 Rather than in some remote medieval corner, then, the “total reading” of the medieval musical note as a fully symbolic and esoteric thing can be found in the mainstream of music writing, and this all through the Middle Ages, from the Carolingian pneuma to Baude Cordier’s heart-shaped puzzle. 9