Rethinking Mensural Notation: Composition, Transmission, and Performance


B-Br-ms-9126 f. 42r © KBR, Alamire Digital Lab

October 2019 - September 2022

Music notation historically served to transfer information on how compositions should be performed. In the decades around 1500, surviving music sources bear witness to a complex process of manuscript transmission, through which notational aspects change significantly. This transmission has long been a focus of the musicological discipline, with scholars drawing up stemmata for compositions showing relationships between the source readings. But the processes surrounding this transmission remain less well understood especially as concerns the notation itself. In copying compositions, scribes appear to have possessed a great deal of agency, changing the notation based on local needs, but only rarely do we know specifically what changes they made. 

This project focuses on aspects of notation whose precise implications remain unknown: ligatures (groups of notes presented as a single figure), coloration (filling in notes to change the rhythm), nonfugal canons (devices which transform how one has to read the notes), and the spacing of notes and rests on the staff. Due in part to their ambiguity, these aspects lost their meaning in the decades to follow, being replaced with a notational system which is less open to subtlety. Focusing on these notational aspects, grounded by contemporary music theory, provides new light into the notational decisions the composers and scribes made, with implications for performance, musical meaning, and the notion of a musical work in the Renaissance.