Reading Medieval Notation
January 25, 2005 12:08 PM   Subscribe

A couple years ago I had a call back audition with a singing group called Chanticleer. Part of the audition was sight reading medieval notation [pdf]. Having never learned to read medieval notation, I failed this portion of the audition miserably. I am a very good sight reader of standard musical notation, but I find myself struggling very much with medieval notation. I have a liber usualis (I got mine free. Yes, I'm lucky.), and I found this great site with midi files of the tunes (They match, some of the time, I think.), but I'm still having problems. Any suggestions?
posted by Igor XA to Media & Arts (7 answers total)
If you have Finale, it seems there is a plugin that could help.
posted by Sangre Azul at 12:44 PM on January 25, 2005

Congratulations! Chanticleer rocks, and getting a call back audition with them is impressive.

You might be able to find a convent or monestary that still uses the old medieval notation songbooks (I'm sure there is a more technical term - the one I used was thinner than the linked liber usualis looks). I used to spend a good bit of time at a Benedictine monestary, and the nuns there used these. They were more than happy to let me sing along, especially after the first time, when I opened the book and said, "Oh, cool! Square notes! What's my starting pitch?"

The biggest difference between medieval and modern notations is that when reading alto clef, I see the note and hear it. When reading medieval notation, I read and hear the intervals. I don't know if that is the problem you are having - I'm an instrumental person, not a singer, and I don't know how choral people are trained.
posted by QIbHom at 3:34 PM on January 25, 2005

Response by poster: i think the biggest problem is that i'm not hearing it. i had the same problem in 16th century counterpoint in college. it took me forever to get the sound in my ear well enough to write counterpoint. i could perform it pretty well in standard notation. but i can't seem to bridge the gap and hear the medieval notation. your suggestion about the monastery is wonderful, though. i will start looking tonight. thanks so much.
posted by Igor XA at 5:26 PM on January 25, 2005

I would think a call to your local Catholic diocese would track down any local monastaries that still use the old music.
posted by QIbHom at 5:39 PM on January 25, 2005

One thing that might help is splitting out the rhythm and pitch parts of it.

The pitch bit is not that hard; string players and trombones switch clefs without too much trouble all the time. You just have to change your mental anchor. I learnt to read alto, tenor and bass clef with the aid of imaginary ledger lines - that idea might help you too.

I'd also try writing out some rhythm exercises to beat out, just like you had to do when you were a kid learning to read modern notation. This notion of rhythmic modes is going to take some practise - again, I'd be saying ah! imperfect mode, that means imaginary dots. I'd also, as an exercise, make myself do some transcriptions - a few every night.

Last, it sounds as though you need to relate the sound to the notes, rather than the notes to the sound. I reckon you need a co-operative monk to record some of the passages in your Liber Usualis so you can learn the a tune - then _once you've learnt it_ go back to the notation. Doing both at once might be too hard. Don't make yourself think about too much at once.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 6:54 PM on January 25, 2005

Response by poster: thanks a lot to all of you. hopefully by this time next month i'll have made some good progress.
posted by Igor XA at 7:06 AM on January 26, 2005

I found a bunch of material on plainchant performance practice in my notes from a graduate class in early choral literature I took a while back. Don't know if it'll do you any good at this late date, but if you like I'll send those materials to you. A few years back I sang with an early music group that performed chant from Solesmes notation, and those notes (including a bunch of stuff on performance practice compiled by Paul Salamunovich) came in handy when initially working with that ensemble.
posted by the_bone at 6:53 PM on February 23, 2005

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