CAPTURING MUSIC by Thomas Forrest Kelly


The Story of Notation
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A comprehensive account of one of the key inventions in music history: a method for writing down a composition so someone could learn it without hearing it performed.

Kelly (Music/Harvard Univ.; Music Then and Now, 2012, etc.) assumes neither familiarity with medieval music nor the ability to read music. Instead, he focuses on the conceptual breakthroughs that led a few medieval musicians and scribes to devise a way to make it easier to teach novices the extensive body of music that filled the church year. The very idea required something of an intellectual leap; after all, music cannot be seen, and when a song is over, it lives only in memory. Still, over several centuries, a system of marks, or neumes, was developed to record Gregorian chant. At first, the system was rather inexact; the neumes recorded the general shape of the melody but not the exact pitches. The key invention came in the early 11th century, when an Italian monk named Guido drew a set of parallel lines—the ancestor of the staff—to define the pitch that each neume represented. Guido also named each note of the scale, making it easier to teach music. The pope enthusiastically endorsed his system, and it caught on throughout Western Europe. But Guido made no attempt to notate rhythms, leaving subsequent scholars to guess at a key component of how chant was sung. A couple of centuries later, masters Leoninus and Perotinus hit on the idea of changing the shape of the notes to show how long to hold them. Their system, codified in the next century, became (with additional adjustments as styles changed) the core of our modern musical notation. With over 100 illustrations from original manuscripts, Kelly makes the story clear enough for nonmusicians to follow, and the book includes a CD to let readers hear how many of the examples actually sound.

Charmingly written, with plenty of interesting historical tidbits—recommended for anyone interested in early music.

Pub Date: Nov. 3rd, 2014
ISBN: 978-0393064964
Page count: 256pp
Publisher: Norton
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1st, 2014


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