How the Notre Dame Changed Musical Notation Forever


By Carol SymesUniversity of Illinois Urbana-Champaign

Musical notation got a boost during the age of Charlemagne. We have no idea what ancient music sounded like, apart from what we can surmise from the spaces in which it was performed, the words meant to accompany it, and representations of musicians and musical instruments in textual and pictorial sources.

Notre Dame in flames
Notre Dame’s engulfment in flames led to the loss of an important source of inspiration for musicians. (Image: Loic Salan/Shutterstock)

An Irreparable Loss

When the cathedral of Notre Dame de Paris was engulfed in flames on April 15, 2019, the world watched in horror as the ancient wooden roof collapsed in a shower of lurid orange sparks. In the light of the following day, it became clear that, incredibly, the rose windows had survived intact, even though their delicate stone tracery could easily have crumbled and their leaded glass exploded in the searing heat. 

This would have been an irreparable loss since the knowledge of how to replicate those medieval colors has not come down to us. Less remarked upon at the time but communally bemoaned by medieval musicologists and scholars of the liturgy was another actual and just as irreparable loss: the building’s acoustics, which was destroyed when the roof caved in. With them went a monument to the musical arts and recording technologies which this building inspired.

Orally Passed-down Traditions

Constructed for the most part between 1163 and 1267, Notre Dame was one of the first Gothic cathedrals designed to maximize height, illumination, and resonance. And it is not an exaggeration to say that music, as we know it, was invented in, and for, that sounding box. Inspired by the ways that song was amplified and manipulated by the lofty vaulting, musicians at the cathedral school started composing motets for multiple voices singing different melodic lines: a style known as polyphony. 

And, in order to record that music for posterity or for other contemporary choirs to sing, the musicians also developed a new system of mensural (that is, measured) notation, which captured the parallel lines of music and the exact length of each note so that singers could stay exactly in time with one another.

Musical Notation Changed Under Charlamagne’s Rule

 Illustration of Charlamagne
Most religions existing under Charlamagne’s rule had music and song as part of their religious practices. (Image: Everett Collection/Shutterstock)

Just as he wanted to create standardized forms of bureaucracy, which required new ways of writing, Charlemagne also wanted to promote a single way of performing the liturgy of worship throughout his empire—and religious worship in almost all premodern religions was dependent on music: chanted or sung prayer, sometimes accompanied by instrumental music. 

It was, cognitively, but a short step from adding punctuation to a text—at the bottom, a guide for performance, public or private—to adding additional marks that would indicate the shape of a text’s melody. These marks are called neumes, and they appear increasingly frequently in books from the 9th century onward. 

Neumes could not teach you how to sing a text you had never heard, but they could be powerful aides-mémoires for professional singers—that is, all Christian clergy—who had to have a wide repertoire of melodic material at their fingertips. Neumes would indicate rising or falling pitches and could also capture musical formulas common to medieval chant.

This article comes directly from content in the video series The Medieval LegacyWatch it now, on Wondrium.

Reproducing Sounds in Writing

The next big innovation was what the musicologist Thomas Forrest Kelly has called “the simplest but most radical breakthrough in the history of writing [and recording] music”: the invention of the technology that made it possible for someone to sing a song she had never heard before, by reproducing sounds represented in writing. 

The credit for this breakthrough goes to a brilliant music teacher, Guido of Arezzo, who flourished during the first half of the 11th century. Guido trained singers at the cathedral in Arezzo and helped them to master their crafts by making each sound a single note and arranging all notes of the same pitch on the same line or the same space between lines of a musical grid (what we would call the staff).

Concept of ancient musical notation
Music teacher Guido of Arezzo facilitated instruction and rehearsal by giving each of the notes a name. (Image: Aaron Siirila/Public domain)

A singer’s eye could scan the page and immediately see the exact form of the melody and would know that each time he hit a note on the same line or space, it should always have the same pitch. Guido didn’t stop there; he also facilitated instruction and rehearsal by giving each of these notes a name: UT RE MI, or what has become DO RE MI. Guido’s method caught on and spread quickly thanks to papal patronage.

Notre Dame’s Influence on Musical Notation

That brings us back to 12th-century Paris and the cathedral school of Notre Dame. Here, Leoninus and his successor Perotinus, among other unnamed men, began to compose music that is central to the subsequent Western music-making tradition. 

They began by experimenting with a two-voiced polyphony known as organum, in which one voice, usually the lower, sings a traditional chant melody, often at a very slow tempo, over which a higher voice sings a nimble, fast-paced obbligato that complements it. Soon, though, these pieces came to include three or even four or more voices, each carrying its tune but in harmony or counterpoint with the others. 

And in order to record this music so that it could be sung again or more broadly disseminated, the music scribes of Paris developed mensural notation that measured the exact length of a note. Now, in addition to fixing an exact pitch, one could fix an exact rhythm. Further innovations in the next two centuries refined this notation and developed ways to ensure that the notes could match up with the words being sung to them. Everything after that has been a mere variation on a medieval theme.

Common Questions about How the Notre Dame Changed Musical Notation Forever

Q: How did Notre Dame’s architecture influence musicians?

The gothic architecture of Notre Dame made it amplify sound in a certain way. Because of this, musicians started making music for that kind of environment, leading to new techniques of using different voices, like polyphony.

Q: How did Charlemagne influence musical notation?

Charlemagne wanted to standardize religious practice throughout his empire. Since most religious practices were accompanied by music, he also needed to standardize musical notation. This led to the addition of marks that would indicate the shape of a text’s melody called neumes.

Q: According to Thomas Forrest Kelly, what is the simplest yet most radical innovation in recording music?

The answer is reproducing sounds represented in writing, such as musical notation. This innovation is attributed to Guido of Arezzo, who made every sound a single note and gave it a name so that singers would be able to reproduce the same sound whenever they heard it.

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