Melanie Spiller and Coloratura Consulting

Escapades in Early Music, Writing, and Editing

Red Notes

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There’s a quirky little thing in Medieval and Renaissance music: Some of the notes were red instead of black. It’s possible that there were only two colors because the only inks that didn’t fade between then and now were red and black and that the colors have even less significance than historians have given them. It could be that the red notes (there are far fewer of the red notes than the black ones) were how ink faded when corrections were made at some later date. It could even be that there were lots of colors, and they all degenerated to red and black over the years.

Or it could be that they made the notes red on purpose. Here’s what the experts think.

In an early form of notation called heightened neumes because the little squiggles were placed on a staff defining the intervals between the notes, some manuscripts used red ink to draw the staff line that represented the C. (C is a relative term. Modern musicologists might think of it as the tonic, rather than the actual note C as tuned to A=440.) As music evolved into a melody and a drone, and then into a faux bourdon (a harmonizing line that ran parallel to the melody), composers needed a way for the performers to see—from a distance—that something special was happening.

So they used red notes for descants, for a signal that something interesting was happening rhythmically, that something should be sung or played up an octave, and to point out a special case, such as a ficta (sharp or flat note outside of the mode or key signature) or a repeat. It’s one of many good ideas that got dropped with the modern printing press.

When red notes weren’t available, “hollow” notes—white with black outlines—replaced them, and soon red notes weren’t used at all because the white notes were more convenient. Even so, red notes survived well into the 15th century in more elaborate manuscripts, especially in England.

Guido D’Arezzo (991/992-after 1033, Italy), who is credited with putting unheightened neumes on a series of staff lines, suggested that one staff line be made red to mark out the F notes and another made yellow for C. (If you play the harp, you’ll know that this system is still used on the strings—red for C and blue for F.)

Philippe de Vitry (1291-1361, France) used red notes to indicate a change in rhythm in the manuscripts collected in Roman de Fauvel (14th century allegorical verse with a collection of music in it).

The “mannered” style of notation attributed to Philippus de Caserta (1350-1420, Italy) intermingled black and red notes as part of a more artistic presentation of the notes on the written page.

Sometimes composers used red ink to indicate that a certain passage was the opposite of whatever the prevailing notes were doing. This could have the effect of a hemiola, or a four-against-three kind of rhythm. (Go ahead, mark out threes in one hand and fours in the other. It’s a lot like patting your head and rubbing your belly, but it has an interesting pulling effect, if you can manage it.) In other works, the colored notes indicate triplet effects (three short notes against a single beat).

In the 14th and 15th centuries, chromatic music, musica ficta, and dividing intervals less than equally (called “imperfect” division and led to the discussion of “just” versus “mean” tuning) were called “color.” Sometimes these special notes indicated optional ornamentation. All of these types of notes were marked in red.

White notes (not filled in—hollow heads) were used for special purposes in the Italian trecento. In the first part of the 15th century, white notes replaced black ones for all the values, and in the latter half of that century, the semi-minim (a medium-length note of one beat) lost its tail and became black, and notes of shorter value—also black—appeared with increasing numbers of tails until the same divisions we have today (white for everything from a half note—minim—and longer, and black for the quarter note—semi-minim—and shorter).

In the 14th through the 16th century, coloring a note red meant that the performer lopped a third of the length right off: Red notes were quicker than black notes. Late in the 16th century, the formerly red notes were colored black and filled in and meant half rather than a third of the duration, and the longer notes were left open—they were “hollow.” We’re still using this system today (hollow notes are still longer than filled-in notes).

In isorhythmic music (repeating rhythmic patterns), the red notes indicated a series of repeated notes in the cantus firmus line. That’s the one called the “tenor,” where the chant is sung slowly while the other lines (usually higher in pitch) prance around, only lining up with the cantus firmus occasionally.

Through the 18th century, the red notes indicated wild ornamentation, either written or improvised. The improvised sections were dubbed “coloratura” in the 19th century to indicate the wildness and the notation. Now, there’s a whole singing voice named after it.

And that’s the story of red notes. If you have more—or differing—research. I’d love to hear about it.


“The Norton/Grove Concise Encyclopedia of Music,” edited by Stanley Sadie. W.W. Norton & Co., New York, 1994

“Early Medieval Music up to 1300,” edited by Dom Anselm Hughes. Oxford University Press, London, 1954

“Music in the Middle Ages,” by Gustave Reese. W.W. Norton & Co., New York, 1940

“The Notation of Polyphonic Music 900-1600,” by Willi Apel. The Mediaeval Academy of America, Cambridge, 1961

“Music in the Medieval World,” by Albert Seay. Prentice-Hall, Inc., Englewood Cliffs, 1965

“Medieval Music,” by Richard Hoppin. W.W. Norton & Co., New York, 1998

“The Pelican History of Music, Volume 1: Ancient Forms to Polyphony,” edited by Denis Stevens and Alec Robertson. Penguin Books, Baltimore, 1960



Written by Melanie Spiller

October 23, 2017 at 12:06 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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