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Composer Biography: Nicola Vicentino (1511-c.1576)

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Nicola Vicentino is probably one of the most interesting composers that you’ve never heard of. During a time of great experimentation partly caused by the Reformation and the creation of new religious orders, science expanded and came to the attention of much less academic people than usual. Science and studies were funded by patrons much as the arts were. Science took its first step away from the control of religious leaders.

Here are several impressive scientists who came to the fore during this period. You’ve probably heard of these fellows even if you didn’t study science or philosophy.

  • Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543, Poland, and Germany) was a mathematician and astronomer who said that the sun was at the center of the universe rather than the earth.
  • Galileo Galilei (1564-1642, Italy) was a polymath (astronomer, physicist, engineer, philosopher, and mathematician) who championed Copernicus’ ideas. This got him into trouble with the Spanish Inquisition. He is largely responsible for the change in scientific thinking from inexplicable quirks of nature to something that could be proved, often through the application of mathematics, and he laid the foundation for and applied what we now call inductive reasoning.
  • Johannes Kepler (1571-1630, Germany) was a mathematician, astronomer, and astrologer. He’s best known for his laws of planetary motion, and many later scientists (such as Isaac Newton, 1642-1727, England) based their theories on his work.
  • René Descartes (1596-1650, France and the Netherlands), was a philosopher, mathematician, and scientist. He’s the father of the Cartesian coordinate system (measurable places along a two-plane axis) and why we “solve for X” today. He conceived of superscripts for exponents and powers in the notation of math, and changed the focus from geometry to algebra as the foundation for all forms of mathematics.

The list could go on and on, but this is a blog about music, so I’ll control myself. My point is that a new and scientific approach to music was a natural development, very much a part of the times.

Nicola Vicentino (or Vicento) was an Italian composer and theorist who proposed reviving the chromatic and enharmonic scales of Greek music in his 1555 treatise L’antica musica ridotta alla moderna prattica (“Ancient Music Adapted to Modern Practice”), which tried to revive the three genera of classical antiquity (diatonic, chromatic, and enharmonic). Many of his contemporaries scoffed, but a number of his madrigals attained a high level of artistry. He might not have been understood in his own time, but we can understand him today.

He was born in Vicenza (about an hour west of Venice) in 1511. Nothing else is known about his family or early years.

He trained with Adrian Willaert (ca.1490-1562, Belgium and Italy) in Venice. He was the court music director and teacher for Cardinal Ippolito d’Este III (1509-1572, Italy) in Ferrara before 1539, and later served the cardinal in Rome and Siena.

With Vicente Lusitano (d. after 1561, Spain and Portugal), Vicentino debated the interpretation of chromatic genera, in 1551 and wrote his own theories into his L’antica musica ridotta alla moderna prattica of 1555. The judges declared Vicentino the winner in the debate, by the way.

Also in 1555, Vicentino described his arcicembalo (also arcigravicembalo), which was a modified harpsichord with many extra keys and strings. He was interested in microtonality (the notes between the notes), and in 1561, he made an organ version, called an arciorgano.

He built himself an arcicembalo in 1560. It had 53 (or 31, depending on your sources) different pitches within a single octave. His theory was that with so many pitches in an octave, he could experiment in search of the miracles of ethos (emotional contagion and moral influence) that the ancient Greeks reported achieving with their music (which was microtonal).

In 1561, Vicentino built an arciorgano with six manuals and containing thirty-one keys to the octave. Luzzasco Luzzaschi (c1545-1607, Italy) claimed to have mastered both instruments, and the cities of both Rome and Milan each boasted that they housed an arciorgano.

It didn’t catch on.

In 1563-1565, Vicentino was maestro di cappella at Vicenza Cathedral. He became a priest in Milan in 1570. Little else is known about him.

Vincentino’s Theory

Because of his focus on chromaticism, Vicentino helped to free music from its adherence to the church modes that had been the rage for a thousand years, and he also experimented with early forms of harmony. His work contributed toward the development of the 17th century secunda prattica (also called the stile moderno, which is everything that came after Palestrina, basically) and to the equal temperament of more modern times.

The dim views held by his peers notwithstanding, a number of Vicentino’s madrigals reach a high level of artistry. And he wasn’t entirely alone. In the madrigals of Cipriano Rore (c1515-1565, Belgium and Italy) and Carlo Gesualdo (1566-1613, Italy), chromaticism creates a special effect, startling because of its strangeness. By the end of the 16th century, as other composers adopted it for a wide range of uses, chromaticism had become part of the common musical language.

Vicentino’s teacher Adrian Willaert (1490-1562, Belgium and Italy) explored accidentals, and Vicentino’s title page on Book I of his madrigals (1546) declares that he’s written in the style of his teacher. Although they’re common in the 1546 book, most of Vicentino’s accidentals are quite “normal” by modern standards—such as raising the 7th degree in cadences. Book V (1572—the intervening books are lost) shows his more extreme side. He often uses rarely employed accidentals such as D-sharp, D-flat, and A-sharp. Even a melodic augmented third, E-flat to G-sharp, occurs. He goes even further from the old tonal system, represented by cadences based on triads built on D-sharp, F-sharp, B, D-flat, and A-flat.

He based his 1572 work L’aura ch’el verde lauro on a Petrarch sonnet and in it, he incorporated the Greek chromatic tetrachord, descending a minor third and two semi-tones, as a motive for imitation.

Dolce mio ben, published in Vicentino’s L’antica musica treatise shows his special notation for the microtones—a dot over a note raises it by a small interval. You have to be aware of what came before and what follows as well as the members of a chord to be able to do this. Microtones are indicated:

  • When notes appear to be written a half-step apart but the lower one is raised by a dot
  • When a note repeats but one is sharpened or flattened and the other one is natural
  • When a note repeats and one is sharpened and the other flattened, an ordinary whole step is indicated.
  • When the notes are adjacent on the scale, a large half-step is indicated
  • When the notes are a half-step apart and the higher note is raised by a dot, a small whole-step is indicated

Essentially, there are five steps between the notes of a major second. In the illustration, there’s a G, there’s a G raised by a microtone, and then there’s a G-sharp. In our times, a G-sharp and an A-flat are the same note; to Vicentino, an A-flat is a microtone higher than a G-sharp. Next, there’s the A-flat raised by a microtone, and finally, there’s an A. (In our times, there would be G, G-sharp, and A. Three steps. There are six steps in Vicentino’s world.)

Vicentino’s microtones require their own notation.

Vicentino says that a piece noted in this fashion may also be performed in other ways, such as by suppressing both the chromatic and enharmonic accidentals or only the enharmonic ones.

An excerpt from Vicentino’s Lantica

His theories met considerable opposition, in his own time and afterward, from theorists such as Gioseffo Zarlino (1517-1590, Italy), Giovanni Maria Artusi (c1540-1613, Italy), and Giovanni Battista Doni (c1593-1647, Italy). He was charged with ignorance even with regard to the true nature of the Greek genera, his special area of expertise. But he got the last laugh. His chromaticism pointed the way to the liberation of music from the diatonic restrictions of the modal system that had been in use for over a thousand years.

A handful of 16th century composers experimented with incomplete circles of fifths as another way of addressing chromatic issues. This required a radical change to the tuning systems, and produced some curious little pieces, in particular a motet-like piece by Matthias Greiter (c1495-1550, Germany and France) that transposed the beginning of a song called Fortuna desperata (“hopeless fortune”) twelve times by fifths in order to symbolize the rotation of Dame Fortune’s wheel.

The chromaticism of the madrigalists had a purpose: They were trying to communicate feelings. Vicentino and Greiter, on the other hand, may have been limiting themselves to pure research. After all, using the technology available to them, only unaccompanied voices, adjusting tuning in minute measures by ear, could perform these pieces.

Vicentino’s Compositions

Vicentino wrote mostly motets and madrigals and his madrigals exploit the microtones. Although the musical establishment was fairly unanimous in their opposition to his ideas, he was asked by the progressive fathers of the Council of Trent (1545-1563) to write a chromatic Mass as a sample of liturgically acceptable polyphony.

One musical form of the time was a canzone da sonar, a type of madrigal especially favored by instrumental ensembles. One of the first to write instrumental ensemble canzones was Fiorenzo Maschera (1540-1584, Italy), which he put into a collection along with the works of others, including an imitative five-part canzone de sonar by Vicentino called La Bella (1572). Before Maschera’s collection of 1584, there few works of this type that have survived.

Vicentino was the earliest to write about the problem of double counterpoint, dealing with pairings of voices and setting up major and minor passages. Next up was Gioseffo Zarlino (1517-1590, Italy), a fairly famous theorist.

In addition to his theories, Vicentino wrote at least two volumes of madrigals and one of motets. He draws an exact parallel between speaking in public and singing, with tempo and dynamics changing to suit the text. His remarks on tempo are essential reading if you want to understand pre-Romantic singing, when strict tempos were essentially alien to the proper expression of the words. This attitude predominated throughout Europe, and some of the most interesting descriptions of Italian singing is by foreigners. Theorists like Michael Praetorius (1571-1621, Germany) wrote about the styles of Giulio Romolo Caccini (1551-1618, Italy) and Giovanni Battista Bovicelli (1550-1594, Italy) and referred to oratory and the expression of the sung text. Praetorius was convinced that a good natural voice was a basic requirement.

Vicentino died in Milan around 1576.


“A History of Western Music,” by J. Peter Burkholder, Donald Jay Grout, and Claude V. Palisca. W.W. Norton & Co., New York, 2010.

“Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century,” by Richard Taruskin. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2010.

“The Concise Oxford History of Music,” by Gerald Abraham. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1979.

“Harvard Concise Dictionary of Music,” by Don Michael Randel. Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 1979.

“The Pelican History of Music, Book 2: Renaissance and Baroque,” by Alec Robertson and Denis Stevens. Penguin Books, London, 1973.

“A Dictionary of Early Music, from the Troubadours to Monteverdi,” by Jerome and Elizabeth Roche. Oxford University Press, New York, 1981.

“Companion to Medieval & Renaissance Music,” edited by Tess Knighton and David Fallows. University of California Press, Berkeley, 1997.

“Music in the Renaissance,” by Gustave Reese. W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 1959.

Written by Melanie Spiller

May 23, 2020 at 7:55 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

The History of the Bow

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Bows are used to make strings sing and they come in many forms. I like to think that the bow that’s used on the vielle and the violin was inspired by the wheel on the hurdy-gurdy. You see, what they have in common is friction.

In a hurdy-gurdy, rosin (ground tree sap) is rubbed on the wheel, so that when the wheel pushes into the strings and turns against them, the strings respond by making a sound. Using rosined horse hair stretched out along the length of a stick to keep the tension up, you can achieve quite a lot of control over the quality of the sound that comes from a string as you draw the prepared bow across it.

Bows aren’t a new thing, but they didn’t develop from the musical instrument itself into the tool used on the musical instrument until fairly recently. A cave painting in the Trois Freres cave of southern France shows a bow, like the bow you’d shoot an arrow with, being used like a musical instrument in 13,000 BCE, a sort of jaw harp. The wooden bow could be flexed to varying degrees, which made the string along the open edge sound different notes when struck by a stick or twanged with the lips, teeth, or a finger.

This kind of bow seems to have crossed cultures, and there are still some folk cultures who use them. You can find them all over Africa, Asia, South America. The jaw harp qualifies as this sort of bow, although it’s been bent and stylized and even made from metal nowadays, depending on whether it was invented in China, the Appalachian US, or Europe.

But that’s not what this article is about. This is about a hair-strung bow used to scrape across at least one string in order to cause a sound. You have to imagine that one thing came from the other, though, based on the shape and the materials—and even the same name.


There are paintings and sculptures depicting plucked string instruments from ancient Egypt, India, Greece, and Turkey. The Arab world may have been the first to use a bow on those instruments in around the 10th century CE, but it’s more likely that they got the idea from traveling in Central Asia.

Sources are consistent in asserting that bows originated from the nomadic warriors of Central Asia (like the Huns and the Mongols) because they rode horses, so horsehair was plentiful. These warriors also excelled at the weapon that’s a bow, so how to hold the hair at high tension would have been obvious to them.

In the 10th century, a bow was applied to a lute, and that’s the oldest ancestor of the modern violin. As early as the 12th century. Fiddles developed a waist to allow greater access to the strings with the bow.

The crwth (pronounced “krooth”) is a bowed harp that looks a lot like a lyre with a central support bar. It’s Welsh. (They’re funny about vowels.) The simple crwth goes back to the Roman invasion of Celtic lands, and the bowed version to about the 11th century CE.

The vielle came into being in the 9th century and made the bow a prominent part of music-making in Europe ever after. They didn’t get it right at first, so a little engineering had to take place.

An essential step in bow development was the change from using rattan to using wood in Asia. By the time bows got to Europe, wood was the only material under consideration. Wood isn’t as easily bent as rattan so using wood created a structure that kept the hair from tangling with the stick or snapping it.

Some scholars ascribe the invention of the bow to Scandinavia and others to India—neither is correct. According to musicologist Curt Sachs (1881-1959, Germany, USA), the first mention is in 9th century Persia. In China, there was a bowed zither in the 9th or 10th century. In Europe, there were fiddles by the 10th century. Sachs estimates that the bow developed between 800-900 CE.

European fiddles are distinctly related to the fiddles of Kurdistan and Turkestan, and it appears that the Indian fiddles are too.

There’s a bowed lute in China called the hu ch’in. Hu” is what the Chinese called the Turkish Uighurs (a Turkish ethnic group living in a place that’s now part of China), so perhaps the Turks brought it with them to Europe before the 9th century. The hu ch’in was a small snakeskin-covered drum with a long stick attached and two strings stretched down the length of it, like the neck of a fiddle. It used a bow that was woven between the two strings so that it rubbed the underside of one string and the top of the other. The stings didn’t have a fret or soundboard. They were tuned to an open fifth and the notes were changed by shortening the strings with finger pressure. The bow was held underhand.

Quite some time and experimentation later, around 1700, the modern violin bow was pioneered by Arcangelo Corelli (1653-1713, Italy). It was short and not very flexible. Fifty years later, Giuseppi Tartini (1692-1770, Slovenia, Italy) made a longer and more flexible bow. Both held the hairs parallel to the bow with an angled end to the stick.

The Tourte bow was developed in the 19th century and is still used (by François Tourte, 1747-1835, France). In this bow, the hair and stick are parallel until the very end, but the stick has a slight inward bend to it. It’s definitely the most elastic and balanced bow so far.


The stick provides the rigid structure or backbone of the bow. Older bows curved slightly outward. Modern bows curve inward, allowing greater flexibility, speed, and expression. All different lengths were tried, and by 1700, the stick was lengthened, and fluted or cut into an octagon to facilitate flexibility. Modern violin bows are 29.5-inches long, with 25.5-inches of hair. Bows for the modern cello and double bass are shorter.

Until 1650 or so, the head of the bow was made of a bone carving that curved toward the hair with the tip pointing upward, like a spear, which is why it’s called a pike’s head. After 1650, the head became part of the stick, and was also often curved like a pike’s head. In the 18th century, the head continued its curve until it was at right angles to the stick.

Horse hair is firmly attached at the far end of the stick by a wedge that spreads the hair into a flat bundle. The hair is wrapped around a small block of wood and then wedged into place with a flat piece of material, such as wood, plastic (20th century or later only, of course), pearl, ivory, or metal. The whole arrangement is called the head or pike’s head.

In India, the hair was held in place at the head by a wedge of wood wrapped by a strip of cloth. There’s evidence of a similar device in Europe by the 12th century. In Italy, the hair was knotted at both ends of the stick as late as the 16th century. Then they made a groove in the frog—the bulkier end of the bow where it’s held—to wedge the hair into.

In the 17th century, the frog contained a piece of wire that extended down the stick. It adjusted the tension of the hair by means of a wire loop that hooked onto a series of iron teeth. This “dentated” bow didn’t last, although Swedish folk instruments still use the system. In the early 18th century, the teeth were replaced by the 4.5-inch screw that’s still used today. The head of the screw is turned to adjust the hair’s tension. The hair is held together at the frog by a little wedge.

The frog (and screw) end of the stick is held in the player’s hand. There are as many ways to hold the bow as there are instrument types, historical periods, and nationalities. I’ll discuss that in a minute.

The archetier (the name for a bow-maker) uses between 150 and two-hundred hairs per violin bow. Wider bows use more hairs.


One of the hardest parts about learning to play a stringed instrument is getting the bowing right. If the pressure is too light, it sounds like a goose is being murdered slowly. If it’s too heavy, the bow doesn’t glide across the strings and it’s like an audio-only version of a traffic jam. But don’t think that there’s only one way to play with a bow. There are numerous effects available in modern bowing (in order of popularity):

  • Plain: For legato (or connected) notes
  • Detaché: For notes of equal value that are bowed singly
  • Martelé: For a hammered effect, where the stroke is given unusual pressure and released suddenly
  • Sautillé: A short rapid stroke in the middle of the bow that bounces off the strings
  • Jeté or ricochet: “Throwing” the top third of the bow so that it bounces a series of rapid notes on the down-bow
  • Louré: A slow stroke with slight separation between slurred notes
  • Staccato: A series of martelé notes made in the same stroke
  • Viotti-stroke: Two detached and strongly marked notes, the first of which is unaccented on very little of the bow, and the second is accented and gets much more bow. Attributed to Giovanni Battista Viotti (1755-1824, Italy).
  • Arpeggio, arpeggiando, arpeggiato: A bouncing stroke played on broken chords so that each bounce is on a different string and sounds a different note of the chord
  • Tremolo: Moving the bow rapidly back and forth on a single note
  • Sul ponticello: A nasal, brittle effect produced by bowing close to the bridge (a block or ridge that holds the strings away from the body of the instrument) instead of in the space between the bridge and the fingerboard
  • Sul tasto: A wispy effect produced by bowing lightly over the fingerboard instead of in the space between the fingerboard and the bridge
  • Col legno: Striking the strings with the stick instead of the hair
  • Ondulé: A form of tremulo, but between two strings instead of on one

There are more styles than this—too many to list—depending on what sort of instrument and music you’re playing.

Hand Positions

In the 12th century, the viol/vielle/rebec was held on one knee. The bow was held with the hand in a natural extension of the arm, palm outward, with the thumb on the frog. The forefinger rested on the stick and the third finger damped the hairs.

Folk fiddles, like the 12th century rebec, can be played on the knee or tucked under the chin like a modern violin. There are three types of folk bows: one that’s arched into a semi-circle, one that’s more like a crescent moon, and one that has the hairs parallel to the stick, like a modern violin’s bow.

Bows from the Middle Ages and the Renaissance were either the semi-circle or parallel types.

The rebab from Mali is played with the instrument across the lap. It has a short bow in the crescent moon shape, and is held with the back of the hand outward and the thumb between the hair and the stick.

Modern bows are held with the thumb between the hair and the stick and the remaining fingers on the other side of the stick. The fourth and third fingers can apply pressure on the frog to help direct the bow.


The bow is called the archet in French, the Bogen in German, the arco or archetto in Italian, and the arco in Spanish.


“A Performer’s Guide to Medieval Music,” edited by Ross W. Duffin. Indiana University Press, Bloomington, 2000

“The Interpretation of Early Music,” by Robert Donington. W.W.Norton & Co., New York, 1985

“A History of Western Music,” by J. Peter Burkholder, Donald Jay Grout, and Claude V. Palisca. W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 2010

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

“Harvard Concise Dictionary of Music,” compiled by Don Michael Randel. Bellknap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 1978.

“Companion to Medieval & Renaissance Music,” edited by Tess Knighton and David Fallows. University of California Press, Berkeley, 1992.

“Musical Instruments; Their History in Western Culture from the Stone Age to the Present Day,” by Karl Geiringer, translated by Bernard Miall. George Allen & Unwin LTD, London, 1949.

“The History of Musical Instruments,” by Curt Sachs. Dover Publications, Inc., Mineola, 2006.

“Musical Instruments of the World,” by the Diagram Group. Sterling Publishing Co., Inc., New York, 1997.


Written by Melanie Spiller

December 14, 2017 at 11:46 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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

Music Notation Explorations: The Dasia System

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I’m obsessed with the history of music notation. I’ve got a whole shelf of books on the subject, and I’m always boring anyone whole listen and sketching on random scraps of paper and paper napkins.

Recently, I tripped over a form I hadn’t seen before, and on closer inspection, I find that it had been quietly hiding in the dark recesses of several of my own books! I’m determined to make it a secret no more, so here it is. The story of the Dasia system.

Guido D’Arezzo (990/991-after 1033) was a scholarly monk credited with creating Do-Re-Mi and putting the neumes that were being used to represent musical gestures on the staff. He’s kind of a big deal, in his own quiet way. In his Micrologia, Guido attributed the system of Daseia (that’s the plural form of Dasia) to Odo of Cluny (c878-942). Odo is credited for naming the notes after the letters in the alphabet, although he used ALL the letters, first the capitals and then the lower cases, and only found 52 notes in the scale, which was admittedly more than they thought they’d ever need at the time. Most instruments, even the organs of the time, didn’t go much further than the two octaves (or so) of a human singing voice.

The reason Guido attributed Dasia to Odo was that Dasia notation was discussed in the 9th century treatise Musica enchiriadis (occasionally attributed to French Odo of Cluny, and sometimes to Frankish Hucbald, c840-930, and also sometimes to German Abbot Hoger, d. 906). This treatise illustrated the earliest known forms of polyphony (multiple lines of melody meant to be sung simultaneously).

Unlike the systems for notating chant, which is monody (one line of melody, sung or played by all involved), Dasia was based on the tetrachord principle of Greek music theory (in its most basic form, two tetrachords—four notes each—plus a whole tone, equals an octave), and Greek symbols were used. The Dasia system is only a little bit different. (Mostly, it seems that the whole tones were piled at the top of the tetrachords. So two tetrachords plus a whole tone is an octave, but four tetrachords in a row plus two whole tones in a row at the top end are two octaves.)

The system covers a two-octave range of notes in a series of tetrachords (a tetrachord is four step-wise notes of a scale), each of which is granted one of four signs to represent the specific note. Three of the signs are based on the letter F (I didn’t find any explanation for why an F was used). The fourth sign is like the accent sign of Greek grammarians, called an acutus, and it signifies the half-step between it and the sign below it. This is just like the two pairs of white notes on the piano that don’t have black notes between them.

Here’s what it looks like on a modern five-line staff.


In this image, modern-shaped notes are on a modern staff to give you a point of reference. I used this image (from Wikipedia) so you can understand the principles.

In the first and lowest tetrachord, the signs are turned backward; in the second tetrachord, the most commonly used notes, the signs are forward; in the third tetrachord, the signs are upside-down; and in the fourth and highest, they’re turned both upside-down and backward. A different accent sign is used in each of the tetrachords so that you knew where you were in the scale—remember, they didn’t have a staff yet. The N stood for inclinum, the I for iota, the V (it looks like a lower-case N) for versum, and the cross for iota transfixum.

This is what the music written using this system looked like.

Dasian Polyphony

This is a bit of polyphony, in roughly parallel movement. Both lines (the clumps of symbols connected by lines on the right), were meant to be sung at the same time. You can see that the gesture of “up” and “down” was understood in terms of the notes relationship to each other, but marking off how great or small the interval was took the Dasia.

The words—lyrics—are all piled up neatly on the left. The Dasian tetrachords involved are in that nice vertical dividing box, and the melody is on the right, with certain syllables at relevant points pinned to their relevant places. You had to already know the words, pretty much, in order to read this, and the two singers sang different words from each other. It’s rather probable that it took a few tries for the singers to shape it into something they liked.

It’s like a new secret language, isn’t it?

The use of Dasia symbols was brief—less than 50 years and not widespread, mostly in Italy. By Guido’s time, neumes were in common usage, and that’s what evolved into modern notation.


  • “The Notation of Polyphonic Music, 900-1600,” by Willi Apel, The Mediaeval Academy of America, 1953
  • “Music in the Middle Ages,” by Gustave Reese, W.W. Norton & Co., New York, 1940
  • “Temperament, The Idea the Solved Music’s Greatest Riddle,” Stuart Isacoff, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2001
  • “Music, Body, and Desire in Medieval Culture, from Hildegard of Bingen to Chaucer,” by Bruce W. Holsinger, Stanford University Press, Stanford, 2001
  • “The Notation of Medieval Music,” by Carl Parrish. Pendragon Press, New York, 1978
  • “Music in Medieval Manuscripts” by Nicolas Bell. University of Toronto Press, Toronto, 2001
  • “A History of Western Music,” by J. Peter Burkholder, Donald Jay Grout, and Claude V. Palisca. W.W. Norton & Co., New York, 2010.
  • “Medieval Music,” by Richard Hoppin. W.W. Norton & Co., New York, 1998.


Written by Melanie Spiller

October 10, 2017 at 9:21 am

Composer Biography: Comtessa Beatriz de Dia (c1140-c1200)

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Also Countess of Dia, Comtess de Dia, and Beatritz

Pretty much all the press goes to male composers during the Middle Ages, but every now and then, a woman sneaks through their defenses. One of these was Comtessa Beatriz de Dia. She was a troubadour—or rather a trobairitz, which is the name for a female troubadour.

Troubadours were, for the most part, of noble blood, but were perhaps third (or fourth, etc.) sons (or a daughter) and not expected to inherit the family castle or join the priesthood. This left them with considerable funding and a lot of free time on their hands. Playing a musical instrument was considered suitable employment for the long and languorous hours, and a few found themselves wandering among various estates, entertaining as they went.

It was also popular at the time (12th through 14th centuries) to woo the mistress –married or otherwise—of the castle you were visiting, and the vast majority of troubadour songs are about this kind of courtly—and unrequited—love. Every now and then, like there were women troubadours, there were married noblewomen willing to stray for the sake of a little romantic poetry. Husbands looked the other way just as the wives were expected to look the other way about their own dalliances.

Beatriz was the wife of Guillem of Poitiers (dates unavailable, but possibly the grandson or great-grandson of Guillem IX, 1071-1176, the earliest of the troubadours whose works survive). Beatriz was also the lover of the famous troubadour Raimbaut d’Orange (1146-1173).

In most contemporary documents, Beatriz is known only as the Comtessa de Dia, but she was likely the daughter of Count Isoard II of Dia (dates unavailable), which is north of Montellmar in southern France. The names of these towns seem to have changed, but if Montellmar is the same place as Montelimar, it’s about 90 miles south of Lyon and halfway between Toulouse and Turin (Italy). A town called Die is about 60 miles east of Montelimar. These could just be towns with similar names and in about the same place as the troubadours hung out, though. I’m totally guessing.

It was fashionable at the time to write the lives of saints in biographies called vitas. Troubadours found that appealing and wrote secular versions called vidas. Some friend or relative wrote these things, and the details can’t be verified. This makes it entirely possible that Beatriz is a fictional character, according to one source. Or just embellished a bit. It’s hard to know.

Regardless of whether she was real or fantasy or whether anything known about her is true, her shadow reveals a lot about the women troubadours and their lovers through her poetry.

There are five pieces attributed to Beatriz, one of which is a tenso (debate). Incidentally, most of the songs attributed to trobairitz are argumentative. (History is written by the victors, and men have been the ones documenting music until the 20th century, for the most part. If you could slough off all your bad moods to the losers in a battle, wouldn’t you?)

At any rate, of the five pieces, only one has music associated with it, A chantar m’er de so qu’ieu non volria. This is a canso of five strophes plus a tornado, with each strophe having the musical form ABABCDB. The music was preserved in Le Manuscrit du Roi, collected by Charles of Anjou (1226-1285), the brother of Louis IX (1214-1270). Le Manuscrit du Roi contains over 600 songs, most composed between the 12th and 13th centuries.

Music notation was a slippery thing (for more about this, read The History of Music Notation) at the time, and whoever wrote down Beatriz’ surviving piece wrote it in tenor clef, as if a man would sing it, even though the pronouns that reveal gender are unequivocal. Let’s look at it!

A Chantar m’er de so qu’ieu non volria (translation by Meg Bogin)

Of things I’d rather keep in silence I must sing:

So bitter do I feel toward him

Whom I love more than anything.

With him my mercy and fine manners are in vain,

My beauty, virtue and intelligence.

For I’ve been tricked and cheated as if I were loathsome.


There’s one thing, though, that brings me recompense:

I’ve never wronged you under any circumstance,

And I love you more than Seguin loved Valensa [hero and heroine of a lost romance]

At least in love I have my victory,

Since I surpass the worthiest of men.

With me you always act so cold,

But with everyone else you’re so charming.


I have good reason to lament

When I feel your heart turn adamant

Toward me, my friend: it’s not right another love

Take you away from me, no matter what she says.

Remember how it was with us in the beginning

Of our love! May God not bring to pass

That I should be the one to bring it to an end.


The great renown that in your heart resides

And your great worth disquiet me,

For there’s no woman near or far

Who wouldn’t fall for you if love were on her mind.

But you, my friend, should have the acumen

To tell which one stands out above the rest.

And don’t forget the stanzas we exchanged.


My worth and noble birth should have some weight,

By beauty and especially my noble thoughts,

So I send you, there on your estate,

This song as messenger and delegate.

I want to know, my handsome noble friend,

Why I deserve so savage and cruel a fate.

I can’t tell whether it’s pride or malice you intend.


But above all, messenger, make him comprehend

That too much pride has undone many men.


There are recordings of this:

  • Studio der Frühen Musik on the album “Chansons der Troubadours”
  • Hesperion XX on “Cansos de Trobairitz”
  • Clemencic Consort on “Troubadours, volume 2”
  • French Anonymous on “Medieaval Banquet”
  • Montserrat Figueras on “Demina Nova: Canco—Estat Ai En Greu Cossirier”
  • Elizabethan Conversation, Andrea Folan, and Susan Sandman on “The Medieval Lady”
  • Giraut de Bornelh on “Troubarouds/Trouveres/Minstrels”
  • Catherine Bott on “Sweet is the Song: Music of the Troubadours & Trouvères”
  • Martin Codax on “Bella Domna: The Medieval Woman—Lover, Poet, Patroness, and Saint”

It’s important to note that this isn’t just the only piece to survive by Beatriz. It’s the only piece by a trobairitz to survive with the musical notes.

The rest of her poems were set to flute music, according to the vida. Her usual subject matter includes optimism, praise of herself and her true love, and betrayal. In one poem, Fin ioi me don’alegranssa, she makes fun of the alusengier, a person known for gossiping, comparing those who gossip to “a cloud that obscures the sun.”

East-German Irmtraud Morgner (1933-1990) uses Beatriz as the subject of a whole historical novel series. Some are available in English, but most are in German.

I find it interesting that only one of my sources written by men mentioned Beatriz. When there are only a few handfuls of music from a particular time and culture, why would they choose to leave one individual out, especially as she is the exception (being female) and not the rule?


“The Norton/Grove Dictionary of Women Composers,” edited by Julie Anne Sadie and Rhian Samuel. The Macmillan Press Limited, New York, 1995.

“Women in Music,” edited by Carol Neuls-Bates. Northeastern University Press, Boston, 1996.

“Women Making Music, The Western Art Tradition, 1150-1950,” edited by Jane Bowers and Judith Tick. University of Illinois Press, Urbana, 1987.

“Women & Music, A History,” edited by Karin Pendle. Indiana University Press, Bloomington, 2001.

“Music in the Medieval West,” by Margot Fassler. W.W. Norton & Co., New York, 2014.

“A History of Western Music,” by J. Peter Burkholder, Donald Jay Grout, and Claude V. Palisca. W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 2010.

Reviving or Resuscitating

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It has been a long time—nearly three years—since I blogged. You may have followed me here when I had a regular spot with the nice folks at Office Zealot. I took a break, a hiatus, you might say, while my day job interfered somewhat, because they asked me to write on pretty much the same subject.

I finished that project, and now I feel free to write about writing again. Meanwhile, in my spare time, I have finished a first draft of my Hildegard von Bingen pilgrimage (non-fiction) and 18 chapters of a 20-chapter work of fiction about Hildegard. So this year, 2011, is going to be about finishing the latter and beginning the revision process on both. I hope to start looking for a publisher as well.

This blog will be different from the last. The last one was solely devoted to writing about writing. This one will do that, but will be more personal, as well. I plan to talk about my musical endeavors, my travels, my plans for the next work of fiction, and anything else that strikes my fancy. There will be some major themes.

I want to welcome you back and thank you for your patience, and I want to encourage you to visit the OZ site or my Web page,, for all those old articles about writing. They are mostly about technical writing—or for technical writers, I should say—but there are a few about fiction, political satire, travelogues, and advertising copy.

As always, I look forward to hearing from you, too.

Keep on Writing!

Written by Melanie Spiller

February 9, 2011 at 10:42 am

Posted in Thoughts, Uncategorized

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