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Posts Tagged ‘Music: Theory

Composer Biography—Leonin (fl c1150-c1201)

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The Englishman known as Anonymous IV (nothing is known about him, not even his name) published an eponymous treatise in 1285 that told of two musicians creating polyphony for the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris: Leoninus and Perotinus. Latinized to sound more Catholic and snooty, their names were actually Leo and Pierre, but they were commonly known by their diminutive names, Leonin and Perotin (1160-1225, biography to come). If you’ve heard much Medieval polyphony, you’ve either heard their work or you’ve heard music that evolved from their work. It’s hard to talk about them separately, but I’m going to give it a try.

Leonin may have been the first composer to use the rhythmic modes, and he also possibly invented a notation system for them. You can learn more about rhythmic modes here: Musical Modes, Part 2: Rhythmic Modes.

Leonin served at the Cathedral of Paris in many capacities, beginning in the 1150s, before the building that stands there now was even begun (construction of Notre Dame started in 1163). Anonymous IV refers to Leonin as a “master,” which means that he held a Masters of Arts degree from the school that would become the University of Paris (in 1200).

Nothing at all is known about his childhood or family. He turns up at Notre Dame in the 1150s, and we can guess that, because he was a canon and a priest, he was around 30 at the time. He was also affiliated with the monastery of St. Victor, also in Paris. This is the same abbey where Peter Abelard (1079-1142) lectured before his unfortunate love affair with Heloise and ensuing castration in 1116 or 1117.

At any rate, Leonin was a poet who paraphrased the first eight books of the Bible in verse, and he did the same for several shorter works as well.

Anonymous IV called Leonin an excellent organist (meaning a singer or composer of organum rather than a keyboard player) and credits him with compiling a Magnus liber organi (“Great book of Polyphony”). The collection contained two-voice settings of the solo portions of the responsorial chants (Graduals, Alleluias, and Office Responsories) for the major feasts of the year. Elaborating the chants like this, showing the whole year’s music, was a vision as grand as that of the architects who designed Notre Dame Cathedral.

Leonin didn’t collect all that music alone, despite the suggestion by Anonymous IV that he did. At the very least, Leonin was a leading driver of the project, but it’s doubtful that any one person could have accomplished the deed. The original collection didn’t survive, and it isn’t certain whether there was music notation (as we know it) available for use at the time, so it may have been a collection of poems with some sort of code or annotation for how the music sounded. The repertory survives in two later manuscripts, in Wolfenbüttel, Germany and Florence, Italy. There’s no way to know how much of the music or poetry was actually written by Leonin, though.

Although the documentation is missing, Leonin was probably the composer who developed the contrast between melismatic plainchant writing (without rhythm or measurement) and discant (somewhat rhythmic) in two-part organa for Graduals and Alleluias, and in processional Office Responsories, that often proceeded from one style to the other. It was Leonin who developed the pattern of a slow plainchant-like melody in the tenor line (now called cantus firmus) that provides a foundation for an upper voice to affect runs and melodic sequences against. This dancing upper voice, called the duplum, demanded a new kind of documentation for the aforementioned rhythmic modes so that things would line up nicely and everyone could finish at the same time.

Leonin’s settings are impressive in their length, but they’re still shorter than those set by Perotin, who may have been his student. Many were recycled tunes, and because there are many variations on a theme that survive into today’s chant, it seems likely that a lot of music was transmitted orally and that musicians felt free to interpret, add, or change as they felt inclined. Building from a familiar foundation is a good way to go when you’ve got lots of people trying to memorize something.

Most music of the time was unison—monophony. Two discrete voices were a novelty in the 12th century, and it was Leonin who first documented the rules for this new form of music, now called polyphony, that would ultimately evolve into the chords and complex rhythms that we know today.

One of Leonin’s pieces, Viderunt omnes, was documented by Anonymous IV. It’s also in both the Wolfenbüttel manuscript and the Florence manuscript. It uses two voices and features two different styles of polyphony: organum and discant. The organum set one or two notes in the upper voice for every single note in the lower voice. The discant style is note-for-note in both parts, parallel melodies in synchronized rhythm. The intonation of the respond and most of the verse were sung polyphonically, probably by solo voices and the rest was sung in unison by the choir. In Viderunt omnes, all three styles (plainchant, organum, and discant) are on display.

The melismatic portions of Gregorian chant (the parts with multiple notes on a single syllable) is extracted to provide separate pieces, with the original note values of the chant slowed down, and the organum or discant in the upper part moving faster and superimposed against it. This is called clausulae and Is an element of organum.

Between 1150 and 1175, Leonin provided two-part organa for all of the Responsorial chants on major feasts, Responsories and their verses for Vespers and Matins, and the Graduals and Alleluias for Mass. His plan to write them all was subsequently rivaled only by the somewhat smaller cycle of three-part organa by Perotin (1160-1225, biography to come), and by the phenomenal publications of Heinrich Isaac (c1450-1517) in the 16th century and William Byrd (1543-1623) in the 17th. Leonin’s new style of music was widely accepted across Europe.

Leonin’s Magnus Liber includes 13 pieces to be used for the Hours (Vespers, Compline, etc.) and 33 works for the Mass. Both sections begin with works for Christmas and continue into the liturgical year, providing not only items for the major feast days, but also works for various other occasions. The emphasis on the material for the Hours is placed on various Processional Responsories, and those from the Mass stress the Gradual and the Alleluia, the two chants already singled out as especially suitable for polyphonic treatment due to their soloistic character. All of the works in the Magnus Liber are for two voices and reflect the division into the two styles of organum and discantus.

These early motets (using the term loosely) were the first to put text to the melismatic upper voice of a clausulae—previously, the text was only written below the longer, slower tenor part. This important innovation was accompanied by a notational change from modal notation to syllabic notation for the upper voice or parts. Syllabic block notes took four forms: syllabic (simple conductus), duplum (organa dupla of the early Leonin period), modal (organa and clausulae of the Perotin period), and motet (the earliest motets). For the most part, this is too heavily technical for this biography, but maybe one day I’ll write a blog post on the subject. If you want to read more about music notation from the period, check out The History of Music Notation.

Some theorists think that Leonin derived the six rhythmic modes from his study of St. Augustine’s De musica, a treatise on metrics. He writes of three “long” notes tied together by a ligature and followed by three sets of two “short” notes—essentially each of the first three notes divided equally in two. The pattern evolves into sets of three counts, a long note being roughly equivalent to two short notes, so that the pattern of long-short-long-short can be counted out as six beats (in the modern sense of 6/8).

Leonin contributed a masterly use of flexible and variable rhythms, nearly always limited to the first rhythmic mode, which alternates long and short notes, with a lilt much like today’s 6/8 pattern. He breaks up the long and short notes into lesser values (called copulae, or links, by theorists of the day), which foreshadows what would come in the Baroque era (1600-1750) but baffled historians because contemporary theorists described them as being “between discant and organum and having the character of both.” That’s not very helpful, really. It’s like saying it’s a color that lies between navy blue and cyan.

Although Leonin played with melismas, they were short, only rarely containing a melodic leap larger than a third. They often contain glissando-like passages running through a whole octave or even more. Leonin’s melodic curve is broader than Perotin’s, which tend toward squarer rhythms and short motives. You’ll meet Perotin in my next post.

Nothing is known about where Leonin is buried, what he died of, or when. We can probably assume that he’s somewhere in Paris, as he spent very little time away from there. At least, he spent little time away that we know about.


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

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

“The Encyclopedia of Music,” by Max Wade-Matthews and Wendy Thompson. Anness Publishing, Ltd., Wigston, 2012.

“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, Cambridge, 1978.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Instrument Biography: The Cornetto

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The cornetto is a wooden wind instrument widely used throughout Europe from the 15th through the 17th centuries. It’s also called the cornett, which is not to be confused with the trumpet-like instrument called the cornet. A hybrid between a woodwind (like the recorder) and a brass instrument (like the trumpet), it was a long and slender tube, curved to one side, and had open finger holes. Sound was produced by blowing into a cup-shaped mouthpiece, like that of the trumpet.

The combination of the mouthpiece and finger holes results in difficulties of intonation (pitch) and embouchure (mouth positions). Once mastered, it’s extremely agile and has a range of dynamics and expressions that span between brassy trumpet sounds to incredibly sweet flute-like tones.

After 1500, there are records of cornetti (that’s the plural of cornetto) and trombones performing together with human voices at secular feasts, in the theater, and during Mass. Just a few decades earlier, loud and soft instruments would never have been combined. (See Instrument Biography: The Harp for more about this concept.) Wind bands weren’t excluded from the Catholic church until after 1500. They were welcomed back by the Lutherans, but that’s another story for another day.

Cornetto History

In Medieval times, the cornetto was not part of social life the way the harp and lute were. Its use was limited to shepherds calling flocks and the tower watchman announcing the arrival of strangers. Larger horns were used to signal foot soldiers in war. But then it got fancier.

Its popularity increased during the Middle Ages. By then, trumpeters had formed a highly privileged guild that only reluctantly played with other instruments. The various sizes of trumpets and trombones made a pretty sound, but because the treble trombone (yup, treble) had a tiny voice, trumpet and trombone choirs let cornetti play with them.

The Church of St. Mark in Venice was the center of musical culture for most of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, starting in the 11th century. Innovations abounded there, and it’s probably due to the gathering of great minds there that much of the music from those times is preserved.

The cornetto is mentioned in “Aucassin et Nicolette,” which was an anonymous 12th or 13th century musical play from France. In England, the cornetto was one of the principal types of wind instrument in the 13th century, along with recorder, shawms, double whistle-flutes, tabor-pipe, the horn, bugle, trumpet, organ, and bagpipe.

Guillaume Machaut (c1300-1377) mentions the grant cornet d’Allemaigne (the grand cornetto of the Germans, also known as the Zink) in several of his poems, most notably his “Prise d’Alexandrie” and “Remede de Fortune.” (I think it was a recording of “Remede de Fortune” that got me hooked on Machaut in the first place.)

Giovanni Gabrieli (c1555-1612) published a collection of motets, Mass movements, and madrigals as “Concerti” (a very early use of the term). He wanted them performed by voices, two organs, cornetti, and trombones, plus one or two violins.

It’s not known from what date the cornetto began to provide support for choral music, but this became its main function by the end of the Renaissance, notably in the Venetian polychoral music of Andrea and Giovanni Gabrieli in the 16th century.

Two cornetti were frequently used in consorts with three sackbuts (a form of trombone), and often doubled a church choir’s voices. By 1568, a first-rate permanent ensemble of instrumentalists was assembled at the Church of St. Mark in Venice, centering on cornetti and sackbuts and also including violin (which was a new instrument) and bassoon. Additional players were hired on major feast days, when as many as two dozen instrumentalists performed, alone or together with the choir of twenty to thirty voices.

Michael Praetorius didn’t care for the sound of the cornetto, describing it as “most unlovely and bullocky.” He knew lots of stuff about music, but I have to disagree with him about the sound.

The cornetto remained physically unaltered between the 17th century and the first half of the 18th, and it was a favorite in the Baroque period. The squiggly version called the serpent was particularly popular in France, providing the contrabass in wind ensembles. At the end of the 18th century, the serpent played an increasingly larger part in military bands.

Many examples of this instrument are in the Brussels Conservatory museum, mostly from late 16th century Venice, where Vincenzo Galilei (Galileo Galilei’s father) said that the best cornettos of his day were made.

The invention of the trumpet during the Classical period (1730-1820) provided the fanfare for the end of the cornetto’s popularity. The cornetto was harder to play than the trumpet because of its small mouthpiece, it was quieter and less limber, and composers simply stopped composing for it.

Cornetto Structure

Records of early cornettos say that they were made of natural horn, which is where we get the term “horn” for later brass instruments with a similar mouthpiece. Later cornetti were made of wood. The instrument is a hybrid between a woodwind and a brass instruments in that the shape, fingering, and material was like that of a woodwind, but the mouthpiece was like that of a brass instrument.

When the large German herhorn was pierced with finger holes in the 10th or 11th century, it became known as a cornetto or Zink. Cornetti were either straight and turned from a single piece of fruit wood, or curved. Curved cornetti were made of two hollowed pieces of wood glued together, and then a leather or parchment sheath was drawn over it to make it air-tight.

Straight cornetti that end in a carved dog’s or wolf’s head appear in some 11th-13th century paintings There are some surviving examples like this in Italy. Other iconography from other countries in the Middle Ages shows both straight and curved instruments being used.

Folk cornetti are still used in Baltic countries and parts of Russia. They are bound in birch bark, have four or more finger holes, and are variants on the Swedish cow horn.

Unlike other types of horns, the cornetto has finger holes bored into the length of the tube, like a flute. (Other horns have valves or slides.) The number of holes varied, but six was most common. With over-blowing, harmonics allowed a full octave or more in range, even with only six holes.

Typically there were six finger holes and a thumbhole, gathered comfortably at the end nearest to the mouthpiece. The instrument often curved to the right, with the player’s right hand placed lowermost, although many specimens are left-handed, curving the opposite way and with the hands reversed. The majority of finger holes are on the top side, with a thumb hole on the bottom nearest to the mouthpiece. When there were six holes, it was well suited for playing melodies.

Fingering is similar to other woodwinds of the period, although it is different in the upper octave. Only a few fingering charts survive.

There were a variety of sizes and shapes, especially during the Renaissance, when families of instruments were popular.

  • Cornettino: The highest pitched and smallest in size, was a fourth or fifth higher than the treble cornetto.
  • Cornetto: The soprano voice. It was about 24 inches long and was also called the treble cornetto.
  • Cornetto muto: Both straight and rounded forms had a built-in mouthpiece, a wider throat, and narrower bore than the traditional cornetto but also played the treble part. It was a quiet instrument, suitable for consort playing but not outdoor work.
  • Cornetto torto: A curved, octagonal instrument. It was often tuned to F, a fifth lower than the treble cornetto.
  • Tenor cornetto (the lizard): A double-curved instrument, tuned a fifth lower than the soprano. Michael Praetorius (1571-1621) disliked its sounds and mentioned it specifically. Its wide bore makes it similar to a serpent, and therefore better for blending with voices or in a consort (a group of like instruments in various voice ranges. This list of cornetti, if there were at least one from each—or most—type of cornetto, could form a consort, for instance) rather than on its own. I don’t know why It’s also called the lizard, other than that it’s smaller than a serpent but looked similar.
  • Bass cornetto: A larger-cornetto, pitched a fourth or fifth below the tenor. The bass cornetto was popular in France but was also played in Germany at the end of the 16th century.
  • Serpent: In Italy and France, the serpent was the great contrabass cornetto, shaped like a double-S in order to bring the finger holes within the player’s reach. The serpent supplanted the bass cornetto in the 17th century.

There are three basic shapes: curved, straight, and double curved (S-shaped).

The simple curved shape was most common and was used for the cornettino, the cornetto, the cornetto torto, and the bass cornetto. The soprano (or treble) instrument was about 24 inches long and made of a single block of wood, usually plum, pear, or maple. The block of wood was cut into a curved shape and then split lengthwise. A conical bore was carved out of each half and the pieces were glued back together. The exterior was planed to an octagonal profile and the longitudinal joins secured by a series of bindings and a covering of black leather or parchment. Most virtuosos played the curved treble version, and in their hands, it competed with the violin or the voice in complexity.

The straight treble cornetto is made of wood, usually yellow boxwood, with a conical bore, like the curved cornetto, but turned on the outside to a circular shape, usually without ornamentation. The finger holes and mouthpiece are just like the curved version. This was likely to be the least common type, although it was widely used before 1550, especially in Germany.

The cornetto muto is made like the straight cornetto, but its mouthpiece was not detachable. The mouthpiece was turned out of the same wood as the body at the top end of the instrument. The conical cup of the mouthpiece merges into the bore, usually without a sharp break between the two sections, causing a softening and veiling of the tone quality.

The tenor cornetto was pitched a fifth lower than the treble and had an extra finger hole that was covered by a key, which was used by the little finger of the lower hand. The tenor was 30-50 inches long, generally made with a double curve (an S-shape) with the finger holes on the inside facet of the lower bend. The bell pointed downward and to the front, not outward and to the side, like the treble. It was mainly used from 1550 to 1650, although it was popular in England only after the beginning of the 17th century.

The bass instrument, called the serpent, had a range that could be extended by over-blowing, of about two and a half octaves. French philosopher and theologian Marin Mersenne (1588-1648) estimated that a single serpent could equal 20 of the loudest singers but could also be played with the quietest chamber music. To overcome unreliable pitch and poor tone quality, each instrument only played in one key (specific sharps and flats), so to make it useful in consorts with more flexible instruments, the player had to have several versions. The serpent militaire and the serpent Fovielle were used in military music until they were displaced by the ophiclieide (like an elongated keyed bugle). The serpent disappeared from general use by the middle of the 19th century.

Parts written in alto and tenor clefs are only playable by the serpent. There are straight versions of this deep bass cornetto, but they’re rare.

The player blew into a cup-shaped mouthpiece, similar to that of a trumpet or a trombone. The mouthpiece is usually horn or ivory, regardless of the material for the rest of the instrument. The cup was placed against the corner of the mouth, with the central position only occasionally employed. The pitch can be affected by softening the lips against the mouthpiece. This special embouchure is tiring to play for any length of time, so cornetto parts are often substituted by violins.

A late 16th-century surviving instrument’s mouthpiece is horn and is half an inch wide. It’s similar to a small trumpet mouthpiece in the deep curvature of the cup, but the rim is very sharp. It resembles an acorn cup. Many paintings show this sort of cupped mouthpiece.

The socket for the mouthpiece, which is slightly tapered, was sometimes strengthened by an external brass ferule, and both the upper and lower ends of the instrument were occasionally adorned with silver mounts.

Mouthpieces were made of ebony, ivory, or horn, but it’s hard to know which are original because many of the surviving examples are replacements.

Tonguing reached a high degree of complexity with this instrument. There were instructions from Italians Silvestro Ganassi dal Fontego (published in 1536) and Bartolomeo Bismantova (published in 1677) that discussed force and speed of tonguing, in an Italian school of articulation.

Unlike other instruments where it wasn’t necessary to articulate each note by tonguing (like the bagpipe), the cornetto required every note to be tongued, except for trills and some cadential ornaments (wiggly bits that mark the end of a phrase). Other wind instruments with a reed or a pipe embouchure have tonguing sounds that include te, ke and pe, but the cornetto uses le, re, and de, with te and re for faster passages. The transverse flute’s te-ke “double-tonguing” technique for fast passages was considered crude on the cornetto.

The tone quality is considered close to the human voice, especially the boy soprano, although I think modern reproductions sound more like a quiet trumpet crossed with a recorder. They could be played loudly or softly in every key—most other instruments of the period were not so versatile.

The kind of sound produced makes it hard to classify the instrument as a woodwind or a brass instrument. It’s hard to play because of the combination of woodwind shape and limited fingering with the brass instrument’s mouthpiece, which is probably why it lost popularity, as more agile instruments were invented. Modern brass instruments are longer than the cornetto and allow the use of harmonics, with slides or valves to control the pitch.

Cornettos were suitable for indoors and outdoors music, both sacred and secular, and could easily be substituted for the violin and vice versa. It was treated as a true virtuoso instrument, like for Monteverdi’s “Vespers.”

The Name

The name means “little horn” in Italian, suggesting an animal-horn ancestry for the instrument. There are cow-horned shaped instruments in Medieval pictures that might be cornetti. Some resemble horns that are still used by Scandinavian herdsmen. In Sweden., these instruments go back to the 10th century. In England, images of these horn instruments go back to the 11th century. The octagonal carved wooden form appears in the later 13th century.

Cornetto is the diminutive of the Italian “corno,” which is one of the smaller animal horns.

Germany, it was called the Zink, a Zinke being the smallest branch of a stag’s antlers. The cornetto muto was the stiller Zink or gerade Zink. The cornetto torto was the krummer Zink.

The curved instrument was called the krummer Zink or the schwarzer Zink in German, and cornetto curvo, cornetto alto, or cornetto nero in Italian. The straight instrument was the gerade Zink in German and cornetto dritto in Italian. The cornetto muto was the stiller Zink in German and cornetto muto in Italian.

The tenor was the taille des cornets in French, the grosser Zink in German, and the corno torto or cornone in Italian. The bass cornetto is the basse des cornets in French and Basszink in German.

In England, it was called the cornett (with no O on the end). It was also called the cornet, but that’s an entirely different instrument in modern terms, made entirely of brass.

The rozhok (little horn) of the Vladimir and Tever districts in Russia are straight cornetti, with separate mouthpieces occasionally played off to the side, and come in two or more sizes. There may only be two centuries of the cornetto tradition in Russia.

Cornetto Composers

From the 16th century:

  • Andrea Gabrieli (c1515-1586)
  • Giovanni Gabrieli (c1535-1612), who was Andrea’s nephew. I mentioned him in my piece on Thomas Tallis.
  • Claudio Monteverdi (c1567-1643) wrote an amazing “Vespers” that features cornetti.

From the 17th century:

  • Michael Praetorius (1571-1621)
  • Girolamo Frescobaldi (1583-1643)
  • Johann Hermann Schein (1586-1630)
  • Heinrich Schūtz (1586-1672)
  • John Adson (c1587-1640) in “Courtly Masquing Ayres” in 1621
  • Samuel Scheidt (1587-1654)
  • Antonio Bertali (c1605-1669)
  • Heinrich Schmeizer (c1620-1680)
  • Matthew Lock (c1621-1677) in “Music for His Majesty’s Sagbutts and Cornetts” in 1661
  • Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber (c1644-1704)
  • George Muffat (1653-1704)
  • Johann Andreas Pachelbel (c1653-1706), although most famous for his “Canon in D,” he wrote loads of other things.
  • Alessandro Scarlatti (1660-1725)

From the 18th century:

  • Johann Joseph Fux (1660-1741) used a pair of muto cornets in a requiem.
  • Georg Philipp Telemann (1681-1767)
  • Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) wrote “O Jesu Christ, meins Lebens Licht,” BMV 118, starring cornetti, but there are lots more pieces, too.
  • Georg Frideric Handel (1685-1759) used a serpent in his “Water Music” of 1717 and “Firework Music” of 1749. He also wrote “Tamerlano” to include cornetti in 1724.
  • Christoph Willibald Ritter von Gluck (1714- 1787) used the cornetto in “Orfeo et Euridice.”

From the 19th century

  • Giocchino Antonio Rossini (1792-1868) used a serpent in “The Siege of Corinth.”
  • Felix Mendelsohn (1809-1847) used a serpent in both “Meerestille” and “St. Paul.”
  • Richard Wagner (1813-1883) used a serpent in “Rienzi.”

Cornetto Players

Augustin Schubinger of the court of Emperor Maximilian was a member of the famous Augsberg family of wind players in the 15th and early 16th century.

Girolamo Dalla Casa (d. 1601) was an Italian composer and member of the Venetian School at St. Mark’s in Venice.

Giovanni Bassano (c1558-1617) was virtuoso who played for Giovanni Gabrieli.

You can find recordings by living musicians Bruce Dickey, Doron Sherwin, Michael Colliver, Alan Dean, and more.


“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.

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

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

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

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

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


Instrument Biography: The Flute

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I’d already been playing the flute for quite a while when I first heard a recording for three, four, and five flutes, starring Jean-Pierre Rampal, his father Joseph Rampal, Maxence Larrieu, Alain Marion, and Marius Beuf, and featuring pieces by Friedrich Kuhlau, Joseph Bodin de Boismortier, and Anton Reicha. I was probably 12 or 13, listening to my father’s growing collection of Musical Heritage Society’s Baroque masterpieces. In that recording, I heard the sound of water babbling, of cities busily whizzing around me, of space and its impenetrable depths, and of human genius.

I already knew that I loved the flute, but I didn’t know why. And then I heard it at its finest and I was hooked for life. The flute, it turns out, is a very ancient instrument. It’s in every culture and has been around since before mankind kept track of itself. Settle in and prepare for a long and winding story, the story of the flute.

Many instruments are considered flutes, but I will only be talking here about the ones that are edge-blown, not those with a fipple (a mechanical way of controlling the flow of air) like a recorder or a whistle. The flute is a member of the woodwind family, but it’s an aerophone, meaning it’s made of reeds or something similar. It can be traverse (held horizontally, parallel to the ground and perpendicular to the player’s body) or vertical (held perpendicular to the ground and parallel to the player’s body, like a panpipe). And also to make the story shorter, I’m also sticking to European-style flutes. This piece was HUGE before I made that change. (I’ll post on non-European flutes shortly.)

It’s probably the earliest known musical instrument, if you don’t count drums and the voice. Flutes from 43,000 years ago have been discovered in Germany’s Swabian Alp region and the earliest seem to be made from bird-wing and bear bones. Later flutes were made from mammoth tusks, between 30,000 and 37,000 years ago.

The earliest written reference to a flute is from a Sumerian cuneiform tablet dated around 2600 or 2700 BCE. They’re also mentioned in the epic story of Gilgamesh, which developed between 2100 and 600 BCE. The Old Testament talks about Jubal as the “father of all those who play the ugab and the kinnor” (the flute and the harp, loosely translating).

In Europe, the traverse flute replaced the panpipes in the Middle Ages and was especially popular with the Minnesingers (in Germany between the 12th and 14th centuries). During the Renaissance, the name “flute” applied to both flutes and recorders, and composers treated the two instruments as interchangeable.

Physical changes to the flute help to mark musical development from the Baroque period to the Classical. For Bach and Handel, “flute” still meant “recorder,” but after the middle of the 18th century (by the time of Mozart and Haydn),“flute” meant “traverse flute.” The clearer, more powerful tones of the traverse flute were needed for symphonic music.

Michael Praetorius (see Composer Biography: Michael Praetorius (1571-1621) ) describes alto, tenor, and bass flutes. He said that the tenor, with over two octaves, was the most versatile. Those instruments still exist, but are seldom used.

A Brief History of the Flute

In the Stone Age (from 3.4 million years ago until about 10,200 BCE), people bored holes in stones and animal bones to make whistles and flutes. The Magdalenian cave paintings  of Montesquieu-Avantes, in the Ariege province of southwestern France, show a bow-shaped instrument that is thought to be a flute, dating from 13,000 BCE. There have been several flute-like specimens dug up at this site since 1925.

There’s a bone flute dated from somewhere between 7000-2500 BCE that was found in Switzerland, with three finger holes, although there’s no evidence that tells us whether this was locally built or imported from the more technologically and musically advanced Far East.

By Neolithic times (from around 10,200 BCE until somewhere between 4000 and 2000 BCE), people made flutes out of pottery. In Turkey, wall paintings from around 6000 BCE show musical instruments, including flutes, being used to drive game out of hiding for hunters.

In 1937, an archeological dig in Tepe Gawra in Northern Iraq uncovered 6000-year old bone flutes.

In the Bronze Age (around 4000 BCE), people began to use metal for all kinds of things, including making flutes. Beginning in around 3000 BCE, Mesopotamia was largely controlled by Sumerians, with their imposing array of instruments, including a vertical flute. The area was controlled by Babylonians and Assyrians between about 2000 BCE and 538 BCE, when the king of Persia, Cyrus II, allowed the return of the Jews to Israel. This meant that the instruments of the Jews (and those they’d picked up on their travels) came to Israel too.

In Egypt, tombs containing chests decorated with the eye of Horus and full of instruments from 2000 BCE included several types of flutes, including very long ones, often without finger holes, that had to be held diagonally across the body, and shorter double pipes bound together, which have been erroneously dubbed double clarinets. There were also fork-shaped clappers and frame drums to accompany them. Images of groups of musicians usually include at least one harp (see Instrument Biography: The Harp ) and one long finger hole-less flute (probably a drone), and several singers. In the 1st century BCE, the Romans conquering the Etruscans found traverse flutes.

From 230 CE to the present day, Indonesian gamelan bands included a vertical flute called the soeling. In the late 19th century and the early 20th century, soelings were heard by Claude Debussy (1862-1918) and Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992), and their works were influenced by what they’d heard.

When the Islamic prophet Mohammed (570-672 CE) decreed that music was a forbidden pleasure, the flute was one of the instruments listed, along with the lute (see Instrument Biography: The Lute ) and the harp (see Instrument Biography: The Harp ).

The traverse flute wasn’t adopted in Europe until around the 12th century. It seems the Germans were the first to pick it up, and as it spread across Europe, it was called the German flute in England, flûte Allemande in France, and flauta alemana in Spain. It’s thought that the traverse flute reached Europe by way of Byzantium.

Illustrations from the Cantigas de Santa Maria (c1250-80) show traverse flutes. Flutes were classed with harps, vièles, lutes, psalteries, portative organs, and recorders as “bas” or “low” (in French), meaning that they are quiet, as opposed to “high” or “haut” instruments—meaning loud, like shawms, cornetts, and trumpets.

Most of the instruments popular in the Renaissance were already invented by the Middle Ages. It was common in the Renaissance to compose for a family of instruments (like violin, viola, and cello, and so on), and the actual instrumentation wasn’t specified by the composer. Like with singers, the instrumentalists played the part that was appropriate for their instruments. A flute piece might be played by a recorder, a traverse flute, a shawm, a cornett, or a trumpet. In England, these groups of unspecified instruments were called “consorts.”

Michael Praetorius included the traverse flute in his Theatrum instrumentorum, which was published in Wolfenbüttel in 1620. Jacque Hotteterre (c1645-1722) wrote the first tutorial specifically for the traverse flute in 1707, called Principes, and published in French. It was quite popular and was translated to English in 1729.

When the clarinet was invented around 1710, it joined other reed instruments and woodwinds, including oboes, bassoons, and flutes. All were usually made of wood and had one or more keys to aid in fingering and allow some new pitches. It’s important to remember that the clarinet is a sort of relative to the traverse flute, as you’ll learn when you meet Theobald Boehm a little later.

After 1775, about the time when the Classical style was reaching its peak, keys were added to allow greater variety in the keys signatures (different flavors of scales) in which a flute could play. A London instrument maker called Richard Potter increased the length of the instrument and gave it more low notes. This flute, with its additional six keys, was common around 1800. In the beginning of the 19th century, two more keys were added, increasing the range and facilitating fingering. The flute went from a many-holed, one-keyed instrument that was often out of tune in 1772, to a versatile and popular instrument with eight keys (in addition to finger holes) at the turn of the century.

There were several tunings, each with specific uses. The C flute was in general use, and a D-flat and E-flat flutes were common in military bands, as they were louder and shriller than the C flute. There was also a Flûte d’amour (Liebesflöte) that was tuned a minor third lower than the C flute (A), an alto flute in G, and a bass flute an octave lower than the C flute. The bass flute was—and still is—a nifty instrument with a 180-degree bend in the mouthpiece part of the tube.

The piccolo is an octave higher than the C flute and became popular around the end of the 18th century, pretty much paralleling the use of the larger C flute. It doesn’t have as many keys for lower notes, but the rest are arranged the same as a C flute. The Swiss military in the late middle ages preferred this little traverse flute so much that it became known as the Schweitzerpfeiff (Swiss pipe) and later as the fife. (Today, the piccolo is generally thought to have keys, like a flute, and the fife has open holes, like a recorder. Both are traverse.)

The alto flute is a fourth lower than a C flute (so it’s tuned to a G), and has a powerful, mellow, and expressive tone. Since Theobald Boehm’s improvements, its popularity has increased, but it’s still pretty rare outside of flute choirs.

The Italian Giorgi flute was made of ebonite, had no keys, and used a separate finger hole for each semitone of the octave. Because only ten fingers are available for the eleven holes of the instrument, the second joint of the left forefinger was used to cover the eleventh hole. It’s held vertically, like the oboe, with the embouchure in a separate bulbous piece. Because the difficult fingering allows only players with rather large hands to play the Giorgi flute, it was never widely adopted.

The bass flute (which should really be called a tenor flute) was invented in the 19th century and was pitched an octave below the C flute. Sadly, they are rarely used outside of flute orchestras. Abelardo Albisi created an Albisiphone bass in 1910, which has its metal tube doubled twice on itself near the embouchure and a body that points downward, like an oboe. Another bass flute was made by Rudall, Carte & Co. in London in 1932 and also had the bent tube treatment.

Theobald Boehm (1794-1881) established a flute factory in Munich in 1828. He experimented with mechanisms that could achieve uniform tones, superior volume, and better tuning control than other flutes. By 1848, he had created the modern Boehm System flute, made entirely of metal with large holes, closed not with the fingertips but with padded keys, linked to each other by a series of rods, levers, and clutches. (Louis-August Buffet, in Paris, applied some of Boehm’s ideas to improve the clarinet. Later, Adolphe Sax would use a similar system to invent the saxophone.)

The 19th century concert orchestra was smaller than today’s orchestras. Haydn’s had a flute, two oboes, two bassoons, two horns, twelve to sixteen strings (violins I and II, violas, cellos, bass viol) and a harpsichord, with occasional trumpet and timpani. Viennese orchestras were much the same, plus two clarinets.

Orchestras grew and grew until by the end of the 19th century, they had as many as 90 players. Because of Boehm’s innovations, the flute was easier to play quickly and in tune (and in most key signatures), and its range was extended by the invention of the piccolo. Because wind instruments could now be heard as clearly as the strings, they were often set to contrast with the others, further contributing to the clear emotional “instructions” that music followed post-Beethoven.

Structure of the Flute

Tuning is dependent on the location of finger holes. Most flutes, both ancient and modern, have equally spaced finger holes. The pitch of the scales were controlled by the sizes of the holes, so they might be equally distant from one another, but different sizes. Some of the earliest (dug up in Egypt from 2000 BCE) have two, three, and four holes.

Most traverse flutes are six-holed (or more), side-blown wind instruments with a cylindrical bore and a two-octave range. The player blows across the sharp edge of the mouth hole or embouchure that is pierced into the wall of the tube near the stopped end. This effect, of creating a sound by blowing a stream of air across a hole, is called creating a Bernoulli or a siphon. The Bernoullied air causes the cylindrical cavity of the flute to resonate.

Pitch is changed both by changing the length of the resonating cylinder as the fingering holes are closed and opened and by changing how the stream of air crosses the embouchure hole in the mouthpiece. The player can take advantage of this resonance by over-blowing and using the harmonics or overtones in addition to the fundamental frequencies of a more direct stream of air. (In a fippled instrument, like a recorder, the shape of the fipple limits the length of the resonator and such instruments can’t have as great a difference in volume or such large range of notes.)

The tone of the flute is variable, entirely affected by the skill of the player and the physical arrangement of the player’s mouth and lips. This change allows the playing of harmonics and overtones through over-blowing, and increases the range of the instrument, but it also makes it hard for a beginner to make a decent tone. Because the lips are not pressed against anything, tricks like circular breathing are quite difficult. (Circular breathing is when the player continues to blow air, using pressure from the lungs, while inhaling through the nose, allowing a constant sound. This is a common technique on didgeridoos, and less common but entirely possible on instruments such as oboes, saxophones, and trombones.)

The color of the sound can be affected by physically reshaping the inside of the column of the flute and also by the player’s reshaping their lips and tongue. The height of the lip plate (its distance from the tube of the head joint) is a critical element in making a decent sound, as is the interior shape of the head joint.

There are different schools of thought on the materials out of which a flute should be made. Jean-Pierre Rampal’s famous gold flute had a distinctive sound, but it’s hard to know how much of that was Jean-Pierre himself, and how much was the flute.

The player places about a quarter to half of their lower lip across the open hole (on both vertical and transverse flutes) and, by controlling the direction of the air with the upper lip, sends breath across the open hole. The amount of breath that goes down the tube of the flute is controlled mostly with the upper lip’s position.

Vertical flutes that are blown across the open end can have the other end closed, like a pan pipe, or open, like a recorder. There is more control over the quality of the sound and the harmonics with an open-ended flute.

Many cultures (most) provide air through the mouth, but there are some nose-blown flutes, and organ flutes are blown by bellows or fans.

Flutes are made of many materials, including glass, ivory, and wood, and in Israel, they were made from bulrush and other reed-like plants. In antiquity, flutes were made of reed or wood and were ornamented with metals, such silver or gold. Wooden flutes are thought to have greater beauty of tone, while metal flutes “speak” more easily (meaning that it’s easier to get a sound of them and easier to get a distinctive sound that can identify the player).

It was the later 17th century when the length of the flute was divided into three parts: the head joint with the embouchure, the body, and the foot or tail joint. The head joint was cylindrical in its bore, and the body and foot joints were conical, with the smallest diameter at the open end, a device which enhanced the beauty of overblown harmonics. This is also when they added the key for the little finger, adding a D-sharp.

Johann Quantz (1696-1773) documents flutes made from boxwood, ebony, kingwood, lignum sanctum, and granadilla—all woods available in Germany. Boxwood was the most common and durable material, but ebony produced the clearest and most beautiful tone. Crossing a wooden flute with brass, according to Quantz, made the flute sound shrill, rude, disagreeable, and otherwise unpleasant. Apparently, he was fond of adjectives.

During Quantz’s lifetime, the middle section of the flute was interchangeable, in order to accommodate the various tunings on harpsichords. Tuning keyboard instruments was not yet a refined art, and even the instruments in a single town might not all be tuned identically. At least that was Quantz’s complaint and his explanation for multiple middle sections.

The headpiece of the flute had a cork between the cap and the embouchure hole that could be adjusted to accommodate tuning. It also seemed to improve the sound of the flute. Modern flutes use a metal plug that’s adjusted by screwing the plug out and pushing it flush again, applying the same theory. The tuning of Quantz’s variable middle piece was affected by the adjustments to this plug because it changed the length of the tube.

Quantz documented three lesser-known kinds of flutes that existed to accommodate various tunings. These were called the low Quartflöten, which is a fourth lower than a regular traverse flute, flutes d’amour, which is a minor third lower, and the little Quartflöten, which is a fourth higher.

Quantz points out that moisture forming inside the instrument can be harmful to the wood and suggests both frequent cleaning and frequent oiling with the oil of almonds. In the first half of the 18th century, the main body of the flute was divided in two to correct defects in intonation. After 1720, the foot joint was also divided and two keys were added to extend the range. But the tiny mouth-hole still made it hard to play in tune.

One of Boehm’s major improvements was that he put rings of metal around the flute’s finger holes and then created a padded cap to cover the hole, sealing it tightly. The cap attaches to a rod and axle arrangement and closes another hole that can’t be reached by fingertips. This arrangement affects tuning, flexibility, and range. Sadly, this improvement initially met with violent opposition from flutists.

Boehm’s first model, in 1832, followed the traditional form, with a predominantly conical bore. But after consulting his friend, physicist K.F.E. Shaufhäutl, in 1846-47, he made a cylindrical bore, except for the head piece (that contains the embouchure) that is a parabola (partly a cone and partly parallel sides). The new flute was remarkable for its fuller and more robust sound than what the older flutes had produced.

There are still open-holed flutes played in orchestras. These use a ring instead of a padded cap, and the keys connected to the rings are manipulated in the identical way, through rods and levers. Western concert flutes have larger finger holes than their Baroque ancestors.

Concert flutes are tuned to the key of C, with three octaves, starting with “middle” C (it’s in the middle of a piano keyboard. I’ll have to look into why else it might be called that.) Special feet can be added that allow a low B. It’s one of the higher voices in an orchestra, roughly parallel to the violin, and not as high as a piccolo.

There are G and C- flutes, tuned a fourth and an octave below, that are used in special circumstances. It’s more common to compose for an alto, and there are super rare forms for the contrabass, the double contrabass, and hyperbass, pitched two, three, and four octaves below the concert flute. In addition to the piccolo, there’s also the treble flute, pitched at a G (a fifth above the concert flute), the D-flat piccolo, the soprano flute, F alto flute, and B-flat bass flute.

Origins of the Name(s)

The word “flute” comes to modern English from Middle English “floute,” “flowte,” and “flo(y)te. Old French used “flaute,” Old Provencal used “flaût,” and Old French used “fleüte,” “flaüte,” or “flahute,” that came through Middle High German “flote” or Danish “fluit.” The earliest known use of the word “flute” in English was in the 14th century, in Chaucer’s “The House of Fame,” around 1384.

In Acadian, the word is “embübum,” in Persian, it’s “nay.” In Arabic, the word is “qussaba.” In Babylonian, it was called the “shushan and the “miktam.” In Biblical Hebrew (Psalm 53), the word is “muhalat.” The word “halil,” which means “to pierce” or “hollow tube” in both Hebrew and Arabic and was what they called some flutes.

The word for flute in Greek is”plagiaulos.” It comes from the word “aulos,” which means traverse and isn’t a relative of the aulos, which is a double-reed, double-piped instrument, but rather, is a traverse, reed style flute. It was also occasionally called the “lotos,” for the lotus wood that Greek flutes were made of.

The flute was called the “obliqua tibia in Latin (Rome). They called it the tibia, for the shin-bones that they hollowed to make flutes. There, it was a strictly pastoral instrument and not documented well until the 3rd century BCE.

Famous Flute Composers

It wasn’t customary for people to take credit for writing music until nearly the Renaissance, but after that, the flute proved to be a popular instrument in both sacred and secular music.

Early church composers wrote mostly for voices alone. Organs were invented around the 8th century, but didn’t really become part of popular music because of their quiet sound until the invention of the pipe organ in the 14th century allowed more volume and expressiveness. The focus on vocal and organ music somewhat pre-empted flute music in the church, at least in Europe.

That left plenty of room for secular music to indulge in the liquescent sounds of the flute. Celtic music, in particular, is well suited to the lilting and somber abilities of the flute. But the flute, ancient as it was, permeated the world. Secular music didn’t get documented as well as church music until music notation was efficient enough to accommodate multiple simultaneous lines of music, around the 15th century or so. (See my blog on The History of Music Notation for more about this.) That’s when things really started taking off for the flute.

The following list of composers is hardly comprehensive, even though it’s long.

Neidhart von Reuental (c1190- after 1236) was one of the most active German Minnesingers, and more melodies survive from Reuental than from any other composer of the period.

Eustache Deschamps (1346-1406) was a French poet, who studied versification with Guillaume Machaut .  Deschamps wrote just shy of 2000 ballades and  mentions flutes in his “Deploration” on the death of Machaut. Geoffrey Chaucer and he were friends, and it’s likely that Chaucer borrowed some of Deschamps’ themes in his own work.

Tielman (or Tylman) Sustato (c1510- after 1570) was a Dutch music publisher—until Sustato, music publishing was done almost exclusively in Italy, France, and Germany. In addition to the polyphonic (vocal) Masses and motets that he wrote, he was a prolific composer of instrumental music.

Cristoforo Malvezzi (1547-1597) composed accompaniments for madrigals and cites the flauto traverso as one of the instruments to be used.

Cristofano Malvezzi (1547-1599) composed madrigals, ricercars, and two sacred works, and a handful of grand choral works. He cites the flauto traverso as one of the instruments. He was an Italian from Florence and was a contemporary of Michelangelo.

Dario Castello (c1590-c1658) was an Italian composer who probably played the cornetto or the bassoon. He might have died during the plague of 1630 because that’s the last time any of his compositions were published. Only 29 of his works survive, including two books of sonatas and a motet.

Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741) was a Catholic priest with bright red hair. Surprised? His fame was widespread throughout Europe in his lifetime, especially as a composer for the violin, sacred choral works, and more than forty operas. Although his asthma would have prevented him from playing wind instruments, he clearly admired the flute and used it in numerous compositions. His composition “Il Pastor Fido,” containing flute sonatas, was later discovered to be by composer Nicolas Chédeville.

Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) is probably the most famous of all composers. A German harpsichordist, organist, and composer, he wrote themes based on Frederick the Great’s composition that he heard at Potsdam in 1747, and later added a trio movement for flute, violin, and continuo. For chamber ensembles, Bach wrote six sonatas for flute and harpsichord and a partita for unaccompanied flute. It was unusual in his time to have an unaccompanied instrument like that. I will write a biography for this fellow soon.

Joseph Bodin de Boismortier (1689-1755) was a French composer of instrumental music, cantatas, opera-ballets, and vocal music. He was one of the first musicians to make a living by publishing his compositions rather than having a patron. A prolific composer, he published more than 100 pieces between 1724 and 1747. One of these was a group of six concertos for five flutes, and it was one of these that moved me so much when I was a pre-teen. He also wrote an instruction method for the flute, which has been lost. In 1742, he published six sonatas for flute and harpsichord.

Georg Friedrich Händel (1685-1759) earned most of his well-deserved fame for operas and choral pieces, but in his later life, turned his attention to instrumental works. He was fond of focusing on a particular instrument, and in addition to the flute, wrote works for the viola d’amore, the lute , trombones, clarinets, cornets, theorbo (see the Lute biography), French horn, bassoon, and the harp.

Pierre-Gabriel Buffardin (c1690-1768) was a French flutist, one of the royal musicians at Dresden. He was one of Johann Joachim Quantz’s teachers, and also, the teacher of Johann Jacob Bach, Johann Sebastian’s elder brother. His “Sonata for Flute” is the only one that it’s known for sure that he wrote, but he also is thought to have written a concerto for five flutes in E minor for Quantz.

Frederick the Great (1712-1786) also known as King Frederick II of Prussia, regularly performed flute sonatas and concertos in private concerts in his chambers, and composed flute concertos, arias, and other music. (His sister, Anna Amalia, princess of Prussia (1723-1787) played harpsichord and organ, composed vocal and instrumental music, and collected a huge library of music.)

Georg Philipp Telemann (1681-1787) was a self-taught musician who became a composer largely against his family’s wishes. Telemann famously turned down the positions of Thomaskantor in Leipzig that was filled by third-choice J.S. Bach (after Christoph Graupner). Telemann composed over 3000 pieces, with two concertos for flute. I played one of these as my senior solo with the orchestra in high school. Fond memories.

Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach (1714-1788) was the fifth child of Johann Sebastian Bach, and only the second of his sons to survive. Like his famous dad, CPE was a prolific composer, straddling the sensibilities between the Baroque and the Classical and Romantic styles that were on the way. Although he was famous in his own lifetime as a clavier player, his compositions were admired by later composers, even by such as Mozart.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791) wrote over 600 pieces, including numerous quartets, solos, concertos, and sonatas for the flute.

Mauro Giuseppe Sergio Pantaleo Giuliani (1781-1829) was an Italian guitarist and composer who wrote a famous sonata for flute and guitar.

Friedrich Daniel Rudolf Kuhlau (1786-1832) was a German born Danish composer who wrote mostly for piano, and was instrumental in popularizing Beethoven’s music in Denmark. Despite a house fire that destroyed his previous compositions, he still managed to publish more than 200 works. He was nicknamed “the Beethoven of the flute” because of his numerous works for the instrument.

Anton Bernhard Fürstenau (1792-1852) was the most prominent of the 19th century Fürstenau family of flute players. He studied with his father Caspar (1772-1819) and was the father of Moritz (1824-1889), also a renowned flute player, and was principal flutist of the Dresden orchestra under the direction of Carl Maria von Weber in 1820. He was most famous for his Fantasia for Flute and Harp.

Saverio Mercadante (c1795-1870) was born in Naples and studied flute, violin, and composition at the conservatory there. Opera composer Giochino Rossini admired his work, including six flute concertos, around 1818. He mostly wrote operas, nearly entirely forgotten these days.

Claude-Paul Taffanel (1844-1908) was a French flutist, conductor, and instructor, and founder of the French Flute School that dominated flute composition for much of the 20th century. The son of a flutist, he spent his early life focusing on flute playing and performance, winning prizes and degrees. He called later music “twittering,” and when he was in charge, had students focus on the music of J.S. Bach and other composers of the 18th century. Some of his compositions for flute are still considered essential to the canon of flute repertoire. Gabriel Fauré dedicated his famous Fantasie to Taffanel.

Achille-Claude Debussy (1862-1918), along with Maurice Ravel, was one of the most prominent—and dominating—composers of the French Impressionist movement. Starting his piano studies at age 7, his talents were immediately obvious, and he began his 11-year education at the Paris Conservatory at age 10. Later, he was criticized for “courting the unusual,” but he found a circle of friends and supporters that included Erik Satie and a number of famous or notorious women with whom he entertained a long and unseemly string of love affairs.

Gabriel Urbain Fauré (1825-1924) was one of the most influential French composers of the 19th century. He studied under Camille Saint-Saëns, and his early commitment to earning a living as an organist and teacher kept him from focusing on composition until the summer months of holiday. By late middle age, he’d amassed enough of a reputation as a composer to be able to turn his attention to it full time. He wrote for many solo instruments, including the violin, piano, and organ, including his most famous work, the Requiem. In his later years, he was nearly deaf and found high notes painful and distorted out of tune; he was unable to hear his final composition, a string quartet.

Cécile Louise Stéphanie Chaminade (1857-1944) was a precocious child, and performed some of her own piano compositions at age eight for Georges Bizet, who was impressed. Her flute concerto in D major is one of the few of her compositions that has remained popular beyond her own lifetime.

Francis Poulenc (1899-1963) was a French composer who wrote solo piano, chamber, choral, oratorio, opera, ballet, and orchestral music. He was taught to play the piano by his mother (who was an amateur) and most of his early compositions were for the piano. In his later years, he composed mostly for woodwinds, and at least one of them has become a standard for the flute repertoire.

Toru Takemitsu (1930-1996) was a self-taught Japanese composer and writer on music theory and aesthetics. He composed several hundred works, wrote the soundtrack for more than 90 films, and published 20 books. He had an interest in the early development of electronic music (recorded sounds that contribute to an otherwise musical effort), and followed the works of Stravinsky and John Cage with eager interest. From the early 1960s, he focused on using traditional Japanese instruments (the shakuhachi, for instance) in his compositions.

Famous Flute Players

This list could be seriously long, so I’ll hold it to the big hitters.

Anthony of Domstätt or Dornstätt (no dates) was the head flutist for the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian (1459-1519) and was considered the first military flutist.

Jacques Martin Hotteterre “Le Romain” (1674-1763) was a Paris-born son of a wind instrument maker. He played other woodwinds as well, and composed for and taught all of them. In 1719, he wrote the first user’s manual for the flute, and the modern era of flutes and flutists is thought to start with him.

Michel de la Barre (c1680-1745) was a Frenchman known for being the first to publish a solo piece written expressly for the flute. He performed for King Louis XIV and Louis XV of France and wrote dozens of pieces.

Pierre-Gabriel Buffardin (1690-1768) was the principal flute player in Dresden, and was Johann Quantz’s teacher in his youth. He was also J.S. Bach’s elder brother’s teacher. It’s possible that Buffardin invented the movable plug that affected tuning in the head piece.

Johann Joachim Quantz (1697-1773) wrote the seminal book on both playing the flute and Baroque musicianship. He defied his father’s dying wish that he become a blacksmith and studied music and the flute all over Germany before becoming known as the finest flutist in Europe. He wrote about 300 flute concertos and another 200 flute sonatas.

Michael Blavet (1700-1768) was a self-taught French flutist who was considered a virtuoso on both the flute and the bassoon. Strangely, he held his flute to the left, rather than to the right, like other flutists. A composer and technician in his own right, he was also popular among the aristocrats and other musicians of his time.

Frederick the Great (1712-1786) also known as King Frederick II of Prussia, regularly performed flute sonatas and concertos in private concerts in his chambers, and composed flute concertos, arias, and other music. (His sister, Anna Amalia, princess of Prussia (1723-1787) played harpsichord and organ, composed vocal and instrumental music, and collected a huge library of music.)

Philibert Rocheille (d. c1715) was the first Frenchman to distinguish himself on the flute. He was involved in a murder, imprisoned, and then pardoned. Despite that rather intriguing story, that’s all I could find out about him.

Anton Bernhard Fuerstenau (1792-1852) was the most famous German flutist of the Romantic period. Although his son studied with the innovator Theobald Boehm, Anton remained loyal to the nine-hole flute. He wrote 147 pieces for the flute, including duets, trios, a quartet, and pieces to be accompanied by piano.

Jean-Pierre Rampal (1922-2000) was a Frenchman whose personal flair and size made his facility on the flute seem like a paintbrush in the hand of a great master. His father was a renowned flutist and yet wanted Jean-Pierre to become a doctor. His partnership with pianist and harpsichordist Robert Veyron-Lacroix spread Jean-Pierre’s fame to North America and the Far East. Although his career was as a soloist, he remained a dedicated ensemble player, which is how he became so very instrumental in the renewed interest in Baroque music during the 20th century. He is among my personal heroes.

Sir James Gallway (1939-   ) is an Irish flutist who, like Jean-Pierre Rampal, managed to take his career international partially by including popular music—he worked with the Chieftans and Pink Floyd—in his repertoire. He is the first wind-instrument player to be knighted.

Emmanuel Pahud (1970-   ) came from a non-musical family. He was intrigued by the flute at an early age and studied with all kinds of famous teachers at all the best schools in Europe. He specializes in diversity, playing jazz, contemporary, classical, orchestral, and chamber music.

Some Final Words

It is now time to address the flutist versus flautist debate. The word flautist, despite its German sound, is actually an Italian word and came into common usage around the middle of the 19th century. It’s mostly used in Europe. The word flutist was coined in the 16th century, and is mostly used in the US and Canada. So it’s kind of like calling a lorry a truck or pronouncing to-may-to as to-mah-to—it’s a regional choice, and both words mean the same thing.


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

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

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

“Music in Ancient Greece and Rome,” by John G. Landels. Routledge, London, 1999.

“Music in Ancient Israel,” by Alfred Sendrey. Philosophical Library, New York, 1969.

“The Rise of Music in the Ancient World: East and West,” by Curt Sachs. Dover Publications, Inc., Mineola, 1943.

“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, 1943.

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

“On Playing the Flute,” by Johann Joachim Quantz, translated by Edward R. Reilly. Schirmer Books, New York, 1753 and 1985.


The Sound of a Culture

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I work with a writer whose native language is Turkish. Turkish couldn’t be further from English as far as structure goes—Turkish is agglutinative, meaning that important bits are added to the beginning or end of words where other languages use separate words to provide the same information, like prepositions, articles, or gender tags. This difference in structure creates a certain uncomfortable formality when a Turkish-speaker writes in English.

A rigidly structured language like Turkish doesn’t leave a lot of room for slang or new words, and so it has to borrow from other languages to add new words. English is considerably less pure in its origins. English allows for many permutations and variations—multiple synonyms, oodles of ways to say the same thing, umpteen options for personal variation.

Thinking about the various languages and their structures got me thinking about how the language reflects the culture. And then I took it another step, and thought about how that culture is reflected in the music.

For instance, if you took away all the flourishes, trills, and bent notes in Turkish folk music, it could easily be Chinese or African. It’s the flourishes and the personalization of the music that make it distinctively Turkish.

I’m a lover of chant from all cultures, and there are also profound differences in chant from different regions.

  • Gregorian chant (Western Europe from 100 CE to the present) is angular, regular in note length, syllabic, and narrow in range.
  • Byzantine chant (Greece, Russia, and the Balkans from 800 CE to the present) is floral, filled with ornamentation, and with range limited only by the performer’s skills.
  • Arabic chant (the Middle East, including Israel, Egypt, and northern Africa) is floral, pentatonic (using five notes rather than eight for a scale), and rhythmically driven.
  • North American chant (the original indigenous people) is rhythmic, very narrow in range, usually pentatonic, occasionally quite high in pitch, and usually repetitive or cyclical. (Many North American languages are polysynthetic, agglutination’s near cousin. Perhaps that’s a clue!)
  • South Seas and Polynesia (including Hawai’i) is rhythmic, very narrow in range, and tells a story. It often has an accompanying dance.
  • Asian chant (including China, Japan, Korea, and Vietnam) is pentatonic, has specific sections reserved for ornamentation, and plays with overtones as an important aspect.
  • Carnaic chant (Indian, such as Kirtan) is repetitive, narrow in range, and leaves plenty of room for improvisation.

There are other forms of chant, of course. I itemized these few so you can see the similarities and the differences. The subject of this article is not chant, though; it’s about cultural influences on music as a reflection of language. Chant is simply the earliest form of music. I think that later forms make these cultural/language differences even more apparent.

Let’s look at German music from the Baroque period—Bach or Telemann will do nicely. German is very structured, very specifically organized (so much so that you can provide only the definite articles in the correct order, leave the nouns implied, and have a perfectly acceptable sentence), and although new words are adopted, they have to conform to the established order of spelling, case endings, and gender. German Baroque music does exactly this same thing. There are themes that are developed and repeated, there are rules of organization and structure, and there’s a certain happy predictability to the music. (I don’t mean that it’s formulaic, although that can be said too, to some degree. I mean that German music doesn’t leave you hanging, waiting for the final notes, and doesn’t suddenly veer off in a new direction.) Ornamentation in German Baroque music can be left out entirely, and the music is plenty lovely without it. Ornamentation with permission, you might say.

Italian music from the same period also reflects its language—consider Corelli or Scarlatti. Where the language offers implied words, elided words, and an almost reflexive bounce to the vowel at the end of most words, Italian music implies chords, plays multiple melodic lines simultaneously, and has a certain cheerful bounce to it. In fact, Italian music is distinctive in its bounciness—it’s not that there aren’t requiems and other sad music. It’s that there is a certain determined approach to sad music that cheers the listener up, where Russian or French music might enjoy being sad and linger there. The Italians also wrote particularly marvelous dance music. I can’t think of any sad dance music, can you?

Russian music offers the same stoic, almost military, precision that the language does. There’s a certain rigidity to the rhythms, a huge difference between the higher voices and the lowest voices (sometimes a gap of more than an octave), and a dramatic sensibility that might seem moody to other cultures. The language has a rigid structure, more cases than most other languages to complicate conjugation, massive gender differences even in family names, and a lot of poetic synonyms. You’ll find those sorts of idioms in Russian music, too.

Spanish music borrows heavily from Arabic influences. Just when you’re guessing that the music is Italian because of its bouncy cheerfulness, it careens into a wild ornament and confuses the issue. Like Italian music, there’s a certain rhythmic and melodic cheerfulness, but Spanish is more than willing to insert a little angst into a song. Remember that there was an astonishing confluence of cultures in Spain, where Jews, Christians, and Muslims lived in (relative) harmony until the Jews were expelled in 1492. The multitude of influences lingers on in the music, in the language, and in the food.

English music, like the language, is a wondrous mixture of German, French, Italian, and Celtic cultures. All of the elements are there, and like the language, the music is more of a compilation than its own entity. Composers like Purcell and Handel borrowed from other cultures (Handel was from Germany and the influence never completely faded), but there is still a distinctively English sound. Like German music, there is an orderly proceeding, like Italian music, there is often a subtle cheerfulness, and like Celtic music, there are fun ornaments and melodic meanderings, but never wandering as far from the origins as Arabic music. When I think of English music, I often think of a brass fanfare, like the olympic opening music or Masterpiece Theater’s theme. (I’ll bet you are too, now.)

I’ve been listening to a lot of French composers lately, trying to see how my theory of the music and the language reflecting one another. Charpentier was probably the greatest of the French masters, borrowing both from Germany and Italy—somewhat predictable proceedings but with implied rather than specified chord members, dangerous dissonance that resolves in surprising ways, and wonderful, unusual voicings. The French language has implied endings, elided words that depend on specific rules, and looks vastly different from how it sounds. Couperin, Lully, DuMont, and Rameau are French Baroque composers, and when I stop obsessing with a particular album of Charpentier, I’ll start listening to some of those guys too. DuMont, the least famous of the French Baroque composers I found, used many of Charpentier’s tricks—slow trills, open fifths, and interludes of dance rhythms surrounded by more serious proceedings.

Research reveals that Asia, Africa, the Americas, and Australia don’t have a clearly delineated Baroque period (although in the Americas, the Baroque period marks the beginning of western-sounding music, it is clearly applied heavy-handedly to the existing rhythms and scales, much like other cultural manifestations, like religion, fine art, architecture, food, and language). I’d love to hear from ethnomusicologists who can clarify things in those areas.


Written by Melanie Spiller

May 10, 2012 at 1:38 pm

Musical Modes: Part 3A, Non-European Modes

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This is the third of three blogs on musical modes. Part 1 is about “church” modes, Part 2 is about rhythmic modes, and Part 3 is about Non-European modes.

In an odd assembly of too much information and nearly none, I’ve decided to split this Part Three into at least three pieces: the first is on Israel and Jewish modes, the second on the Arab lands and Islamic modes along with Asia, and the third on everything else (India, Australia, Africa, and the New World with a possible nip into Greenland).  I’ve found some good information about India, but the data on the other places is a bit sparse as yet.

It’s interesting to note that “mode” means different things in different cultures. For the most part, a sense of which notes or rhythms are relevant is implied by the word “mode,” and in some cases, both rhythm and notes are prescribed.

In this blog, I’ll start to look at non-European modes. I found that there was plenty of research on Jewish music, some on Muslim or Arab modes and on Asia, and then less and less on India, Africa, Australia, and the New World.

Israel and Jewish Chant

When you think of Israeli music, your ear already pops into a mode, a major scale with a lowered second on the way back down. There are European scales that do this as well, known as melodic minor and harmonic minor, where the intervals are either different on the way back down the scale or the half-steps are not in expected places. If you have access to an instrument, play these and see how they sound.

But the real thing is much more complex. Jewish chant has five modes, each prescribing a series of notes. The modes are further refined by presenting in a trope—both rhythm and a sequence of notes in a pattern. The trope pattern is replicable in any of the modes, and there are 14 tropes. (I hope to write a blog on these at some later date.)

Have a look at the melodic modes. Notice that they don’t all have eight notes in them, and that the sharps and flats are not where you’d expect. (The different length of the notes is only to make a pleasantly similar-sized line and has no musical significance.)

Each mode is used for certain specific celebrations, such as Friday night services, High Holy Days (Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah), biblical cantillation, prayers for funerals, and so forth. It’s thought that the modes were created as an aid to memory before the advent of notation.

It’s important to note that the chants are often still written without musical notation, but instead have the mode marked at the right edge of the lyrical lines (remember, Hebrew is read from right to left), and marks are made above certain letters to help the cantor know where to make certain changes in the tropes (a theme or predictable section of music). Music meant to be sung by the congregation looks like white note mensuration (see Part 1 for a brief explanation of this), but read from left to right, with the clef and key signature at the left edge, just like European music, but the chant meant for the cantor is not spelled out so literally. This probably allows for a little creative license, especially regarding the pitch. (Cantors undergo significant training both in music and in religion. They know what they’re doing.)

Just as European music is based on that of earlier cultures, so is Israeli music based on what came before. Around the 5th century BC, Israeli music separated from Egyptian, Babylonian, and Assyrian music; in general, it was around this time that it became hard to discern Greek influences anymore. There was a general hostility toward Greeks and Hellenistic spirit in Judaism particularly and efforts were likely made to make the music and religious services distinct and separate. (Remember, the Greeks and Egyptians were fond of several gods, and Judaism marks the switch to a single central god. They would have wanted their music to reflect this major change.)

A lot of music was vocal, as the human voice is the one instrument most people can play. But there would have been some instruments too, used as accompaniment rather than featured as solo or orchestral instruments. We can be pretty sure that they used the instruments named in the Bible (in Psalms 33:2, 92:4, 144:9), and there were 10 strings (on the lyre, ‘asor) or 12 strings (on the harp. There is also some evidence of 8-stringed harps. In Africa, there are one-stringed harps and a more common four-stringed instrument, so it’s probable that these 8-, 10-, and 12-stringed instruments evolved from those simpler ones before being documented in the Bible).

There is some speculation that songs would have been played or sung in octaves, with one voice high and another low, as there is a proliferation of stringed instruments around then. Stringed instruments make octaves obvious and unavoidable. This parallel-octave element remains to the present day in Greek and Russian Orthodox (Catholic) music, but it isn’t really known how it would have been done back in the beginning, or when and where it diverged.

In the Orient, there were (and still are) some smaller intervals than what we think of as half steps—a half step is the distance between a white note and a black note on the piano—called microtones. There’s some evidence that these seeped into Israeli music, but it was otherwise largely pentatonic (also like music in the Orient), meaning that each mode had only five notes.

As part of the separation from Greek music, Clement of Alexandria (d. 215 BC) cautioned against chromatic and theatrical melodies of the heathens (meaning the Greeks). So they were deliberately NOT using all of the available notes, but made scales up from a select few. That’s kind of interesting, don’t you think? To me, it seems to imply that they understood the Pythagorean theoy, even if they didn’t call it that yet, and could divide a string into the same eight or twelve notes that we still use today.

As part of creating specific music (or types of music) for specific events, they assigned modes to occasions. For instance, Doric (including the notes EGABCDE, and which is a Greek name) and Spondic, (including the notes EFGABDE, and is another Greek name) modes were for libation songs. Drinking was important enough to warrant a mode series. 

Modern theorists say that most Jewish chant is Dorian (like a C-major scale—all the white notes, only starting on a D) except Lamentations, which were Phrygian (again only on the white notes starting on E), and Jubilations, which were Lydian (white notes starting on F). Remember, though, the mode is not limited to those exact notes but can be moved to accommodate a voice, so long as the half-steps are in the right place (see Part 1 about Church Modes, if you’ve forgotten how this works).

You’ll notice that Mixolydian and all the plagal modes are missing. There are just three modes.

Like many other religions, Judaism imbues certain numbers with mystical qualities. The number three comes up a lot. Music sung in the synagogue takes three forms: prayer modes, orientalization/orientation (“Arabization” of melody), and crystallization of prayer recitations. (Cantillation or Biblical modes are used for Scripture readings and prayer modes are used for everything else.)

Ten also comes up a lot. For instance, ten is the number of strings on a psaltery, harp, or lyre, there are ten famous psalm singers, and there are ten modes in psalm melodies.

Of course, there is more than one Jewish tradition so there is more than one kind of Jewish song. Pentateuch cantillation is still chanted by Persian and Yemenite Jews, for instance.  Although the original Sephardic tradition ended with the Spanish expulsion in 1492, it was revived in Jewish settlements in the Netherlands. The Netherlands became quite a haven for Jews until the middle of the 20th century.

Although there are many traditions, all ancient, there’s a theory that monody and monophonic music came from a socio-political effort of the Jewish monistic conception aiming at unity in all things, perhaps as a backlash from the multi-god Greeks and Egyptians. The Catholic Church must have had the same thought when they borrowed the idea.


Discovering Jewish Music, Marsha Bryan Edelman, The Jewish Publication Society, 2003

Music in Ancient Greece & Rome, John G. Landels, Routledge, 1999

Music of the Jews in the Diaspora, Alfred Sendry, A.S. Barnes and Company, 1970

Music in Ancient Israel, Alfred Sendrey, Philosophical Library, New York, 1969

Perspectives in Music Theory: An Historical-Analytical Approach, Paul Cooper, Dodd, Mead, & Company, New York 1973

The Rise of Music in the Ancient World: East and West, Curt Sachs, Dover Publications, 1943

Many thanks to Cantor Pamela Rothman Sawyer for her expertise.

Written by Melanie Spiller

February 9, 2012 at 11:52 am

Musical Modes: Part 2, Rhythmic Modes

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This is the second of three blogs on musical modes. Part 1 is about “church” modes, Part 2 is about rhythmic modes, and Part 3 is about non-European modes.

In the 10th century, music was starting to diverge from unison; one voice maintained a somewhat slow and steady tune (called the tenor) and another voice waxed ecstatic (often called the superius or the altus). Although the rhythms in the wandering voice didn’t matter much to the steady voice, there were certain markers that needed to be met so that syllables or unison notes could be lined up.

Without written notation, both singers had to listen and take visual cues from one another to stay in step. There was the tenor voice plodding purposefully toward the final note while the other voice wiggled and wandered and all but mamboed in a way that thrilled the listener.

They had to come up with some way to keep together, to change syllables at the same moment and to come to a satisfying end together. At first, they must have employed significant glances or nods, but in time, a form of rhythm evolved. The original two-part music, organum and conductus, was performed as the monks walked down the aisle as part of the mass ceremony. A natural rhythm accompanies such things, and voila! Rhythm joined melody.

At first, rhythms were only allowed in certain prescribed forms, what are known as the rhythmic modes. They do seem to travel in threes—the count tallies to three or multiples of three in each of them. This may have had some religious symbolism, but it is actually more likely to come from secular music. The dancing aspect of the rhythms is rather easy to hear.

The work being done to create a notation system was pivotal in the development of rhythmic modes. There had to be some way to aurally tie one voice to the other, and writing it down made it easier both to learn and to perform. It also made it possible for more than two singers to participate.

It is thought that the development of rhythmic modes originates from the treatise De musica by St. Augustine in the 4th and 5th centuries. He described two units of measure, a long (longa) and a short (brevis), where the short was exactly half the length of a long. But they didn’t really get down to documenting these until they had block-note mensuration in the late 11th century. The first notation for the rhythmic modes was based on the block-notes they used for writing down the chants.

It isn’t known who originated the six rhythmic forms, although it is rather likely to have begun at the school at Notre Dame in Paris, where considerable work was being done regarding documenting music theory and coming up with new musical forms. In the 13th century, there was a definitive treatise (attributed to Johannes de Garlandia) that at last described these modes in De musica mensurabili positio.

The first mode was likely the first to be used, a pattern of a longer note and then a shorter one. The reversal of the order to a short and then a long note was a natural progression, and that is the second mode. It is thought that the sixth mode was a sort of ornamentation of this arrangement in that it is three short notes, equaling both the first and second mode in duration.

The third, fourth, and fifth modes are thought to be later developments. The third consists of three notes, one that is half-again as long as a long note (or the equivalent of three shorts), a short, and then a normal-length long (like a dotted quarter, an eighth, and a quarter note in modern notation). The fourth mode is a short, a long, and a triple-wide long (like an eighth, a quarter and a dotted quarter note in modern notation). And the fifth mode is like two triple-wide longs (two dotted quarter notes in modern notation).

At first, the problem must have been that re-using the same rhythmic patterns throughout a single piece grew tedious and it was also a little hard to document—not every text ends neatly at the end of a rhythmic mode. By the 13th century, scholars at Notre Dame had come up with something called fractio modi (the breaking of the mode), which combined notes of several modes and filled in spaces with notes that didn’t comply with any mode and with rests (silence). They also created a diamond-shaped note to indicate running patterns, usually downward and which may have been performed as ornaments rather than staying in a particular rhythm. (This shape got borrowed back into block-note chant notation.)

Polyphony (multiple melodic lines) made it necessary to indicate how the various voices fit with each other so that the group could stay together. The Notre Dame School replaced the even unmeasured flow of plainchant and early polyphony with the recurrent patterns of long and short notes of the rhythmic modes. No song is likely to have maintained any single rhythmic pattern for the duration—it would have seriously squelched the exuberant nature of the wandering voice or voices.

And of course, a sensitive artist wouldn’t follow the notation on the page with mathematical rigor, but would introduce rhythmic nuance suggested by the text and the mood of the poem and by the melody itself. This probably caused the creation of even more developments in the musical world. And it didn’t take too long for music to evolve in such a way that it was too complex for thse few little modes.

It’s interesting to note that the six rhythmic modes correspond to the “feet” of meters in classical poetry. Although the modes have names (Trochaic, Iambic, Dactylic, Anapestic, Spondaic, and Tribrachic), they are usually referred to by their numbers (1-6).

Like the literary meters, the formulas created by these rhythmic modes allowed development into the musical shapes we find familiar today—soon, they needed meters divisible by 2 or 4, and now, we have things with sevens and fives and nines!

Next in the series, non-European modes.

Early Medieval Music Up to 1300, edited by Dom Anselm Hughes, Oxford University Press, London, 1954
Medieval Music, Richard H. Hoppin, W. W. Norton & Company, New York, 1978
A History of Western Music (8th edition), J. Peter Burkholder, Donald Jay Grout, Claude V. Palisca, W. W. Norton & Company, New York, 2010

Written by Melanie Spiller

September 26, 2011 at 3:46 pm

Musical Modes: Part 1, Church Modes

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This is the first of three blogs on musical modes. Part 1 is about “church” modes, Part 2 is about rhythmic modes, and Part 3 is about non-European modes.

A mode is a kind of “do-re-me” experience, like a modern musical scale. Modern scales are based on what are called church modes (because they were used in church music). Before there were pianos and organs, a note’s relationship to any other note was somewhat changeable. There were stringed instruments (like the harp, psaltery, and lyre) whose tuning could be changed in a matter of moments or even accidentally, and flutes, whose tuning was entirely dependent upon hole placement and the length of the instrument, and was super easy to get wrong.

Before the 10th century, music was learned by memory because there wasn’t notation, and presumably, melodies changed and mutated with each individual who tried to learn and with every skilled performer who messed with it a little for the pleasure of it. Patterns emerged. Then, as now, people enjoyed recognizing familiar elements and the patterns began to be expected. In modern music, this is still true, with cadences and a certain pattern of chords that indicate that the end is approaching. Ever notice that people sing along when it’s familiar? That’s exactly what I mean.

You might think of modes like punctuation. Certain sounds, just like at the end of a sentence or question, indicate something specific to the listener. This is also true with melodies. As music evolved, certain patterns were thought of as pleasing and were re-used and re-formulated; these patterns and their elements became the modes.

The specific modes were not really a concept until the 10th century when exact pitch notation and the Guidonian system (you can read more about this on my blog entry The Guido’s Hand Seminar ) came into being in Europe. This meant that a song started on the same pitch every time it was sung rather than adapting it whatever pitch suited the singer’s comfort. But once modes were invented as they tried to document the existing chants, they found that the majority of the chants fit into the new theoretical system of modes. How wonderfully convenient!

In the end, modes are easy enough to define in modern terms: modes are a species of notes in an octave series distinguished by the placement of half and whole steps—in other words, if you moved do-re-mi around on the piano, always playing eight notes in a row, and only playing the white notes, you could play each of the eight modes.

Just for contrast, later music, such as that from the Classical or Romantic eras, uses only two modes, major and minor. One modern scale is formed the same way as another, with the half steps (the black keys on the piano) in identical places, no matter which note it starts on. Depending on how you look at it, modern scales are way simpler (because there are only two of them) and way more complicated (because you have to memorize which notes are part of which scale or where the half-steps are). Each mode has a distinctive sound to it, unlike modern scales where, unless you have perfect pitch, one major scale sounds much like any other.

There are two forms of modes: authentic and plagal. These names come from the four original modes Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian, and Mixolydian and a near relative of each, beginning a fourth lower and using the same series of notes called Hypodorian, Hypophrygian, Hypolydian, and Hypomixolydian. In the middle of the 16th century, mode placement and transposition created four new modes: Ionian and Hyperionian (ending on C), and Aeolian and Hyperaeolian (ending on A). Ionian sounds just like a C major scale, in case you were wondering, which is the usual do-re-me arrangement.

Modes were not regarded as repeatable from octave to octave, like a modern scale is. A single octave of the mode represents the normal range for a melody in that mode. Stretching beyond the octave was simply not done. Authentic modes seldom have melodies that drop below the starting note (or the final note) by more than a single step; plagal modes can wander further below and a step above the octave.

In the 10th century, as theorists tried to formulate a strategy, they found that they could relate their discoveries into the Greek system of modes as described by Boethius and later Latin writers. That’s why the modes have Greek names, although nothing else about them is Greek. (It is humorous to note that the names were misapplied, but that’s a subject for another day.)

In the first half of the 12th century, the Cistercians amended some of the chants to make them fit into the new modal system. The Cistercians, a particularly severe and fundamentalist order of Catholicism (Bernard of Clairvaux was a member), took a biblical passage literally and deigned that no music should extend beyond the ten strings of a psaltery. To do this, they had to transpose some chants or parts of chants.

As scholars tried to fit existing chant into the parameters of the nascent notation system, they struggled with getting the notes and intervals to sound the same. This was because they hadn’t invented all those black keys on the piano—the sharps and flats. Music was written without accidentals other than the occasional B-flat. Even well past Bach’s time in the 18th century, B-flat was considered the ”devil’s note” and its use was restricted in the extreme. For instance, you could only have a B-flat on the way up a scale. B had to return to its natural state on the way back down. At any rate, the only accidental in Medieval times was a B-flat, so they had to move some chants around, squeeze them by force, in order to get them into the modes once they’d established what those were.

Before the invention of the staff, identifying the mode didn’t matter. The correct intervals were applied wherever they were sung within a singer’s range—the starting note as you and I know it simply didn’t matter. Once the lines of the staff forced the invention of absolute pitches (where a C is always a C), elements like a singer’s range, the placement of accidentals, and whether a chant was joyful or sad became relevant.

Establishing the modes freed composers from centonization, which just means using an existing melody to create a new song. Prior to music notation, melodic themes made it possible to learn a wide variety of chants by rote memorization. You only had to learn the new words and stick them into the familiar melody. After the staff’s invention, there were more options and new melodies were created with wild abandon. Okay, maybe not wild abandon, but with the full freedom that having an outline provides.

After notation was invented and the modes put into common practice, chants were constructed so that the third and fifth notes were emphasized in addition to the first note of the mode. Phrases begin and end on these notes more than on any others. This is foreshadowing for the more modern chord.

Okay, so that’s church modes in a nutshell. Next up, rhythmic modes.

Early Medieval Music Up to 1300, edited by Dom Anselm Hughes, Oxford University Press, London, 1954
A History of Western Music (8th edition), J. Peter Burkholder, Donald Jay Grout, Claude V. Palisca, W. W. Norton & Company, New York, 2010
Medieval Music, Richard H. Hoppin, W. W. Norton & Company, New York, 1978

Written by Melanie Spiller

August 9, 2011 at 11:46 am

Chords versus Polyphony

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It came up at rehearsal last night. The bass was having trouble because his note was strange and he couldn’t make it line up into a chord. The answer was simple: The music was based on a medieval song and it wasn’t a chord at all because chords hadn’t been invented yet.*

*The following history lesson pertains to European music. African, Asian, and New World music can be told in similar stories, but with some changes, like African was rhythm-based, Asian was pentatonic, and the New World was rhythmic and pentatonic.

In the beginning, there was monody. Monody is a single line of music: no harmony, no drone, not even rhythm. Gregorian chant, for instance, is usually monody. One person or a group sings a single line of music, everyone singing the same thing. If the notes have varied weights, lengths, and colors, it can be lovely. Hildegard von Bingen, my favorite composer, wrote a lot of this sort of thing.

But Hildegard didn’t invent it. Oh no. She built on about 4,000 years of tradition that came from Mesopotamia, Egypt and Israel, and Greece. All of those cultures have known songs (although the documentation situation is bleak because music notation didn’t really take off in the West until about the 8th century of the Common Era). But in the 900 years since Hildegard, all kinds of fancy things have happened.

For instance, around the end of the first millennium of the Common Era, someone noticed that in certain songs, one note stood out as dominant. In fact, it could be sung or plucked on a harp, lyre, or psaltery continuously while the melody was sung against it. And thus was harmony born.

But it wasn’t harmony like you think of today. It was a single note produced for the duration of a song. It didn’t move, although later drones did change if the mode of the song changed. (A mode is like a key signature that declares which notes occur to make a scale. It’s different, though, and I’ll save that discussion for another time.)

Suddenly, the melody was affected by the context each note had with the drone. Some combinations were prettier than others, but all had some sort of emotional impact. It was not a leap, then for the drone note to begin to move, and so began a new form of music, called organum, and later, conductus.

This new music had two discrete lines of melody: the tenor or cantus firmus, which slowly produced the melody of the chant and provided a sort of moving drone, and the duplum, which floated away from the melody and often exhibited some performance skills. Organum originated around the end of the first millennium of the Common Era. The tempo was thought to be the walking tempo of the monks entering the church up the long center aisle, but don’t be fooled—this was not rhythm. This was just tempo.

Conductus came around the 12th century, mostly in France, and allowed a more florid showing. Instead of the tenor part holding the ground (the cantus firmus), both lines of song could wander melodically around. And once that happened, the future opened up.

Conductus allowed complex melodies in more than one part. And if you can do two, you can do three or even four voices. Remember, chords weren’t invented yet, so each line was melodically interesting on its own. If one of your voices didn’t show up, no harm: the remaining voices sounded mighty fine on their own.

This gave rise to polyphony—multiple lines of melody—and the musical form called the motet. Now, the word motet comes from the French word “mot,” which means “word.” So you have to understand that the significant change here was the focus from the melody to the words.

It’s subtle, though, so let me help you. In chant, organum, and conductus, the words shaped musical accents, note duration, and sometimes the way the melody climbed or fell. The words were a sort of vehicle on which the music rode. But with polyphony and the invention of the motet, the words became the central character, and, for the first time, words that were not quotations from the Bible were documented.

If you think you don’t know what a motet is, guess again: Lots of familiar Christmas carols are based on them, such as “Deck the Hall.” That little “fa-la-la-la-la” bit is the give-away. The composer was using a kind of filler in secular music to mean something they weren’t willing to say outright. Lots of secular motets have this sort of device when the boy and girl disappear into the grassy meadow of a lovely spring day. It’s a euphemism for “frolicking ensued” and a raised eyebrow.

But to us, the interesting bit about motets is not the words. It’s the parallel lines of melody. You see, by the 13th century when motets were getting popular, people were rather likely to be run over by a cart, catch the plague, or otherwise take a leave of absence without warning. You couldn’t count on the same people showing up from one week to the next, so it was important that each melodic line stand on its own. If only one guy showed up on Sunday, the mass could still be sung. If two guys showed up, all the better. By the time you’ve got three or four, the music was getting pretty fabulous.

Now, during all this exploration of multiple lines, several other things developed. Rhythm, for instance, although it wasn’t a driving factor as it is in modern music. Rather, it provided a subtle connection so that the various sung parts could line up pleasantly. I talked about this a little in my blog post about the history of music notation. (

Once rhythm was part of the musical scene, the rules of harmony began to develop. There were new resting places in the form of longer notes where things lined up in all the parts. There were parts that moved in parallel, perhaps a few notes apart, perhaps in opposite directions and crossing in the middle. And these architectures invited a whole new set of rules for harmony.

Once we had harmony (where the music lined up among the various parts), we were just a breath away from having chords. You see, if you pass through the same three lined-up notes several times in a song, you start to think of those three lined-up notes as a sort of theme. And themes have meaning, either emotional or in a sort of musical color. And presto bingo, the chord was born.

Timed nicely with the development of music notation into what it looks like today, the new rules of harmony demanded the use of chords. For vocal music, this was truly significant, as it moved the melody out of ALL the parts and into only ONE of the voices, usually a high voice. The other parts provided the chord structure underneath. So it might have been interesting to sing the alto or tenor line in the 13th century, but by the end of the 15th, your part was mostly filler, fleshing out the chord. That makes it a lot harder to sing than a more melodic line. It especially makes it hard to practice on your own.

At the same time, keyboard music was taking its place center stage. For the keyboard, once chords were available, everything became possible—in the early days, the chords were abbreviated by number within a key signature, and by the time of the great Romantic masters, chords had expanded well beyond simple three-or four-note combinations to become grand elaborate augmented and diminished whatnots involving all two dozen of your fingers and a few of your toes.

And so, dear bass singer, that is why Chopin and Ciconia don’t sound much alike and why that wasn’t a chord.

Written by Melanie Spiller

April 12, 2011 at 6:06 pm

The History of Music Notation

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Ancient music was learned by rote. At first, there weren’t too many instruments; there were drums, and of course people sang, and they shortly figured out how to make a whistle, which evolved into the flute. Back in biblical times, there were a few stringed instruments, such as the psaltery, the lyre, and the harp.

This is my psaltery. I built it from a kit from MusicMakers, Inc. It can be held on the lap and chords strummed (by silencing irrelevant notes) or held upright against the torso, and plucked with a plectrum.

Here’s an attractive “minstrel’s” psaltery, meant to be played upright. I found it (and its kin, which are for sale) at

That same site offers this lovely little lyre.

At any rate, around the 6th century, folks began to write music down. They didn’t really have a system, and the symbols they drew more or less reflected the way a hand leading a choir rises and falls.

In the following link, you can see a comparison of notation then and now.

The dates on the chart in the link are not quite right (it depends on what country you’re documenting), but they’re close enough for most folks.

The left column of squiggles is what Hildegard von Bingen still used in the 12th century. In the 6th century, when these neumes began to be used, they were not drawn on ledger lines, so there was no way to know how great the interval was between two notes—accommodating the text might require that a note identical in pitch to a neighboring note be placed higher or lower on the page. These were called “unheightened neumes.”

By the 9th century, composers started to draw ledger lines and the pitch intervals between notes began to be consistent (“heightened neumes”). For the first time, someone could accurately melodically replicate a song they had not heard, although the length of notes was still up to the individual performers.

They narrowed the number of ledger lines to four in about the 10th century (notes in a sequential scale on a row—on the line and between the lines—added up nicely to the eight notes of a modern scale. Music was still in five-note modes at the time, but because finding the drone note was an obvious way to pair voices, the octave became an important concept to the evolution of early harmony and polyphony. More on that in Musical Modes, Part 1: Church Modes). (You might want to visit my earlier blog about Guido’s Hand for more on who and how they came up with the staff that evolved into what we use today.)

The block notes in the center column of the table began to be popular in the late 11th century. The block notes very much imitate the earlier neumes, but the duration of a note began to be relevant. The duration was influenced partly by text and musical sensibility, but composers could add dots and little lines (called epicemas) to note shapes indicating that a note should be lengthened and by how much.

The primary motivation for developing these larger note shapes was so that groups could participate (rather than soloists, for whom the earlier music was intended). They were large enough to be seen from a distance because a whole choir sang from one large book.

Block notes are still in use by people who perform Gregorian chant. The earlier neumes are still used by Hildegardians and by scholars working on the Gregorian chants that are old enough to have been written in them originally. The neumes provide perfectly singable information, and are considerably more musically informative than modern notation regarding nuance of inflection, duration, intensity, and intention.

The earlier link’s chart is missing a stage in development, so here’s a link to what happened next, called white note mensuration.

Although it was developed in the early days of the 15th century, white note mensuration was fast replaced (within century and a half, or so) by modern notation (in the right-hand column of the earlier link’s table).

White note mensuration was not adopted by all countries—the Italians, always innovators, were the primary adopters. They invented the system because rhythm and measured beats began to be relevant. In white notes, the black diamond was a count of one beat, the open diamond with a stem was two beats, the dot meant to add half again (so a dotted open diamond was three counts, a dotted black diamond was a beat and a half), and so forth.

The number of ledger lines increased to five because relatively little music took place in less than an octave. (More singers had training than ever before, and keyboard instruments began to increase in popularity and offered considerably greater range than previous instruments.)

For the first time, duration of a note was prescribed by the composer. How fast or slow the piece was performed was largely up to a conductor, a role that was another new invention (someone who interpreted the music and led the group in a formal way—previously there was a leader to keep groups together, but leaders had no special training and just waved a hand around to show when to change notes).

Some of the symbols (like the C with a slash through it on the top lines near the left edge) told the leader how fast to go (a C meant—and still means—common time, which is heartbeat or walking speed, or 60 beats per minute; a C with a slash meant half that speed, or twice as slow, etc.), and instruments and singers could finally begin to make complex music together because the rules of music were starting to converge on a standard.

The end of the 16th century saw the establishment of major innovations that would change music composition forever: key signatures (how many sharps and flats—the black notes on the piano), measure lines (separating a series of notes into discrete chunks that added up to a specific number of beats), clefs (marking a range of notes. Some clefs already existed, but they were considered movable.

The 16th century created a standard and pitch range for each), and time signatures (how many beats per measure throughout the piece—a major innovation in allowing larger groups and diverse instruments to perform together). The rules of music were pretty stable by the end of the 16th century, when modern notation was in common usage.

This is where Michael Praetorius and Syntagma Musicum fits in, the documentation of modern music notation and performance that J.S. Bach finished, and the standards that we still use today. They got it so right that nothing has changed in 300+ years.

What we do with these notation standards has changed considerably, in large part, thanks to Beethoven. But that’s a story for another day.

So is the tangent about rhythm and rhythmic patterns and its merry companion, counterpoint. In brief, rhythm wasn’t part of Western music until white note mensuration made note lengths standard. With rhythm came harmony (as opposed to polyphony), and in a hop, skip, and jump, music began to sound modern.

Consider the Italian Renaissance the beginning of modern music, with rhythm, harmony, notation standards, and pitch standards. Harmony plus rhythm bred counterpoint further north. But I digress.

Here’s a little running parallel that I can’t resist. Polyphony—multiple parallel lines of melody—began to develop in the very late 12th century and hit its height in the 14th century (or thereabout, depending on what country you are talking about). Harmony (in the modern sense, where chords follow an established formula and some musical lines are not at melodic but are provided purely to fill in harmonies) evolved around the late 15th century, right around the development of modern notation. The pianoforte had been invented and allowed faster evolution than ever before because, for the first time, a performer could play loudly and softly on a single instrument and specific emotions could be defined by a composer. Emotion hadn’t really come into it before. It was all about the math.

And then Beethoven came along and made the math less of a dominating characteristic. He introduced instructions about emotions, so rather than interpreting for themselves, musicians and their listeners were on the same journey.

And that, my friends, is my History of Music Notation in 3+ pages.

Written by Melanie Spiller

March 18, 2011 at 1:25 pm