Saturday, December 5, 2009

Lesson 4: A breif overview of Midieval music

Ok, so we've now covered the basics of what makes music music.  Once we're done with this series of posts, we'll move on to counterpoint, something that is incredibly boring and doesn't seem useful, but I'll explain why we learn it in the post.

Anyways, now we're moving on to history.  Some of you may be wondering what exactly is the point of learning Music History, since a lot of it has very little to do with music today, and in fact, as we'll learn in this series, the very basics of what we think of today as composing didn't exist until about the 19th century.  I mean, sure, it's great a parties(you have no idea how great at parties.  You whip out the knowledge of Palestrina mass structure and the ladies just can't get enough of you), and for some academic smart person reason it's important, but really on any practical level why?

Well... in a way a lot of it isn't important.  But there's a reason music sounds the way it does.  There's a reason that the rules of counterpoint exist in the way they do.  There's a reason we think of everything in the way we do.  There's a reason dominant chords go to Tonic chords, and there's a reason 4 measure phrases happen.  And knowing why things are the way they are today is still useful.

Also, I spend quite a bit of time in a room with boring professors being told how to read goddamn neumes, which haven't been used in notation since 1100 or so and dammit now you all have to deal with that shit because I'm writing this blog so neener neener neener.

So we start our overview of history in the times of the Ancient greeks.  We don't really know, unfortunately, really anything about Grecian music.  We know, for instance that the philosophers talked about the emotional and dramatic impact of music, and we know that they had the same general pitch relations as us, at least to a point(More correctly, we based our pitch relations on what they discovered).  In fact, I'll add a little PS for the people interested in the physics and psychology interaction we can draw from history, starting with the Greeks, because I think it's fascinating, once I'm done with the history series.  Anyways, we know, for instance that they knew of the relations in string length for different notes, such as cutting in half to get an octave, cutting to 1/3 to get a fifth, etc.  This is the basis of why we call unaltered fifths, fourths, and octaves "Perfect".  They are the simplest mathematical intervals, and so the Greeks, according to our reading of what they thought, referred to them as "perfect" since the greeks had such a hard-on for math.

And that's... well that's pretty much all we know about Grecian, and really any "Classical era" (We'll see a different classical period later, totally different classical era) music.  You see, when there was the whole rampaging barbarian problem in Europe and all those fancy civilizations with all their Aqueducts had all their cities burned and pillaged.  So we don't have any manuscripts of their music, nor did any of the oral tradition, assuming there was one, survive.  Whoops.

Anyways, then there were the dark ages.  Unless "People being impaled on pikes" counts as a musical work then we don't really have any music from there either.

But starting around 500 C.E. we start seeing manuscripts again.  According to tapestries and legend, as it were, right around the end of the 6th century, Angels or the Holy spirit or some sort of heavenly herald came down to Pope Gregory I and gave him music, or gave him divine inspiration to create music, or something like that.  Now, maybe God's just a crappy musician, or maybe Gregory I was a shitty student and after the first day of class started making paper airplanes out of his divine inspiration parchment, but in Gregorian chant, there is max two notes, one of which can move, there are no key signatures or clefs(well, there's close to a clef), and instead of writing notes, they just scribbled on a paper and told people to sing it.

It looked something like this

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This is what is known as Neumatic notation.  Instead of notes, we have Neumes.  That picture is an example of unheightened neumatic notation, which was the earlier form.  You may be able to see that each of those little scribbles has a direction and is separated from others.  For the first word, you would sing the first pitch on "Au", then a short, 2-note descending run on "bu", followed by a three note ascending run on "la", then a two note ascending run on "re".  As you can see, there's no absolute pitch, so there's no indication of what note to start on, nor exactly how much we descend or ascend in the runs.   So we can't really easily transcribe this into modern notation because while this does give us the contour of the music, there still obviously had to be an oral tradition part to it.  That is to say, it would be impossible with unheightened neumes to perform music that you haven't heard before.

Now, what we're pretty sure actually happened with Gregory, and the story outside of the tapestries and stories, is that he called for the codification and organization of music.  And for the time period, when we say "music", we really mean "Church music", though I'll talk a little bit about secular music.  So basically, before Gregory came along, this was pretty much all oral tradition, with perhaps something like unheightened neumes as a reminder, but there was no standard, and Gregory changed that.  Since it's the first codification, he got the chant style named after him, hence Gregorian chant.

So we have music that we can read assuming we know the song already, but that's not so useful, right?  I mean, we still have that, just look up any songs chords and it'll be in a notation where you need to know the piece, but you're pretty limited in what you can do with that.  You can't really hand a chord chart to an orchestra and have them play a piece, now can you?  Even if they have heard the piece it probably won't be too great of a performance.

So let's look at heightened neumes, which look something like this:

Heightened neumes

I know it looks still kind of like scribbles and random dots, but holy shit so much clearer.  So first off here, we're moving to a staff with lines.  This is awesome, because now we have distance between notes instead of just general movement.  Now, also, we have a clef.  Do you see it?  If you look at the very beginning, while it looks just sort of like other notes, you'll find a unique neume that looks almost like the letter C.  Well, that's the clef, and it is around where C is.  So C is the 4th line of the staff.  After that, we have what's known as a "podatus" neume, which means we'd sing two notes ascending, followed by a "Climacus", though an interesting one, since normally you'd see that with a single starting note, so it's more a compound neume.  It means we have three notes descending, though I believe since it's in a compound neume we'd count the last note of the previous neume.  

Anyways, so we have all of this, and I was about halfway through typing up the different types when I realized that wiki probably has an article on this, and it turns out it does.  And apparently is where those scores were from.  Good to know, GIS.  Thanks.  Anyways, here's the full version of what these mean, as far as we know

So interpreting this score, it looks like we're based on G, which puts us in Mixolydian mode(I'll explain that), and put into modern notation, the notes would be:  B G G F G C B A B A A G

for that first little snippet before the words and giant letter M come in.  We're still unsure of how rhythms work out in heightened neume notation.  There's debate as to whether certain neume types do indicate a rhythm or lengthening of note length, or doubling, but we really are unsure.  It's also possible, I guess, that the rhythm would still be something that the singer would have to know, or would be implied by something else.  But the common interpretation is that all notes are equal in length.  So if we want to have different length notes, we still really can't exactly write it, we just don't have the capability to notate rhythm yet.

So before I talk about how we do get to modern notation, let's look at what I posted up there about being in Mixolydian mode.  The fuck?

Well, as I mentioned, we don't have key signatures.  We only have one accidental, and that's, interestingly enough, the flat, which can only be placed on B, and does exactly what it does in modern notation.  What's fun is that the meaning actually changes slightly in later early music before coming back to what it is now.  

So with no key signatures, we only had the "white notes"(Think like on a piano).  But we could still base music on different tonics.  So for instance, imagine a scale starting and ending on D, but F and C aren't sharp as in D major, and B isn't flat as in D minor.  We could do that, theoretically, based on any white note.  Well, these scales are referred to as "Modes".  Modes exist today, though they're now just different scales.  They're the same note relations as the original modes, but they can be moved anywhere.

So anyways, what this gives us are the 8 original "Church modes", as we call them.  We have 4 "Authentic" modes and 4 "Plagal" modes.  and here's a chart of authentic modes from what note it's based on:

D: Dorian

E: Phrygian

F: Lydian(Note: This mode has Bb naturally in it)

G: Mixolydian

Ok, now here's where it gets a little confusing.  Each church mode has a "Final", which is about the equivalent of the tonic in todays music, it's the "resting note" as it were, a place to end and move around.  For the authentic modes, the Final is the note that the scale is based on.  So dorians final is D.  For Plagal modes, the final is the same as a corresponding authentic mode, but the scale starts and ends a fourth below the corresponding authentic mode.  So the plagal modes, in the same order as the authentic modes up there are:  Hypodorian, Hypophrygian, Hypolydian, and hypomixolydian(This one's my favorite.  It's fun to say).

Ok, so that's modes.  And neumes.  You know, for a history lesson, I'm really not covering much of the time line.  This is more Ancient music theory.

Anyways.  Whoo boy.  So that's how music is put together back then... so what about how it sounded?

Here's an example of basic Gregorian chant.  You'll note that while they extend the last note of each phrase, mostly the notes are all the same length.  Also, there's only one note.

I want to note that during this period there was also Secular music, specifically from the precursors to the Troubadours.  Basically, traveling minstrels.  Their music was pretty much completely of an oral tradition, because printing at the time was incredibly expensive, so only the church could afford it.  The result of their oral tradition is that we don't really know all that much about their music.  What we do know is that they would often sing with instruments, and that much of their music was in what is known as "Strophic" form, which is basically A-A-A-A-A-etc.  Again, I'd love to go into more depth with this, but unfortunately there are just so few records and I can't for the life of me find any recordings without delving into my anthologies, and I'm not sure where they are.

Now music pretty much continued along this way for about 500 years.   Single line, monorhythm, all that.  Around the beginning of the 11th century or so, we started to see something rise called "Organum".  Organum was essentially music that involved two notes.  At the same time!   That's right, it took 500 years of singing one note before anyone thought "HEY!  WHAT ABOUT TWO?!"  I imagine the early adopters were burned for their witchcraft, but eventually people realized holy shit two notes.  Now, this took a few forms.  The earliest form was "Organum Purum", which involved a single drone note over which a melody was sung/played.  An example of this is in Ordo Virtutum, by a very well known early composer who we'll get to soon.  As you can hear, we're still dealing with the idea of a single melodic line, but we do have emergent harmonies between that line and the drone.

Later, we started to see something known as "Free Organum", which involved two voices moving together, or sometimes in Oblique motion(One part stays on a note while the other moves), but not in the same fashion as the drone of Organum purum.  An example of this is in, once again, Ordo Virtutum, elsewhere in the work.

The reason I used Ordo Virtutum is because it's by one of the most famous and influential people in every field in the middle ages: Hildegard Von Bingen.  Hildegard did everything, there are a ton of fields in which she's pretty famous for.  She's so famous that we actually know the stuff she did.  At the time, most of this chant stuff was written by monks and nuns who wouldn't sign their works, so 90% of early music will be by Anonymous.

Around this time as well, Guido d'Arrezo basically decided that it was probably a good idea to be able to write music down.  One of his semi-famous ideas was the Guidonian hand.

Guidonian hand 

Basically, Guido D'Arezzo could point to parts of his hand and it would serve as a mnemonic device to aid in sightsinging.  There's a reason we don't use it today, though, while we do use the other forms of notation.  Basically, the hand required memorizing locations on the hand and couldn't be used outside of the performance, basically.  You can't really go home and practice when you need to see someone pointing at their hand.  It was essentially less a basic form of notation and more a basic form of conducting.

The big thing we see from him though was Guidonian notation.  Guidonian notation is also known as "What we do today"  Guido D'Arezzo was around the 11th century, and we've been using, though it's changed a little, his notation system since.  It's wonderful, because it allows someone who has never heard a piece to play it correctly.  Essentially, it's the final movement away from the oral tradition into a written one.  It wasn't quite the same as today, we'll see "Mensural" notation, which doesn't quite look like things to today, but it is much more clearly closer to modern notation than neumatic notation.

But back to music.  With these advancements, we started to see something called "Organum duplum", another form of two-voice singing.  We enter a period known as Ars Antiqua, and we'll get to why it's called that soon.  Essentially we see a movement towards more going on in the pedal voice, and this is where see see what almost sounds like a rudimentary system of chords, where there is a changing bass note at certain points in the melody.  This stuff sounds something like this.  It's also known as the "Notre Dame school", because that's where it was practiced often.  Leonin and Perotin are famous composers of this style, and pretty much always mentioned together because their names are similar.  This went on 'till about the early 14th century.  We also start seeing composers with hilarious names like "Adam de la halle", or "Adam of the hall".  Love it.

It's important to understand the philosophy that's going on here for a second, to make the next period make sense.  While today we hear the interaction as almost a vocal line - Bass line relationship, they didn't really see it that way.  Their interpretation was that they were two simultaneous lines of Organum.  Well, with Guidonian notation, we can start to have that second line do a lot more than just sit on one note until the other line has sung a few notes, and the lines don't have to move together or even be all that related.  In fact, if you look at manuscripts from around this time, you'll sometimes see that each part has its own bar line placement... there isn't just one bar line for everyone like there is today.

So music slowly was becoming more filled with advanced rhythm and individual parts, and then Phillipe de Vitry came along and said "Fuck it, we'll do it live!I'm going to move us forwards myself!"  And he started the Ars Nova period.  What's funny here is that he decided that his stuff was "New Art" and everything else was "Antique art".  I'm sure he was awesome at parties.  Anyways, this was like a super-explosion in music.  It's actually not too wacky to suggest that his stuff really did make everything else look, well, antiqua.  In fact, there are developments in music during this period of time and immediately following that we don't see again until the music of the 20th and 21st century.  It's whack as shit.  Essentially, this school ascribes to the Voltron theory of music.  The more lines you add, the more stuff going on, the better.  So you would have just a billion things going on at once.  Specifically, Ars Nova as a period is known for its Isorhythmic motets.  The motet was a song form we saw arriving around this time, and Isorhythm, which translates from Greek as "The same rhythm", is... well it's wacky assed shit, so let's see if I can explain it.

Isorhythm consists of two parts, the talea and the color.  The talea is a specific rhythm, and the color is a specific melody line.  What's important to note is that the talea and the color have different amounts of notes.  They are repeated over each other however, in each line.  So imagine that you have 4 pitches with a rhythm of Quarter-Eighth-Eighth.  When you get to the end of the talea, the Q-E-E rhythm structure, just repeat it, starting on the last pitch.  Since you're now done with the color, repeat it over the remainder of the rhythm.  Just keep doing that.  That's the basic line of an Isorhyhmic motet.  Now do that with 7 other voices.  It'll sound something like this, which is a Mass by Guillaume de Machaut, one of the two more famous Isorhyhmic composers.  The color, by the way, was taken from a Plainchant.  So we're still pretty much just dealing with chants at this point, just cut up and messed up and remixed until they're not really recognizable anymore.

Oh by the way, during this period there was also something I find absolutely hilarious and completely off the wall happening.  Sometimes, in order to get more tenor lines(The "tenor" in this period, refers to the melody, not the voice part), composers would just sort of... borrow from other works.  Which is sort of weird but ok, like a mashup.  Except that they would also start to borrow from secular works.  For their sacred works.  So it was entirely possible in this period to see a love song about a rose(which, in case you didn't know, is during pretty much all of music, code for a vagina) being sung alongside a sacred chant.  Basically, they were doing mashups of Ave Maria and Baby got back.  In churches.  This was still sacred music.  It is a tradition I think we should totally bring back.  Because it's awesome.

Also, while listening to this sort of stuff, it's important to hear that we're starting to hear the emergence of thirds.  This wasn't really a big thing that suddenly happened, but originally Fifths and fourths were considered consonant sounds, and thirds and sixths dissonant.  You can still clearly hear a ton of use of fifths and fourths during this stuff, because fifths and fourths are like, super-easy to tune, and as I mentioned, their ratios make easy mathematical sense.  Once singers starting singing thirds and sixths correctly though, they found that it had a sweet warm sound to it.  This slowly crept across Europe, and was known as the "Sweet British sound".  Guess where it originated.

I'm going to end this post for now, next update we'll look at Renaissance music.  Once we get past that and into the 17th century I'm sure we'll be able to cover more eras per post, but there is a lot of development that goes on in what I covered, and it's like, 1,000 years of music history.  Keep in mind that between Bach and today there are about 350 years.

Before I go though, here are some more examples of Ars Nova stuff, because holy shit it's so goddamn pretty to listen to.  I love this stuff so much.

As a note, Rose, Lis, Printemps, Verdue there is one of my favorite pieces of the era, because it's like, as textbook Ars nova as you can possibly get.

Oh yeah, sometimes they used instruments.

Ok, that was super-long.  As always, questions in the comments and I'll try to answer them.

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