Musicologist’s finding hidden in plain sight

Special to Western News

James Grier, an award-winning musicologist in Western’s Don Wright Faculty of Music, discovered the earliest surviving handwritten manuscripts featuring notation above musical text or lyrics – a technique fundamentally still used today.

James Grier didn’t see it. Until he did.

Grier, an award-winning musicologist in Western’s Don Wright Faculty of Music, spent years studying in the manuscript room at the Bibliothèque Nationale de France. Recently, he made a connection no one had made before.

Looking at old manuscripts from a monastery in France, he found the earliest surviving handwritten manuscripts featuring precise notations – literally, dots on a page – placed above musical texts. What’s unusual, and unprecedented, Grier was able to attribute the origin of this practice to one monk, thereby providing a reference point for the practice of notation – still used today – for music historians going forward.

“We knew about these manuscripts for a long time. We have (manuscripts) from early 10th century, up to the 15-16th centuries. We have had these manuscripts, and people have been working on them for a good half century now,” Grier noted, explaining the practice of placing a dot above a word in a musical text to indicate pitch had already been identified as common practice.

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“But we knew this guy, Adémar, had identified himself in one of the manuscripts. He made a specific note as the person who supplied the musical annotation. This is unusual for monastic manuscripts as people were often self-effacing and didn’t claim authorship,” Grier continued.

Grier was looking at documents from nearly 1,000 years ago, manuscripts written by Adémar de Chabannes (c. 989-1034), a monk of the Abbey of Saint-Cybard in Angoulême, France. One particular Adémar manuscript featured fixed and precise dots to indicate pitch. It was the first of its kind.

“Manuscripts from the 10th century use the vertical dimension to indicate melodic direction, but they don’t show specific intervallic duration,” he explained.

Picture sheet music, as you know it today. For each word below the staff, there is a specific note above – indicating if the word that follows is to be sung in a lower or higher note. It also indicates how much higher or lower you have to sing what follows.

The dots found in manuscripts of Adémar’s time indicated only directionality – instructing monks to sing higher or lower. There was no distance or pitch interval in the manuscript. What Adémar did, for the first time, is use the vertical field to indicate both directionality and pitch in musical notation, Grier explained.

“I identified Adémar as the scribe who introduced this particular technique into the scriptorium. It’s important because we now have a very specific time and we can date things,” Grier said.

Winner of a Killam Research Fellowship in 2009, Grier’s findings were published late last year in the Journal of the American Musicological Society.

“We’re able to specifically date these manuscripts that they become an anchor point around which we can date others. Adémar was a skilled scribe and very much aware of the power of writing, something we take for granted all of the time,” he continued.

“For monks of the generation before Adémar, for older monks, they would have had to rely on their memories to replicate the sequence of notes that makes up the chant. The big change Adémar made was to pedagogy, for young monks who aspire to become big soloists in a monastic community, they had an alternative for learning the chants – they could learn it from books, just as we can now.”

For all intents and purposes, Adémar can be credited for creating books that can be functionally read as music. It’s an overwhelmingly significant contribution to musical literacy, Grier said.

“Placement on the vertical axis remains the standard convention for indicating pitch in notation in Western culture and there is far greater weight on pitch than on many other elements such as dynamics and timbre,” he explained.