This chapter describes the elements, model classes, and attribute classes that are
part of the MEI.neumes module.
6.1Overview of the Neumes Module
The MEI Neumes Module represents the community’s attempt to create a standardized
set of rules that encapsulate in a logical, systematic, and unequivocal way the musical
information represented and conveyed by Western European neumatic notations (beginning
with the late ninth century and continuing to the printed books of the twentieth).
Most neume notation is used to set music to an existing text. The syllable is the
fundamental unit of structure, with the neumes themselves serving as a means of “sonifying”
the text. A syllable may be expressed via one or more neumes, with the particular
neume shape chosen depending on the pitch contour that is being employed and the desired
The `syllable` element is used as the primary organizational element for neume notation
within a `layer` element. Within `syllable`, the `syl` element defined in the `MEI.shared`
module is used for encoding the textual content, while the `neume` and `nc` elements
are used to encode the neumes themselves. Within these Neumes Module elements, other
standard MEI mechanisms are available to accommodate, for example, editorial or critical
6.1.1Basic four elements
The following four elements are the fundamental components of the Neumes Module:
There are four main challenges in encoding Western European early music. The first
relates to the fact that early notation was just a mnemonic aid that helped the readers
to recall the music they already knew by heart and, as such, it conveys only partial
musical information (Bain, Behrendt, & Helsen 2014; Helsen, Behrendt, & Bain 2017).
Indeed, it is only with the invention of staff lines in the eleventh century that
the system of musical transmission gradually changed, relying more on the written
record rather than on orality. The second challenge refers to the existence of different
regional styles of early notation; early-music manuscripts display a great graphical
variety of musical signs, which include both neumes and other notational elements
conveying further musical information (e.g., significative letters, Old Hispanic ticks, etc.). Thirdly, some of those regional
notational styles occasionally share graphically similar shapes; these similar shapes
within the different notational styles are understood by modern scholars to represent
the same, a similar, or even a different musical meaning. Finally, while on occasion the neume shapes appear to mirror graphically
the musical characteristics of the sound being represented (e.g., pen-stroke going up = rising melody), in many instances it is generally understood
that the meaning attached to the neumes (or the other notational elements) may not
be so straight-forward, but instead was ruled by conventions shared by the people
who knew orally the musical repertory being fixed in written form by means of notation.
What do these challenges entail for modern encoders?
Firstly, sometimes we have to deal with written signs whose meaning is obscure to
us and, while we can infer the meaning of some of those signs from the study of later
manuscripts with the same melodies and a more precise notation, in other cases we
need to turn to music palaeographers who examine the recurrence of those written signs
and the context where they were used. By analysing scribal hands in particular manuscripts,
palaeographers can often work out if a written sign is a meaningless scribal variant
or a graphical feature conveying musical meaning to the medieval reader. Secondly,
since a neume shape could either mirror on the page the aural event or bear some other
musical meaning attached by convention, the encoding sometimes relies on the visual
level or on the semantic level, and this distinction has to be made on a case-by-case
basis. Moreover, since the same written sign could have multiple interpretations according
to the style of notation where it was employed, it is crucial to be aware of the conventions
of each regional notational alphabet in order to capture the musical information conveyed
by that sign in the contexts where it is found.
See two examples of shapes found in different regional styles that are not captured
with the same encoding:
St Gall notation Oriscus (one-note ornamental neume). The oriscus is the middle note of a three-note
raising gesture (commonly called salicus in the literature).
Old Hispanic notation: Two-note downward melodic gesture.
Old Hispanic notation: Four-note neutral-low-high-low melodic gesture.
Aquitanian notation: Three-note rising neume with oriscus on the second note.
A further complication is that while the music encoding aims to narrow down and capture
the meaning of the neumes in a logical and coherent system, occasionally the significance
of some neumes is under debate (e.g., quilisma) and, despite its aim for accuracy, the encoding must remain open for future interpretations.
From all these challenges has arisen the need for an early music encoding standardisation,
that is, a set of rules that work for the description of any neume across all early
notations regardless of the different methodologies applied to the study of individual
notations and their idiosyncrasies.
Broadly speaking, Western early notations belong to two main categories. On one side
we have notations where two or more notes were represented by a single pen-stroke,
while on the other side there are notations where the notes are graphically separated
by means of discrete dots or short pen-strokes. These distinctions have been described
even within single notational styles as gapped or not gapped (Behrendt, Bain, & Helsen
2017). To date, the MEI Neumes Module has been tested mainly on square notations and
stroke notations (St. Gall, Old Hispanic, etc.), but also on Aquitanian point-notation.
6.4Samples of MEI encodings
neume and nc are the most common elements used in the MEI Neumes module. In the following examples
we can see how these elements are used to describe sung gestures of 1, 2, and 4 notes
in square notation.
Encodes the melodic interval from the previous pitch. The value may be a general
directional indication (u, d, s, etc.), an indication of diatonic interval direction,
quality, and size, or a precise numeric value in half steps.
Direction of the initial direction for an s-shaped pen stroke; i.e., "w" for the
standard letter S, "e" for its mirror image, "s" for the letter S turned 90-degrees
anti-clockwise, and "n" for its mirror image.
Nota bene: in the last example we can read the exact pitch of the custos because the
lozenged punctum (placed one step below the line) signals the lower note of the semitone
E-F. This information, combined with the identification of the finalis of the piece,
allows us to decipher the mode of this piece, that is the 4th.
Captures the placement of the sequence of characters with respect to the neume or
neume component with which it is associated.
SIGNIFICATIVE LETTERS - St Gall notation
Other articulation marks such as ictus, circulus, semicirculus, accentus, and other
fonts in SMuFL can be encoded using: glyph.auth, glyph.name, glyph.num, and glyph.uri.
6.4.10Basic Encoding – Syllable
The following example illustrates the MEI encoding of the opening of Hildegarde’s
“O Splendidissima Gemma” with the text “O splendidissima”. This example provides the
basic MEI skeleton to have a valid MEI file and it may be used for reference for scholars
willing to start encoding early music (and its text) in MEI. Information about the
staff has been omitted for brevity, but it was originally encoded on a 5-line staff with
two clefs, a “C” and a “F” on lines 5 and 3, respectively.
Samples of MEI of St Gall notation are taken from the winter volume of the so-called
”Hartker Antiphonary” CH-SGs Cod. Sang. 390.
Samples of MEI of Old Hispanic notation are taken from the ”León Antiphoner” E-L MS 8.
Bain, Jennifer, Inga Behrendt, and Kate Helsen. 2014. “Linienlose Neumen und ihre
Repräsentation mit MEI Schema, Herausforderungen in der Arbeit im Optical Neume Recognition
Project (ONRP).” Digitale Rekonstruktionen mittelalterlicher Bibliotheken. Edited by Sabine Philippi and Philipp Vanscheidt. Trierer Beiträge zu den historischen Kulturwissenschaften 12: 119–32.
Behrendt, Inga, Jennifer Bain, and Kate Helsen. 2017. “MEI Kodierung der frühesten
Notation in linienlosen Neumen.” Kodikologie und Paläographie im Digitalen Zeitalter 4 / Codicology and Palaeography
in the Digital Age. Vol. 4. Edited by Hannah Busch, Franz Fischer, and Patrick Sahle, with the cooperation
of Philip Hegel and Celiz Krause, Norderstedt 2016. Köln: Institut für Dokumentologie
und Editorik e.V, 2017, 281–96.
De Luca, Elsa, Jennifer Bain, Inga Behrendt, Ichiro Fujinaga, Kate Helsen, Alessandra Ignesti,
Debra Lacoste, and Sarah Long. “Capturing Early Notations in MEI: The Case of Old
Hispanic Neumes”. Musiktheorie-Zeitschrift für Musikwissenschaft 2, 2019: 229-49.