Measuring Polyphony

‘Measuring Polyphony’ presents, for the first time, digitisations of polyphonic compositions written during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries in mensural notation, linked directly, in most cases, to high-resolution images of the original manuscript sources.

  • Karen Desmond, Brandeis

The thirteenth and fourteenth centuries saw an unprecedented increase in the production of manuscripts transmitting music repertoires with a new diversity of styles, genres, and subject matter, copied in both music-only anthologies, and in miscellaneous collections that interweave song, text, and illuminations. At the same time, techniques for specifically notating rhythmic duration emerged, a notation called “mensural” or “measurable.” Almost all polyphonic music (music composed for two or more parts) from 1300-1600 is notated in mensural notation, the rules of which changed little from c. 1350. Yet modern print editions distance today’s readers from the original experience of this music: first, by translating the original notation into modern notation; and second, by sorting and classifying this repertoire according to conventions associated with the printed book (that is, presenting it in volumes or series ordered by composer, genre, or country).

‘Measuring Polyphony’ presents, for the first time, digitisations of polyphonic compositions written during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries in mensural notation, linked directly, in most cases, to high-resolution images of the original manuscript sources. It offers new possibilities for mediating the scholarly and public experience of this richly evocative music within its original context. The project began at the Schulich School of Music at McGill University, and now continues at Brandeis University. It leverages the potential of the rich digital image repositories of music manuscripts and the community-based standards for encoding music notation of the Music Encoding Initiative.