Thursday, July 17, 2014

The Growth of Instrumental Music

The other day a commentator posed quite an interesting question about instrumental music. The post was this one and the question is below.

After reading the Oxford History of Western Music I got the understanding that most (i.e. pretty much all) medieval (and even most reneissance) music that was written down didn't include any musical instruments. Or at least that's the impression I got from what Taruskin wrote. This clearly seems to be false as the examples above show. Of course, there was probably a lot of music that was played using instruments during that time but was never written down. So, if you could maybe help get rid of my misunderstanding as to the division between pure song, song plus instruments and instruments only during medieval and reneissance times it would be nice.
I gave a brief answer, but I would like to expand it a bit. I don't know if many people sit around puzzling over the history of music, but I, at least, find it fascinating. We often think of music as being primarily vocal music. All our current talent shows are for singers. Isn't this odd? Because at other times when we think about music it is in terms of instrumental music. "Should I sign up my child for violin or piano lessons?"

In terms of music history we mostly have the vague idea that music began with chanting, dancing and pounding away on log drums. Which it probably did. But we do have some examples of Neanderthal bone flutes. Our knowledge of the pre-history of music is very sketchy. We have a few examples of ancient music notation, but they are so vague and hard to interpret that performances are mere guesses. This is even true of the great civilization of the ancient Greeks, who must have had a highly developed music as it was used to accompany their highly developed drama. They also invented music theory, though as the music itself has not been preserved it is no more than a floating abstraction.

So the history of music that we can actually know, that is, as the title of the first volume of the Oxford History of Western Music describes it: "Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century" is little more than a millennium old.

You might have the idea that, as vocal music seems to be the predominant kind, that it was written down before instrumental music. But think of the challenge: how would you write down what singers sing? Wouldn't it be much easier to write down what instrumentalists do, as you can simply create a chart of where their fingers go? Much simpler than trying to figure out how to write down pure sound waves, right? But no, oddly enough, the more difficult challenge was taken up first and the reason has to do with the particular historical details. The writing down of music was the invention of Christian monks who needed to accurately record the way in which the liturgy of the church was sung. The reasons for this were partly political as I talked about in this post:
Chant is the foundation of Western music and why that came to be is rather interesting. Turns out that political considerations were crucial. In the 8th century the pope, Stephen II, had to ask Pepin the Short, King of the Franks, for protection against the Lombards who were threatening Rome. Pepin agreed and this collaboration led in time to an alliance between the Franks, soon to be led by Charlemagne, Pepin's son, and Rome, whose then pope, Leo III, would crown him ruler of the Holy Roman Empire. This led to a happy time, the Carolingian renaissance, and the growth and stabilization of many civilized institutions. A system of education was developed and, in order to enable the standardization and dissemination of the chant of the church, the first practical musical notation was created. What we use today is at the end of a long period of development and improvement of this same notation.

The northern Franks practiced the Gallican Rite at the time and this was replaced by Roman liturgical texts and, at first, the melodies used with them. At this time, Christian worship was largely sung--one sang to the Lord, one didn't chat with Him. Suppressing the Gallican rite and replacing it with Roman was easy to do with the text, but harder when it came to the music. In order to teach everyone to sing the same melodies in the same way, a better method had to be found than just teaching by rote, which was the only one available at the time. No-one thought it was sufficiently important to write about at the time, so we don't know exactly where and how it happened, but this was when melodies began to be written down and it was the Franks who started the process.
At the beginning, what we now call vocal notation, i.e. the notation of music to be sung, was just blobby curvy lines attempting to show the contour of the melody. An absolutely crucial step was to define the notes in some way and the solution was the use of horizontal lines to chart the exact pitch of each note. Here is what that looked like:

The second big problem was how to notate rhythm and the solution to that took a few centuries and involved the invention of the barline, meter and tie.

Getting back to instrumental music, it was, for many centuries, simply improvised as it is today in many musical genres. The development of notated, i.e. formalized, instrumental music took place in the mid-15th century and, as Taruskin tells us, was inspired by the careers of two blind Flemish violinists, Charles and Jean, who were virtuosos. Their playing was so compelling that the desire arose to write it down and so was born the genre of notated instrumental music. This story doesn't arrive until p. 536 in the Oxford History, which tells you something about the long span of time before much attention was paid to instrumental music.

The improvisations of those blind violinists were recorded by the theorist Tinctoris in vocal notation, but most of the early instrumental music was written down in tablature, which is still in use today in popular music. Here is an example of German keyboard tablature:

And French lute tablature:

In the lute tablature, you will notice that above the indications as to where the fingers go, are stems indicating rhythmic values. A common failing of tablature is that it shows you where to put your fingers, but not when. For that, the rhythmic notation developed for vocal notation is needed. Here is a modern example of tablature. This is the beginning of Kindhearted Woman Blues by Robert Johnson in a modern transcription:

Click to enlarge

Here, the guitar part is shown in vocal notation above and tablature below. The guitarist can read the rhythmic values from the upper part.

The publication of notated instrumental music began in the very early 16th century with volumes of tablature for the lute, renaissance guitar and vihuela. The two basic kinds at first were dances and pieces that imitated the style of vocal music. First, here is a dance piece, La Volta, music for a dance with a lot of leaping about. I can't find the original version for lute, but here is John Williams on guitar:

Francesco da Milano wrote many fantasias for lute that recreate the contrapuntal style of vocal music:

To answer the original question, which was prompted by the fact that I put up several examples of 14th and 15th century chansons and they all had instruments accompanying the singers, this is what I wrote:
There is a slow evolution in instrumental music. In the early days of notated music, say, from 1000 AD to 1200, the only thing written down was a vocal melody. We know that instruments were used from various kinds of evidence: carvings of musicians in cathedrals, pictures in manuscripts and written down accounts and descriptions of musical events. But we see nothing in the notation. A chanson from this time was notated as a single melodic line, just like Gregorian chant. The rhythms were pretty iffy too. So modern performing groups try to recreate how they think the music was performed by using instruments: perhaps a vielle or recorder doubling the melodic line, some bare fifths accompanying on the lute and some percussion. We should all remember that these are just guesses!

Later on, as multi-voice secular music developed, there was the possibility of assigning the main melody to the voice and the others to instruments. This is probably the case with the Machaut and Dufay examples. But a percussion part is still pure speculation. The next development is the development of instrumental notation known as tablature. Instead of showing the pitch of the note, this shows you where to put your finger to obtain that note. There are examples of tablature for both keyboards and lute. By the end of the 16th century we see the development of the modern score, with written out parts for both voices and instruments. An example would be the music to Monteverdi's opera Orfeo.
And that is a nice summary.


Rickard said...

It's a shame that so much music has been lost due to not being written down (but then again a lot of other things have been been lost, history takes no prisoners). I'm in the process of reading the Bible (yes, I'm a Christian) from beginning to end and there are descriptions of how the clergy did their work during the period of the Izraeli and Judaic kings (roughly 1000 to a few hundred BC, Izrael got split into Izrael and Judah Anyways, there were clergy dedicated to playing music in music ensembles consisting of zitters, harps, percussion and singers. The music itself has of course been lost (unless it somehow has survived by rote learning which I doubt). Many of the texts seem to be extant though (amongst other things there is a part in the Bible called "Book of Psalms" which contain psalms/hymns of course, haven't read it yet). The hymns have been set to music later though (

Anyways, something I'm thinking of now is that we humans managed to write down languages much earlier than music. In a sense this makes a lot of sense. Language is a more essential component for humans and the necessity to write down language thus came earlier. We didn't really value music in the same way and only wrote it down as a by-product of a necessity (the spreading of chant). I don't know what caused the writing down of language, maybe it can be atributed to a single event in the same way but I highly doubt it. However, unlike writing down language, the writing down of music didn't seem to gain such an importance in many cultures. I think it makes the Western music lucky in that regard because it allowed music to progress so much further than it could using rote learning. Imagine rote learning a symphony... Also, in some ways it's strange that it took over 500 years to complete the task of achieving the solid music notation system we have today. I guess it's also a case of not seeing a need. If there would be a clearer need to notate everything accurately a such system would be developed maybe within a 100 years.

Bryan Townsend said...

The only culture that I know of that survives from ancient times right up until the present day, is the Jewish culture and it is remarkable how well they have preserved the essentials of their culture. Perhaps there are even some musical elements, but I am not familiar enough with Jewish music to be able to say.

The writing down of language has happened many times in different places in history. Indeed, the notion of "history" itself comes from the writing down of events. Before then, it is "prehistory". One crucial moment came right around when the Homeric epics were being created. It seems to be the opinion of many scholars that they were largely composed aurally and only written down afterward. But the invention of writing by the Greeks, with both consonants and vowels, based on the Phoenician alphabet, took place around this same time, the 8th century BC. But the writing of language was invented in many different ways in different places. The Chinese system of writing is only one example.

Music writing however, is different. It came along, much, much later, around the year 1000 AD, and took five hundred years to perfect. There were other systems invented, some in the ancient world and some in Europe, but they are all sketchy and rudimentary in comparison to the one developed in Western Europe and now used worldwide.

Unknown said...

"The second big problem was how to notate rhythm and the solution to that took a few centuries and involved the invention of the barline, meter and tie."

While these is guess work on our part today in understanding it, the plainsong quoted actually contains quite a bit of rhythmic information which would have been understood at the time. The combination of neumes and ligatures and the order in which they are placed, which side and direction the tails point all help outline the rhythmic mode. While the earliest forms of writing chants lack this type of detail, by the 13 cent. this was common practice and is outlined in the "De Mensurabili Musica" compiled from earlier treatises by Garlandia, written some time in the early 13 cent.

The music of Perotin and Leonin may be a little harder to interpret with certainty as Garlandia could have been influenced in his interpretation of the older treatises by the common practice of his time, they still had a way of encoding rhythmic modes.

"Belle, bonne, sage" which adorns the header of this site contains a lot extremely complex rhythmic information. It has colouration (which applies a diminution by some factor of 3 depending on the colour), mensural changes (including a proportional change from 8 notes in the same time it took to sing 9 right near the end of the second line at the top of the heart). The Ars Subtilior period is noted, even today, for is extremely complex rhythms and that complexity wasn't really seen again until the 20th cent.

All of it was notated without bars, ties and meter (Although I'm understanding meter here in the context of bars and implied accents. Renaissance music has a tactus - beat/pulse - but it is a little different to an understanding of music groups into bars)

The other thing that people seem to not really consider all that much in how music developed, especially with regards to choice of instrument/singing or combinations of, is tuning.

It's a common fallacy that medieval composers didn't use thirds - they did but as a dissonance. Machaut uses a D-F# chord to resolve into an open 5th of C-G at a cadence in a similar way tonal music uses a tritone C-F# to B-G).

It is an even greater fallacy that they "learned" to hear thirds as consonant. Medieval composers heard major thirds as dissonant because a Pythagorean third is dissonant. A large part of what made the English countenance, and the Franco-Flemish school heavily influenced by it, so remarkable was the shift to using pure thirds which then led to serious development and debate of tuning systems. Obviously singers have a tremendous capability for micro shifts in tuning of each individual note (See Vincentino's system for 31 note scale based on 1/4 mean-tone) as do non fretted string instruments. Other instruments have a much more difficult time in altering the tuning of individual notes.

Also, just because composers chose not to specify an instrument on the part itself is absolutely not an indication that it wasn't written with an instrument in mind. Even during the Baroque period, scores can be quite sparse with regards to things like tempo and dynamics it doesn't mean that they weren't used.

Bryan Townsend said...

Hi Nathaniel, thanks for adding so much detail to my post. The example I used is actually the tenor to a composition with other parts, I quoted it out of convenience. And yes, it does indicate rhythms, but in a system that ultimately was replaced by the modern one, which, frankly, is much clearer! The invention of barlines made an amazing difference.

There is just one thing I would like to comment on. You said, "Medieval composers heard major thirds as dissonant because a Pythagorean third is dissonant." This is not actually true. I assume that you are describing Pythagorean [major] thirds as dissonant compared to equal-tempered thirds? But it is actually the other way around! Pythagorean intervals are "pure" intervals. All equal-tempered intervals are slightly out of tune as the Pythagorean "comma" is distributed among them. It makes for the ability to modulate to any key, but there is a price. You often see guitarists struggling to get their third string in tune, going back and forth between an E major chord and a C major chord. The reason is that there is a very audible overtone coming from the sixth string that is a Pythagorean major third, a G#. If you have quite good hearing, you can hear the difference between this G# and the equal-tempered one that you are playing on the third string first fret (part of the E major chord). The solution is simple: never use an E major chord to tune. Use an E minor chord instead.

There is also another important distinction: Medieval composers were quite happy using thirds, more and more as time went on. But they were not to be used in a final cadence. You couldn't END with a third. There was an echo of this for centuries after as composers tended to replace a minor third with a major third (seen as more acceptable) in a final chord. This is called the "tierce de Picardy."

Yes, you are quite right about instruments often not being specified. There are volumes and volumes of Renaissance duets with no particular instruments specified.

Unknown said...

Hi Bryan,

Forgive me, I should have been more precise with my terminology. By a "pure" interval, I was referring to a just interval. They get called "pure" because they are tuned in the best possible way and are so called "beatless".
It's actually not true that all Pythagorean intervals are pure. The perfect 5th and the just 5th are the same interval with a ratio of 3/2 but the major and minor thirds are very different.

Let me demonstrate (I hope you don't mind fractions but it is the easiest way)

Just Intervals:
Unison 1/1
Octave 2/1
perfect 5th 3/2
perfect fourth 4/3
major third 5/4
minor third 6/5

I can tune a perfect 5th by adding a major 3rd and a minor 3rd:

5/4 x 6/5 = 30/20 = 3/2

and for good measure lets tack a fourth on top for the octave:

5/4 x 6/5 x 4/3 = 120/60 = 2/1

Now building a scale using just (pythagorean) 5ths:

A cycle of 5ths has 12 5ths and should equal 7 octaves...

7 octaves:
2x2x2x2x2x2x2 = 128

12 just 5ths:
3/2x3/2x3/2x3/2x3/2x3/2x3/2x3/2x3/2x3/2x3/2x3/2 = 129.74634

This discrepancy is the Pythagorean comma you mentioned.
Equal temperament gets around this by lowering (tempering) each fifth by 1/12 of this comma. So each ET 5th is flat by 1/12 of the pythag comma (This results in 4ths and 5ths that are actually pretty close to just).

A Pythagorean third is shown by taking 4 stacked 5ths...

C - G - D - A - E

and should equal 2 octaves + major third.

Lets start with the 2 octaves + third:

2x2x5/4 = 20/4

which can be brought back into a single octave i.e. a major third directly over the base note, by multiplying it with 1/4 (bring down 1 octave is 1/2, two is 1/2x1/2=1/4)

20/4 x 1/4 = 5/4

Now using the 4 5ths:

3/2x3/2x3/2x3/2 = 81/16 x 1/4 = 81/64 <- Pythagorean major third.

This discrepancy is called the syntonic comma and is where 1/4 mean tone gets its name - it takes 1/4 of this comma and tempers each 5ths by that amount. These 5ths are quite a bit flatter than ET 5ths but the major third is now just.

5/4 = 1.25
81/64 = 1.2656

So as you can see the Pythagorean third is sharper than the just third.

To put it into more perspective I’ll use cents to compare the thirds as cents is a good measurement because it's linear and it is relative to ET so it's values can be understood audibly.

So 1200 cents per octave and 100 cents is one semitone.

ET major third 400c (As the ET 5th is almost pure it's thirds are sharp too)
Pythag major third is 408c
Just major third is 386c

(Just for fun..the ET fifth is about 2 cents flatter than a just 5th)

As you can see the pythag third is even more sharp than an ET third and is 22c sharper than a just third: This is almost 1/4 of an ET semitone difference and by looking at its ratio 81/64 you can tell that it beats very quickly thus it is quite dissonant and is almost twice the distance in cents from pure as an ET third is.

And as I said, Medieval composers did use thirds, I even gave an example of one such use, but they treated the third as dissonant which is why they didn't close with it. A Pythagorean third was not considered stable enough to use as a resting consonance.

Bryan Townsend said...

Quite so!! Nathaniel, are you a piano-tuner by profession?

I witnessed a fascinating demonstration once for an early music seminar. A harpsichordist brought in two harpsichords, one tuned in, oh, probably one of the immediate predecessors of equal-tempered, Werckmeister III perhaps, and the other tuned in mean-tone. Then he proceeded to play pieces on each to illustrate the differences. The earlier composers sounded quite good because they avoided harmonies, like A flat, where the deficiencies of mean-tone become clear.

Unknown said...

Hi Bryan,

Nope, not a piano tuner by trade unfortunately. I did have a brief stint assisting the tuning of chamber organs about 10 years ago for a local early music festival so I learnt quite a lot then.

I actually make my bread as a software developer in the VFX industry which is quite maths heavy so the numeric aspects involved with tuning are right up my alley. 20 years of coding has also really helped me in absorbing the copious theories that abound regarding the construction of music.

I'm also an amateur composer/musician (Composition was always been my main thread but I got distracted by and still maintain an active performance routine in both jazz (double bass) and classical (Singer). In the last few years I've become much more proactive with regards to composition and like you, I've been learning the piano with some success - I've also been quite seriously thinking of a change of pace and becoming a piano tuner so it struck me that you mentioned it (I'm wearing that desire on my sleeve it would appear.)

Bryan Townsend said...

Well, I see why you have all those numbers at your fingertips!

My piano skills are developing very slowly--wish I had stuck with lessons when I was eleven!

Thanks for dropping by and I certainly appreciate your comments.