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Early music notation study-group

Submitted by Katherina Weyssin on July 19, 2019 - 12:53pm

What is this?

A practical study-group to learn how to play early music directly from the notation in which it was first written. Specifically, music printed in Italy in about 1500 (possibly extending earlier as we get better at this). 

The philosophy will be "learn by doing" and "one step at a time". 

In each session we'll aim to learn enough theory to play the piece in front of us; and to choose pieces so that we can tackle one challenge at a time.

Of course I want to know everything and be able to play everything, but experience suggests I can't absorb it all at once.


It's hard, and hard can be fun. 

Practically: there are now thousands of books of early music available online, for free, in high-quality photographic facsimiles. It's never been so easy to get at photographs of "the original". If you can read them, you'll never be short of early music to play. You don't have to rely on another editor. And some of this has not been played in centuries.

Personally: I want more people to play with! I want to hear more of this repertoire with all the parts!

When, where?

It will be on Saturdays (but not every Saturday) at William and Katherina's house in Blockhouse Bay. Schedule and time of day TBC - depends on what suits those who want to come. 

What will I need to participate?

An instrument (voice counts), the ability to read modern music, and lots of enthusiasm.


Your instrument needs to be melodic (can play a tune - drums won't work, unfortunately) and portable. You need to be able to play it well enough to be able to concentrate on the notation.

Modern instruments are fine. The aim is to learn to read the notation, not to develop a balanced renaissance ensemble. Historical instruments are very welcome too, of course. 

Voice is fine. Excellent, in fact. (You still need to be able to read music.)

If you're better at some instruments than others, consider starting with the one you know best. (I practiced on this notation with a recorder for a few months before I switched to viol). One challenge at a time!

Consider playing only one melody line at a time, even if that's not what your instrument is best at. E.g. Harps and guitars - you might want to pick out a single line. It's a boring harp-piece (no chords! one hand!) but it will allow you to focus on reading at first.

Loaner instruments: I have a keyboard and some recorders that you can use while you are here.

We'll be playing at A440. If you don't know what that means it's almost certainly not going to be a problem for you. Wikipedia article on the history of pitch standards in Western Music, for the curious:


Sight-reading ability

The aim is to teach people who can already read music (in modern notation) some skills in reading earlier music - "learn a new language" rather than "learn to read". 

Here's a piece from the book we'll be working from, in modern notation. It's neither especially easy nor especially hard, by the standards of this repertoire.è_tempo_d'aspettare_(Cara%2C_Marchetto)

If you can sight-read this easily in modern notation you'll be able to fully concentrate on the early notation.

If it's manageable - let's say you can play it at a moderate pace with 80% accuracy after a go or two - you'll probably do ok. You'll be able to split your attention between 'playing the music' and 'learning the notation'. 

If this is quite challenging - if you'd have to practice a lot to be able to play it through at a moderate tempo - this probably isn't the right group for you ... yet! If you're new to reading music there are lots of resources and teachers available. If you've got the basics, fluency will come with practice. Everyone in the two groups above has been where you are now!


Really. This will probably be hard at first for many of us. It gets easier but only if you can make it through the initial brain-melty phase. Mild interest probably won't get you through; passion absolutely will. 

That said - learning to read music at all is hard, and learning to play a new instrument is hard. If you had the determination to do that, you can do this. 

What music will we play? 

I like working with peices from one book for quite a while. Musical notation changed over time and from place to place (of course!) but a symbol usually means the same thing throughout a single book. 

We'll start with Petrucci's first book of frottole, published in 1504 in Venice. It's full of pretty, short secular songs. It was aimed at people like us - amateurs who like to sing or play music with friends in their leisure time.  

IMSMP has a copyright-free photographic facsimile.

I've chosen a set of pieces to start with that

  • are simple music
  • I like a lot (I hope you will like them too)
  • have little notational complexity - no ligatures or funky time signatures or anything like that
  • use consistent clefs, so we can learn one thing at a time
    • bass line has F-clef in the normal modern location (i.e. normal bass clef)
    • top line has C-clef on the second line from the bottom (there are some tricks that make this an clef easy for recorder players)

These are all four-part pieces, but we might try with fewer lines at first. 

Starting set (not necessarily in this order)

  page number 
  printed in book in the pdf
Oime el cor iii 10,11
Questa e mia xli 86, 87
A dio signora xlix 102, 103
In eterno xi 26, 27
Sio non stato xxxvii 78, 79
El convera xxvi 56, 57
Ah partiale xxiv 62, 63

After these, we'll probably be ready to move to other clef-positions, and other notational challenges. 

Resources for early notation

My go-to book on the topic is Willi Apel's "The Notation of Polyphonic Music 900–1600". Published 1942 and still excellent. Better, it's freely available online:

For us, for now, the most relevant section is Part II: "The notation of ensemble music: white mensural notation". 

I've a range of other resources that you're welcome to peruse when you visit. 


Disclaimer: this isn't a formal event or activity of the Barony of Ildhafn. It's a scheme of Katherina's that she thinks will appeal to some SCA folk. 



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