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Early notation group - first session

Submitted by Katherina Weyssin on July 27, 2019 - 12:57pm

Thanks to everyone who came this time (Saturday July 27th), or expressed interest in coming a long in future. 

Below are some notes on what we did and what we learned in this session. Next session, we'll work on similar material. See my first post for the pieces we'll be working on, links to music, and links to more resources. 

Played: Questa e mia


Source: Petrucci's first book of frottole, Venice (1504), pp86-87

Questa e mia is a good starting piece because

  • it's relatively simple music
  • it's quite repetitive (but not boring)
  • it sounds good played slowly or quickly
  • only one line (tenor) has 'ficta' - unwritten accidentals
  • the clefs chosen are easy for some instruments (e.g. recorder)

Today's instruments: 


  • harp
  • bass recorder (in F)
  • alto recorder (in F)
  • treble viol

What we did

  1. listened to the piece (well, tune and bass line) played at tempo
  2. we all played the cantus (tune, top line) together, one section at a time, very slowly (several times)
  3. we all played the cantus line together, through the whole piece, quite slowly (several times)
  4. bass recorder and harp practiced the bass line together
  5. we played the whole piece, with bass recorder and harp on the bass line; and alto recorder and treble viol on the cantus (top) line
  6. as above, but treble viol moved to the tenor line - so we had 3 of the 4 parts solidly represented (and the harp was able to play some of the altus line as well!)

Things to know for this session

We talked about some other theory, but this is the necessary stuff for today. 

How the piece is laid out on the page

In this piece (as is common in this book) each part (each person's line) is written separately. They're not lined up vertically as in modern score-notation. So you can usually read only your own part, it's not easy to read along with other lines at the same time.

The usual arrangement in this book is:

Cantus ('tune'/top line)     Altus
Tenor Bassus

If you can only play one part, choose the Cantus. It's usually (in this book) the one that will work as a stand-alone tune. They're often quite catchy.

If you can only have two parts, Cantus+Bassus will often make a musically-satisfying duet (in this book). 

Structure - phrases and repeats

There are no barlines in this book. The vertical lines mark of phrases/sections. The thing that looks like a repeat sign (two vertical lines with a pair of dots on either side) means "go back to the previous line". 

This piece has three sections, each of which ends in a line. Let's call them A, B, C.

Play: A BB C A

Or if you want to repeat it to play or sing lots of verses: A BB C A BB C A BB C A (as many lots of "A BB C" as you like, but always finishing with a final "A").

How do I know?

The B section has a repeat sign. It also has two sets of words under it (in the cantus part).

Some parts have the words "a capite" (to the head) at the end, all have a custos (we'll come to that). That says "go back to the start". The long (note value) and the thing that looks like a modern fermata (half-circle with a dot in it hovering over the note) suggest that the piece finishes at the end of the A-section.


The bass line uses a bass clef. It doesn't look like a modern bass clef, but it means the same thing. In this case, it's even in the usual place. 

The other three lines use a C-clef. (Alto and tenor clef are modern examples of a C-clef). The line that goes through the middle of the C-clef is always middle C. It can go on any staff line. If you put it near the bottom of the staff you have lots of space above it to write high notes. If you put it near the top of the staff you have lots of space below it to wrote low notes. It's usually placed so as to avoid leger lines (people in this period felt that moveable clefs were easier to print and read than leger lines).

Tricks to make these clefs easier:

Cantus - When a C-clef is on the second staff line from the bottom recorder players can use this trick: play an alto recorder in F, but pretend it is a soprano recorder in C, and pretend that the clef is a treble-clef (with an F-sharp in the key signature). 

Bassus - This is effectively a normal, modern bass-clef - the symbol looks different, but means the same thing.

Notes and rests

The note values used in this piece, from longest to shortest are: long, breve, semibreve, minim, crotchet (or 'semiminim'), quaver (or 'fusa')(altus line only).

The only rest used is a minim rest. 

This Wikipedia article has a diagram showing the shapes for all of these notes and rests (look at the column labelled "15th century").

Music in this period uses much 'longer' notes than is normal in modern music. It doesn't mean they played slowly, they just liked to write with lots of semibreves and minims. A modern person might write the same tune out using crotchets and quavers.

Ficta ('accidentals')

The "key signatures" used often in this period are "no sharps or flats" or "has a b-flat". (Those inverted commas are because 'key signature' in the classical sense isn't really an applicable concept yet.)

This piece has no sharps or flats in the key signature.

In this period, what we'd now call 'accidentals' (sharps and flats that apply only to a few notes, not to a whole piece) often are not written in - it's assumed that the musician will know where to put them, according to what is the normal custom in that type of music. We'll talk more in future sessions about how a modern person can do that. 

For now, all we need to know is: cantus, altus and bassus line have no sharps and flats.

On the tenor line: a renaissance player would probably play C-sharps at the cadences (so the C-long at the end of the A-section, the two C-semibreves at the end of the B-section, and in the C-section, probably the two C-semibreves part way through as well as the C-breve at the end).

Time signature

The C with a vertical line is a time signature (or rather a mensuration sign). It does tell you something about rhythm, but the information it gives isn't identical to a modern time signature. 

In this case, it means that the underlying pulse (tactus) is at the breve, and that the note-lengths are what we'd expect from modern music (i.e. a semibreve is twice as long as a minim, a minim twice as long as a crotchet, etc). 



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