Music, School of


Date of this Version



Plainsong and Medieval Music, 4:2 (October 1995), 117-47.


© 1995 Cambridge University Press. Used by permission.


Beyond the standard and familiar theoretical instruction materials on notation and mensuration, on mode and hexachord, and on the rules of two-part counterpoint, information and insight about the techniques of musical composition in the later Middle Ages are hard to come by. From a modern vantage point, medieval music theory leaves many of the questions most interesting to us unanswered. And for our part, too, analysts of chansons and motets have yet to agree on many basic notions about how this music works, and therefore what is most necessary to talk about. It is symptomatic of this state of affairs that articles discussing analytical approaches to early music, even those addressed to specialists, do not start out in medias res but rather must begin with first principles, and that current textbooks ignore or skimp on all but the most superficial aspects of musical style. We need to establish for all genres the paradigms or fundamental givens, the constraints understood at the outset, the range of choices available to the composer.

One set of questions that needs to be asked of any piece of music concerns its tonal behaviour, its way of working with tones. I take this quite specifically here to mean its definition of the extent and content of musical space, its choice of pitches, and its ways of favouring certain pitches and discriminating against others. In more formal language, we may ask if and how a piece articulates varying, yet perhaps systematic and hierarchical, tonal functions among pitches. We must seek to learn in what respects pieces are unique and in what respects similar to other compositions in these regards, and whether it is possible 'to integrate existing information into a logical pattern'.

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