In This Article Medieval Music Theory

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Bibliographies
  • Fundamentals of Music
  • Chant and Mode
  • Counterpoint
  • Musica Ficta
  • Mensuration
  • Music Theory in Philosophical and Scientific Contexts
  • Miscellaneous Topics

Medieval Studies Medieval Music Theory
by
Jan Herlinger
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 February 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396584-0128

Introduction

Medieval music theory encompasses technical writing on music from roughly 500 to 1450 CE—from the transmission to the West of ancient Greek music theory via the writings of Boethius and his contemporaries to the development of printing. It was disseminated principally in Latin (the primary language of intellectual discourse in the West) through handwritten documents, which remain its principal witnesses. The subjects of medieval music theory include fundamentals of music, notation of both pitch and rhythm, counterpoint, musica ficta, and modes. It has strong relations to other disciplines of the quadrivium (arithmetic, geometry, astronomy); to the institutions within which it flourished (church, monastic and cathedral schools, and—during the later Middle Ages—universities). It has strong ties to philosophy and theology and, of course, to music in practice. During the later Middle Ages English, German, French, Italian, and other vernaculars became increasingly common in discourse on music, but never overtook Latin.

General Overviews

The best introductions to medieval music theory are Pesce 2011 and Herlinger 2001: Pesce presents a concise survey of the development of music theory from about 500 to 1450; Herlinger focuses on the period 1300–1450, covering the topics of music theory in greater detail. Riemann 1962 is an updated translation of the 1920 work that laid the foundation for subsequent study of medieval music theory; though marred by biases prevalent in the author’s time (and only partially ameliorated by the translator’s interventions), the work is still useful for orientation and remains a document of crucial importance in the reception of medieval music theory. Zaminer, et al. 1984–2006 provides the most extensive overview of the subject. Christensen 2002, the only single-volume treatment of Western music theory from Antiquity to the present in English, includes eight chapters dealing with medieval music theory. Gushee 1973, groundbreaking in its account of the typology of medieval music treatises, set the stage for many later studies; Meyer 2001 extends Gushee’s work, providing a broader typology of a greater range of medieval music treatises. Taruskin 2005, a history of medieval and Renaissance music not restricted to their theory, is notable for its exposition of the relationship of theory and practice.

  • Christensen, Thomas, ed. The Cambridge History of Western Music Theory. Cambridge, UK, and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002.

    DOI: 10.1017/CHOL9780521623711E-mail Citation »

    Rather than a synoptic history of music theory, this is a series of studies of various topics, each by an authority on the topic, each with its own bibliography of primary and secondary sources. Chapters 4–6, 10, 11, 15, 17, and 20 pertain to medieval music theory.

  • Gushee, Lawrence A. “Questions of Genre in Medieval Treatises on Music.” In Gattungen der Musik in Einzeldarstellungen: Gedenkschrift Leo Schrade. Edited by Wulf Arlt, Ernst Lichtenhahn, and Hans Oesch, 365–433. Munich: Francke, 1973.

    E-mail Citation »

    An incisive taxonomy of medieval music treatises, c. 500 to c. 1300, based on their authors’ intellectual styles, the institutions they worked in, and the types of music they treated. The sophistication of its typology remains a model for scholarship.

  • Herlinger, Jan. “Music Theory of the Fourteenth and Early Fifteenth Centuries.” In Music as Concept and Practice in the Late Middle Ages. Edited by Reinhard Strohm and Bonnie J. Blackburn, 244–300. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.

    E-mail Citation »

    An introductory survey of music theory during the late Middle Ages—organized by topics (fundamentals, mode, counterpoint, mensuration, speculative music theory)—touching as well on earlier theory. Bibliography of primary sources, editions, reference works, and studies.

  • Meyer, Christian. Les Traités de musique. Turnhout, Belgium: Brepols, 2001.

    E-mail Citation »

    Classification of medieval musical treatises by type. Table of contents provides a ready outline of the subject, which is worked out through exegesis. Annotated lists of editions of theory treatises organized by subject matter, of authors, and of series in which the editions appear. In French.

  • Pesce, Dolores. “Theory and Notation.” In The Cambridge Companion to Medieval Music. Edited by Mark Everist, 276–290. Cambridge, UK, and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011.

    DOI: 10.1017/CCOL9780521846196E-mail Citation »

    An introductory survey of music theory (covering the scale system, modes, musica ficta, and mensuration) and musical notation from c. 500 to c. 1450, clearly and concisely written and with bibliographic citations in the notes.

  • Riemann, Hugo. History of Music Theory, Books I and II: Polyphonic Theory to the Sixteenth Century. Translated by Raymond H. Haggh. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1962.

    E-mail Citation »

    Translation of parts of Geschichte der Musiktheorie im IXXIX. Jahrhundert, 2d ed. (Berlin: Hesse, 1920; first ed., 1898). Though dated, this is useful as an introductory overview. The author’s misconceptions are somewhat ameliorated by the translator’s comments and appendices. Updated, annotated bibliography.

  • Taruskin, Richard. The Oxford History of Western Music. Vol. 1, The Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.

    E-mail Citation »

    Chapters 1–11 of this monumental history of music in the West concern the period of interest here; it is valuable for its scope, for its wealth of facsimiles and musical examples, and for its author’s aim “to explain why and how things happened as they did.”

  • Zaminer, Frieder, Thomas Ertelt, and Heinz von Loesch, eds. Geschichte der Musiktheorie. 11 vols. Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 1984–2006.

    E-mail Citation »

    Volumes 3–5 of this comprehensive history of Western music theory deal respectively with the reception of ancient music theory, the doctrine of monophonic liturgical chant, and the doctrine of polyphony (comprising mensural notation and counterpoint); each chapter is by an authority on the subject. In German.

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