In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Musica Ficta

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews

Music Musica Ficta
Theodor Dumitrescu
  • LAST REVIEWED: 27 April 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 April 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199757824-0211


In a strict sense, musica ficta (“false, feigned, or contrived music”) is a music-theoretical concept active mostly from the mid-13th through 16th centuries. It refers either to (1) pitches such as E-flat and F-sharp lying outside the diatonic late-medieval pitch space (the “Gamut” consisting of natural scale tones as well as the two B-flats closest to middle C), or to (2) the process of replacing a Gamut note with a flat or sharp version of the same (making a tone into a semitone or vice versa, i.e., in modern terminology, using an accidental). In modern parlance, however, the term is used more loosely to refer in general to the editorial and performers’ practice of applying accidentals that are not notated explicitly in the original staff notation, following conventions laid out (in a rather scattered and unsystematic way) in early writings. Although many treatises before 1600 treat musica ficta along with the rudiments of music, these discussions typically take place alongside standard expositions of the Gamut and are limited to demonstrating what the pitches of musica ficta are. The act of interpreting the implicit conventions of early staff notation (corresponding to the modern conception of musica ficta) never became a standard subject in the treatises, except as reflected implicitly in the rules of counterpoint. Consequently, the patchy relevant evidence affords few clear conclusions, and the subject area as a whole remains infamously controversial within musicology, having spawned numerous intense scholarly debates over the past century. Essays on musica ficta, as well as musical editions, frequently disagree on the conventions and performative priorities to be observed in interpreting individual compositions. Scholars have recourse to treatises but interpret their intents and audiences quite differently, raising difficult issues of compositional intention and performative authority. Many of the arguments can be reversed by reading their primary witnesses as addressing the act of composition/notation instead of performance, or vice versa. This distinction does not seem to have been particularly well defined for the authors of the original treatises, and the resulting ambiguity planted the seeds of a thorny scholarly legacy.

General Overviews

Considering the importance of the subject for editors and performers alike, remarkably few general studies of musica ficta have been done in comparison to the many quite specific case studies. Bent 1972 was long considered the classic exposition of the subject, although a relatively brief text. Berger 1987, as the major monograph, is more comprehensive and more conservative. The Grove Music Online article Musica Ficta by Bent and Silbiger and Hirshberg and Urquhart 1997 provide very useful syntheses aimed at musicologists (although with often differing conclusions and precepts), whereas Wegman 1992 is more suitable for performers and amateurs (see also Practical Guides and Editorial Practice).

  • Bent, Margaret. “Musica Recta and Musica Ficta.” Musica Disciplina 26 (1972): 73–100.

    Seminal study reconciling evidence from theoretical treatises and practical music sources to present a unified hypothesis of how early performers navigated written and “unwritten” accidentals. Reprinted with commentary in Bent 2002, pp. 61–93. The newer commentary revises some of Bent’s earlier positions on terminology and the role of solmization vis-à-vis counterpoint.

  • Bent, Margaret. Counterpoint, Composition, and Musica Ficta. New York and London: Routledge, 2002.

    In the introduction (pp. 1–59), Bent expands significantly on themes and specific conclusions from eleven earlier essays, especially the role of counterpoint in interpreting staff notation. Responds to criticisms and other interpretations of Bent’s studies.

  • Bent, Margaret, and Alexander Silbiger. “Musica Ficta.” Grove Music Online.

    Scholarly overview of the theoretical basis and practical operation of musica ficta. Topics include the relation of musica ficta to the hexachordal solmization system, theory beginning in the 9th century, notation of accidentals in sources and compositional intention versus performative freedom (Bent), and the legacy of unnotated accidentals after 1600 (Silbiger). Available online by subscription.

  • Berger, Karol. Musica Ficta: Theories of Accidental Inflections in Vocal Polyphony from Marchetto da Padova to Gioseffo Zarlino. Cambridge, UK, and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1987.

    The only major comprehensive survey of musica ficta as treated in the theoretical literature, constrained primarily to the 14th through 16th centuries. Outlines the theoretical foundations of early pitch systems, and provides practical conclusions based primarily on the discussions of theorists rather than on the evidence in surviving music books.

  • Hirshberg, Jehoash, and Peter W. Urquhart. “Musica Ficta.” In Die Musik in Geschichte und Gegenwart. Edited by Ludwig Finscher, 662–682. Sachteil 6. Kassel, Germany: Bärenreiter, 1997.

    Divided chronologically at 1400. Topics include treatises and performance practice by century, usage in practical sources until the 14th century, terminology as applicable after 1400, the mi contra fa issue in polyphony, the propinquity principle (nearest approach), melodic concerns, modern literature, and performance practice in 15th- and 16th-century music.

  • Wegman, Rob C. “Musica Ficta.” In Companion to Medieval and Renaissance Music. Edited by Tess Knighton and David Fallows, 265–274. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992.

    Brief introduction to both the theoretical and practical aspects of musica ficta: (1) as related to solmization and the conceptualization of pitch space, and (2) as understood by performers and reflected in differences between medieval and modern notational norms.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.