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Beware the Guidonian Hand and New Findings on Old Notations

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Guidonian Hand

When I first heard the phrase “Guidonian Hand” it sounded to me like something from a cheezy horror movie; in fact, from the 1963 sci-fi movie The Crawling Hand (the guys at Mystery Science Theater 3000 did a wonderful, punny send-up of this movie).

But in fact the Guidonian Hand is the invention of the man who brought us the precursor of today’s music notation, Guido of Arezzo (991-after 1033).  It was a method of reminding beginning singers which note to sing.  Scales of notes are mapped to the joints and tips of the fingers.  The choirmaster would point to the appropriate point on the hand and the students would sing the note (one hopes).  You start at the tip of the thumb on ut (there was no do in the do-re-mi then), work your way down the thumb, then across from index finger to pinky, then up one joint, across to the index, up one joint, etc.  As a choir singer, I’m glad we’ve moved past this!

And speaking of old notations, there’s news on the history of the notation of polyphony!  I know, exciting, right?!  Prepare to geek out:  researcher Giovanni Varelli was cataloging instances of music notation in the British Library’s holdings of ancient manuscripts when he came across this page with music notated using neumes (those are the squiggles above the words).

Detail, Harley MS 3019, fol. 56v. Copyright British Library Board.

Detail, Harley MS 3019, fol. 56v. Copyright British Library Board.

That wasn’t the big discovery though.  Just above it was an illustration with vertical lines with dots on the bottom and lines on the top.

PolyphonyB British Library

Detail, Harley MS 3019, fol. 56v. Copyright British Library Board.

It turns out to be the same music.  The lines match the melody, and the dots indicate a harmonization of the melody.  If you look to the left you can see, written vertically the letters a through g, a dead giveaway that it’s music (once you get to g you wrap around to a again).  This pushes the use of polyphony notation back to the year 900!  You can read the whole story hereThe music notated on the page can be heard here.

Not old enough for you?  How about this:  we used to think the music of ancient Greece was lost.  Instruments have been found, but without notation, there’s no way to know how a tune goes (we can’t say, “Hey, Homer, hum a few bars for me”).  But researcher Armand D’Angour has found evidence of musical notation inscribed as letters over the words of songs in Greek stone inscriptions and Egyptian papyrus dating from 450 BCE to 300 CE.  He has linked it to mathematical ratios of musical intervals.  You can read the story here.

Classicist David Creese has brought back to life one of these tunes found on a Greek column. The tune was composed by Seikilos.  Here’s what it sounded like (audio file copyright BBC).

A Guidonian Hand, a haunting tune brought back to life, mysterious notations…maybe I wasn’t so far off with the sci-fi reference after all.

One thought on “Beware the Guidonian Hand and New Findings on Old Notations

  1. So far from the main road I would never have known. Old but not.


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