Catapulting into Classical

A headlong leap into music, history, and composing




I’ve begun working on the From Ink to Sound course from the University of Basel.  If you are interested in ancient manuscripts and exploring the evolution of musical notation you will find this course fascinating.

I decided to try my hand at some neumes yesterday, and there’s one thing I can say.

Thank you, Guido of Arezzo (also here).

Neumes are small squiggles (this seems to be the most commonly used term for them in English) above text meant to be used as religious music.  The neumes give an indication of how the melody line is supposed to rise and fall.  But they are completely relative; there is no music staff to anchor the notes to a particular pitch.  Sort of like typing “123 Main Street” into Google Maps.  Useful, but insufficient information.

But to be fair, the neumes were never intended for learning a piece of music you had never seen before.  They were a mnemonic device for people who had already memorized (or were in the process of memorizing) the vast quantity of music associated with religious services of the time.  It’s the graphical equivalent of “How does this one go again?”

Here is a quick table of what neumes look like and what they mean.  This is only a few of the ways neumes are written.  There were regional differences in the manuscripts. Click on image to enlarge.


Here’s my not-entirely-faithful attempt to reproduce a manuscript with neumes that was presented in the course.  I am not ready for the scriptorium yet. I did not use a quill here, these are calligraphy pens.  Though I know of a farm in the area, I couldn’t bring myself to wander in asking for fallen feathers to write neumes.


You can explore the original codex here.  Click the manuscript, and in the drop-down box that says Front Cover go to page 44 to see the original page.  Or you can see it in the video linked below.

Here’s what it sounds like (funky medieval hand, but where’s the thumb?)


Scribe.  Public domain image.

Original codex citation: Einsiedeln, Stiftsbibliothek, Codex 121(1151) : Graduale – Notkeri Sequentiae | Notker Balbulus

The introitus Sacerdotes Tui is performed by the Ensemble Gilles Binchois under the direction of Dominique Vellard.  The ensemble sings after the manuscript Einsiedln, Stiftsbibliothek, Cod. 121, p. 44.

6 thoughts on “Neumes!

  1. There’s something extremely Monty Python about the score with the running medieval pointy hand.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Nice neumes there! And an illuminated manuscript! Who needs a goose?

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Wonderfully well done, Chris. I love the notation with chanting clip- but what are those women doing there? Next they’ll want to be Pope. I spent most of a year working on Acquitanian neumes in grad school- via the microfilm viewer- decided that musicology was not going to be my Lebenswerk.

    Thanks lots-


    Liked by 1 person

    • Alas, it must be due to the shortage of countertenors and tenors, a situation we’re all aware of. I guess someone has to step in! And I’m sure your eyes thank you for not pursuing Acquitanian neumes.


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