Professor Grier points to a page in the manuscript on his computer screen. This particular section is entirely in Adémar de Chabannes hand; illustration, lyrics and musical notation. This led to the realization that it was Ademar who had created the musical notation for the entire manuscript with this innovation of vertical spacing of notes to designate pitch. (from Professor Grier the lyric reads: "Probauit eum deus et sciuit cor suum; cognouit semitas suas; deduxit illum in uia aeterna, et nimis confortatus est principatus eius". God judged him and knew his heart; He recognized his way of life; He led him into the eternal way, and very much strengthened is his dominion.)
Photo Credit: J Grier- Western U

Canadian musicologist makes 900 year old discovery

A Canadian professor and expert in medieval music has made an a truly fascinating discovery.  He has been able to identify the person who made a breakthrough in music notation, and accurately date this innovation, which is now possibly the earliest surviving example of such “modern” music notation.

James Grier is professor of music history in the  Don Wright Faculty of Music at Western University in London, Ontario

Award-winning musicologist James Grier of Western University © Western U

Professor Grier is an award-winning musicologist who spent many years in the impressive manuscript room of the Bibliothèque nationale in France.

While studying documents which are almost 1000 years old, a colleague from Sweden asked him about the particular handwriting style of a well-known monk,Adémar de Chabannes (c. 989-1034).

It seems a section of the musical manuscript text was written by Adémar. The handwriting was confirmed by another colleague from Boston who was studying the monk for historical reasons.

manuscript room of France’s Bibliotheque Nationale © Western Unversity video

Suddenly professor Grier realized that not only was that passage in the monk’s handwriting, but also the musical notation in that passage, and indeed throughout the entire manuscript.

The discovery has been reported in Journal of the American Musicological Society

What is unique is that Adémar’s  had placed the notes in the space above the text, higher or lower in the space depending on their pitch, exactly as we do today.

One of the pages of the nearly 1000 year old manuscript, this one entirely drawn, written and notation by Adémar de Chabannes © Bibliotegque Nationale de France- Western U

Thus this is the earliest, and perhaps even the very first time this had been done.

“Placement on the vertical axis remains the standard convention for indicating pitch in notation in Western culture and there is far greater weight on pitch than on many other elements such as dynamics and timbre,” said professor Grier.

Professor Grier says this was an incredible innovation in music, enabling a greater degree of standardization in a musical interpretation, and for those seeking to learn the piece.

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8 comments on “Canadian musicologist makes 900 year old discovery
  1. Avatar de Chabannes François says:

    It is a great discovery.
    Thank you

    François de Chabannes

  2. Avatar James Grier says:

    Many thanks to Mr. Beatty and Mr. Krasnicki for their notes. First Guido. He and Adémar, of course, are nearly exact contemporaries, and although the library at Saint Martial held copies of Guido’s works in the late twelfth or early thirteenth centuries (see my article in Musica Disciplina 1990 in which I discuss the music books listed in the medieval library catalogues from the abbey), it is highly unlikely that they knew each other or each other’s musical accomplishments. Still, it is important to note that the idea of accurate heighting is a precondition for Guido’s invention of the staff, which simply regulates the heighting and gives a strong visual guide to the reader. Further, it is remarkable that the earliest surviving sources that use Guido’s system seem to postdate his promulgation of it in the Prologus in Antiphonarium (probably written in the early 1030s) by several generations: of the 170 witnesses with some form of Guido’s notation listed by Joseph Smits van Waesberghe (Musica Disciplina 1951), he gives only three as unequivocally eleventh-century. The earliest witnesses from Aquitaine I have seen with a multi-line staff date from approximately the middle of the twelfth century. Second Laon 239, a manuscript of great importance, and now available online at Susan Rankin (Early Music History 2011) authoritatively shows that the notation in this manuscript uses heighting to denote melodic direction rather than relative pitch, “in its general disregard for the size of intervals . . . . In consequence, specific vertical positions are not linked to specific pitches.” (p. 129)

  3. Avatar Ted Krasnicki says:

    I do not have access to the current JAMS, but I do not see how this is such a big discovery. Laon 239, a manuscript about 100 years, older already showed relative pitch by the height of the neumes, just like Ademar. What was revolutionary for pitch notation was then adding a horizontal FA pitch line around which these neumes revolved that preceded Guido of Arezzo’s staff.

  4. Avatar Dwayne Beatty says:

    How does this differ from the invention of staff notation by Guido d’Arezzo, which was published somewhere from 1025 to 1029?

  5. Avatar Father Timothy Sas says:

    Can you please comment what type of notation the music is in. Is it Gregorian? or Psaltic/Byzantine? Very interested in learning more!
    many thanks,
    fr tim

    • Avatar James Grier says:

      Many thanks for the note. The notation is that which originated in Aquitaine, already in the late ninth century. The manuscript shown is early eleventh-century. The chants on the page are original compositions of Adémar’s, but very much in the style of the Romano-Frankish, or Gregorian, repertory introduced to the Frankish kingdom in the eighth century during the reigns of Pippin the Short and his son Charlemagne.

  6. Avatar Neil Moran says:

    Nonsense. Adhémar de Chabannes writes about the reception of the nota romana by the Franks: et omnes Romanam… Franciae cantores didicerunt notam. Pippin ordered that the Gallican rite was be replaced by the Roman rite but due to their crude nature the Franks ended up corrupting the Roman chant (Aurelianus Reomensis, Extitere etenim nonnulli cantores qui quasdam esse antiphonas, quae nulle earumregulae possent aptari, asseruerun) whereupon Charlesmagne ordered the choir masters to return to Rome (Revertimini vos ad fontem sancti Gregorii, quia manifeste corrupistis cantilenam ecclesiasticam.) After the Romans simplified the repertoire, it was sent back to the Franks. As for heightened neumes, they also appear in 10th century St. Gall manuscripts. The crude Franks moreover did not invent the system of the church modes but it was developed in Palestine. In an article in the Musikforschung for 1966 Bruno Stäblein demonstrated that heightened neumes appeared in the earliest neumatic sources from upper Italy (Nonantola, Mantua-Verona) and southern Germany St. Gallen). Charlemagne, incidentally was illiterate. N. Moran, Altrömische Offertoriums-Gesänge in medialen Tonarten. Zum Verhältnis des byzantinischen zum altrömischen und gregorianischen Choral. Byzantinische Zeitschrift 106 (2013) 65-82.

    • Marc Montgomery Marc Montgomery says:

      Professor Grier (PhD) replies: “I thank Dr. Moran for his response. Unfortunately, he has misunderstood both Adémar’s and Bruno Stäblein’s words. For the former, see my detailed discussion in Journal of the American Musicological Society 56 (2003): 43-98. For the latter, Stäblein actually says, “in Oberitalien (Nonantola, Mantua-Verona) und im deutschen Süden (St. Gallen) noch um rund 900 der altrömische Choral gesungen worden ist” (Die Musikforschung 19 [1966]: 3-9 at 4). That is that the Old Roman chant was sung in these regions at the beginning of the tenth century; no mention of manuscripts with heighted neumes. The manuscripts that do have heighted neumes on which Stäblein draws for his printed musical examples all date from the eleventh century or later (p. 5 n. 10, etc.).”