Interpreting the Mensural Notation of Music: An Expert System Based on the Theory of Johannes Tinctoris

Lead Research Organisation: Birmingham City University
Department Name: ADM Birmingham Conservatoire


This innovative project addresses a central issue confronting those who work with musical sources from the early fourteenth to the early seventeenth century, whether as editors, analysts, or performers. The 'mensural' system of rhythmic notation, then prevalent, was highly contextual; unlike modern 'common-practice' notation, in which all notes are divisible only by two (with well-defined exceptions called 'tuplets') and are therefore definite in duration, many notes in mensural notation could be divided either by two or by three without visual distinction, and their durations were subject to further conventional manipulation according to their context. We will construct an online software expert system, modelling the teachings of one of the foremost fifteenth-century music theorists, Johannes Tinctoris (c.1435-1511), that will take files in uninterpreted mensural notation as input and output them in terms of definite durations. Tinctoris's theory lends itself to such treatment by virtue of his rigorous method and intention to instantiate his rules exhaustively. The proposed system is one natural outgrowth of the online critical edition of Tinctoris's writings produced by the same project team ( Results may be output in a variety of formats: original mensural notation or common-practice notation, score or separate parts. Our system will accept the input of uninterpreted mensural notation produced by other projects; our interpreted output will be available to analytical software developed by still others.

We will use machine-learning techniques to improve the system's performance. This will involve training with a graded series of pieces of actual fifteenth-century music: (1) all the music examples Tinctoris composed to illustrate his treatises on mensural notation and counterpoint; (2) all Tinctoris's practical compositions, for which we will produce a new critical edition; (3) selected works of two composers Tinctoris regarded highly, Guillaume du Fay and Antoine Busnoys, whose music was composed with somewhat different notational conventions from those articulated by Tinctoris. We expect the system to be able to interpret the notation of nearly all music from between the early fifteenth century and the early seventeenth (the fourteenth century presents variants we should not have time to address).

Students of late-medieval and early-modern music nowadays are less well versed than formerly in the complexities of mensural notation, while at the same time more and more musicians are interested in performing such music from facsimiles of the original sources. Accordingly, we will develop a new online interactive learning tool, with which students, performers, or others can practise the cognitive processes involved in interpreting mensural notation. The tool will present progressive exercises together with target results and a mechanism for annotation, and will be able to give feedback on progress and to offer hints.

We expect the development of our software system to generate unpredictable historical discoveries concerning the completeness of Tinctoris's theory and its relation to the wider practice of his time. We will communicate these in the form of standard academic publications. An especially valuable aspect of the project will be a series of public workshops in Birmingham, Oxford, and London, forming a progressive introduction to the software learning tool as it evolves. Principal beneficiaries of this project will include all those involved in the performance, editing, and scholarship of late-medieval and early-modern musical repertories. For all users a much heightened and enriched awareness of the implications of the original, complex notations will be raised, and a highly innovative, practical tool made available to assist with the learning process, as well as to enable the production of new user-led editions of works from this pivotal period of western European music.

Planned Impact

This project responds to the needs both of scholars in medieval and renaissance musicology and of musicians outside academia who are involved as performers (both singers and instrumentalists), ensemble directors, and editors of repertories from the period. It will produce open-access software and an online self-directed learning tool that will provide a user-friendly resource to help deepen the understanding and interpretation of late-medieval music notation, the detailed study of which has declined markedly in universities and music colleges in recent years. It will offer the means by which both specialists and non-specialists will be able to produce their own editions of works from this important period of music history, for different, user-determined practical or scholarly purposes. In this way, users of all levels of ability will be able to explore medieval music notation in an innovative and imaginative way, and to recognize the profound intellectual and practical differences between it and the modern notation commonly used for most present-day editions and performances. The theoretical principles underpinning the system and the teaching tool are based on the writings of the renowned fifteenth-century musician and theorist Johannes Tinctoris (c.1435-1511). The world-leading expertise of the project team in this area of music (Dr Jeffrey J. Dean, Professor Ronald Woodley, Mr David Lewis, and Dr Christian Goursaud) ensures that both the scholarly and technological aspects of the resource will operate at the highest academic levels, and will provide a progressively structured, distance-learning tool that is of wide-ranging benefit to performers and editors working within the early music world, as well as to students and scholars of music history and theory.

An important aspect of the project's external engagement will be a series of public workshops to be held in Birmingham, Oxford, and London, which will function to present our evolving research, to test the developing software, and to obtain valuable feedback from potential user groups as we refine the learning tool into its final release version towards the end of the project. The workshops will be overseen by our postdoctoral Researcher, Christian Goursaud, himself an experienced consort singer, who already manages the Facebook group 'Modern Performance of Mensural Music', which functions as a hub for musicians and ensembles interested in the topic. This important use of social media will provide us with ready access to, and contact with, many potential beneficiaries of the project without geographical restriction.

All users of our project website, and of the software tools developed, will be able to make use of the specific editions of music generated by the project team, and to repurpose them to their own requirements, for example through the various permutations of notational and presentational schemata (score, individual parts, original or common-practice notation) that will be made available. In conjunction with digitizations of other original music sources from the late medieval and early renaissance period, which are increasingly widely available online and which can be used as additional test material for our system, the project will encourage musicians and editors from many different backgrounds and of differing abilities to gain a more nuanced historical, technical, and practical understanding of the musical repertories with which they are engaged.


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