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Capturing Music: The Story of Notation

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In today s digital landscape, we have the luxury of experiencing music anytime, anywhere. But before this instant accessibility and dizzying array of formats before CDs, the eight-track tape, the radio, and the turntable there was only one recording technology: music notation. It allowed singers and soloists to travel across great distances and perform their work with stun In today s digital landscape, we have the luxury of experiencing music anytime, anywhere. But before this instant accessibility and dizzying array of formats before CDs, the eight-track tape, the radio, and the turntable there was only one recording technology: music notation. It allowed singers and soloists to travel across great distances and perform their work with stunning fidelity, a feat that we now very much take for granted. Thomas Forrest Kelly transports us to the lively and complex world of monks and monasteries, of a dove singing holy chants into the ear of a saint, and of bustling activity in the Cathedral of Notre Dame an era when the only way to share even the simplest song was to learn it by rote, church to church and person to person. With clarity and a sense of wonder, Kelly tells a story that spans five hundred years, leading us on a journey through medieval Europe and showing how we learned to keep track of rhythm, melody, and precise pitch with a degree of accuracy previously unimagined. Kelly reveals the technological advances that led us to the system of notation we use today, placing each step of its evolution in its cultural and intellectual context. Companion recordings by the renowned Blue Heron ensemble are paired with vibrant illuminated manuscripts, bringing the art to life and allowing readers to experience something of the marvel that medieval writers must have felt when they figured out how to capture music for all time."


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In today s digital landscape, we have the luxury of experiencing music anytime, anywhere. But before this instant accessibility and dizzying array of formats before CDs, the eight-track tape, the radio, and the turntable there was only one recording technology: music notation. It allowed singers and soloists to travel across great distances and perform their work with stun In today s digital landscape, we have the luxury of experiencing music anytime, anywhere. But before this instant accessibility and dizzying array of formats before CDs, the eight-track tape, the radio, and the turntable there was only one recording technology: music notation. It allowed singers and soloists to travel across great distances and perform their work with stunning fidelity, a feat that we now very much take for granted. Thomas Forrest Kelly transports us to the lively and complex world of monks and monasteries, of a dove singing holy chants into the ear of a saint, and of bustling activity in the Cathedral of Notre Dame an era when the only way to share even the simplest song was to learn it by rote, church to church and person to person. With clarity and a sense of wonder, Kelly tells a story that spans five hundred years, leading us on a journey through medieval Europe and showing how we learned to keep track of rhythm, melody, and precise pitch with a degree of accuracy previously unimagined. Kelly reveals the technological advances that led us to the system of notation we use today, placing each step of its evolution in its cultural and intellectual context. Companion recordings by the renowned Blue Heron ensemble are paired with vibrant illuminated manuscripts, bringing the art to life and allowing readers to experience something of the marvel that medieval writers must have felt when they figured out how to capture music for all time."

30 review for Capturing Music: The Story of Notation

  1. 5 out of 5

    Ed Erwin

    Fascinating story of the development of musical notation systems in Europe. Modern notation is based on these systems and it is interesting to see where the ideas came from and how they spread, sometimes after initial resistance. The images of medieval manuscripts are quite lovely, but I'm very glad I don't have to try to interpret them. The systems seem ridiculously complex compared to modern systems, especially for rhythm. The title is misleading. The book does not really tell the full "story o Fascinating story of the development of musical notation systems in Europe. Modern notation is based on these systems and it is interesting to see where the ideas came from and how they spread, sometimes after initial resistance. The images of medieval manuscripts are quite lovely, but I'm very glad I don't have to try to interpret them. The systems seem ridiculously complex compared to modern systems, especially for rhythm. The title is misleading. The book does not really tell the full "story of notation", but rather the story of notation in Europe in the medieval period. I would have liked at least a little information on notation systems from other cultures. And I would have loved more information on how the medieval system grew into the modern system, and at least some discussion on modern alternative proposals. It just basically stops right before the era of Bach. It would be interesting to continue the story to include things like "figured bass" in the baroque era, guitar tablature, and how key signatures and accidentals allow notating 12 tones on a staff system which had been designed for representing modal music with 7 tones per octave. (But in a clumsy way, due for an overhaul in my opinion.) Despite the fact that I would like to read a more full "story of notation", if I imagine the title of this book as "the story of medieval European notation" then it does a very good job of covering the material in an interesting way with attractive illustrations.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Chris

    This wasn't bad. At least it didn't feel like a textbook, so that's nice. It almost made me wish I had attended more lecture sessions of my early music history course during undergrad years. But not quite. This wasn't bad. At least it didn't feel like a textbook, so that's nice. It almost made me wish I had attended more lecture sessions of my early music history course during undergrad years. But not quite.

  3. 4 out of 5

    NickES345

    This book is not intended to be a manual of music notation rules and style, but rather a history of the development of music notation. And a fascinating history it is. If you've ever wondered why the lowest line of the bass clef is a "G", why the grand staff splits at middle C (which is close, but not the middle of a piano keyboard), where the names of the G and F clefs come from, why note lengths are encoded by flags and dots, then this is your book. Throughout, there are many full-color plates This book is not intended to be a manual of music notation rules and style, but rather a history of the development of music notation. And a fascinating history it is. If you've ever wondered why the lowest line of the bass clef is a "G", why the grand staff splits at middle C (which is close, but not the middle of a piano keyboard), where the names of the G and F clefs come from, why note lengths are encoded by flags and dots, then this is your book. Throughout, there are many full-color plates of ancient manuscripts illustrating points made in the text. There is even a CD in the back cover containing tracks of Gregorian chants and other musical styles, each keyed to a specific example in the book. The author also emphasizes the interplay between musical practice and musical notation and how that interplay affected the evolution of notation. For example, the author mentions two principles at the foundation of the Western musical system (p.12): "first, that this music is meant to go with words; and second, that the basic unit of music-writing is not the note, but the syllable". Although the book is an easy/fun read, it contains so much information and history that it will be a reference to which you will constantly return. E.g., when was tablature first used (ans., 200 BC); where did 'do, re', mi..' names come from (see p.68); why does the word 'gamut' have its origins in musical notation? I couldn't possibly remember all the facts/dates/names mentioned in the book, so I try to remember the main themes and approximate dates - when/why did the grand staff appear, when/why did rhythmic notation become important to notate, when/why did Italians get to coin all those names for dynamics/performance - the rest I'll have to look up again in this wonderful reference. Will this book make you a better musician? Probably not. Will it clarify many of the idiosyncrasies of music notation? Absolutely!

  4. 5 out of 5

    Denver Public Library

    If you enjoy books about history, philosophy or technology, this is a great read. But if you love music, consider making this book a must read! Kelly calls the creation of musical notation - "a celebration of mankind's technical achievements of the Middle Ages." However, this reader believes the real achievement is the writer's ability to discuss a complex subject in an understandable, easy manner. You don't need to know anything about music notation to enjoy Capturing Music. Beautifully illustr If you enjoy books about history, philosophy or technology, this is a great read. But if you love music, consider making this book a must read! Kelly calls the creation of musical notation - "a celebration of mankind's technical achievements of the Middle Ages." However, this reader believes the real achievement is the writer's ability to discuss a complex subject in an understandable, easy manner. You don't need to know anything about music notation to enjoy Capturing Music. Beautifully illustrated with an accompanying CD, this book is an engaging story and a sensory delight. Get Capturing Music: The Story of Notation from the Denver Public Library - Laurie

  5. 4 out of 5

    Justin Evans

    How do you make a book about the history of musical notation interesting to those who find the history of musical notation not at all interesting? Turn it into a small coffee table book. I do find it interesting, so I was already on board, but this book is as beautiful as it is interesting. So, it's not an academic-academic book, and you need to look elsewhere for such a thing; nor is it easy to get into, because Kelly's first few chapters are... well, disordered, to put it mildly. Once he gets How do you make a book about the history of musical notation interesting to those who find the history of musical notation not at all interesting? Turn it into a small coffee table book. I do find it interesting, so I was already on board, but this book is as beautiful as it is interesting. So, it's not an academic-academic book, and you need to look elsewhere for such a thing; nor is it easy to get into, because Kelly's first few chapters are... well, disordered, to put it mildly. Once he gets on to the actual narrative though--rather than trying to convince you that the idea of notating music is, in itself, a great and counter-intuitive idea--it flows very nicely. And it comes with a CD, which is a delightful reminder of my teenage years.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Caroline

    Loved it! But I was the music major geek who adored medieval music. I have to go back and sit down with the CD now. The book is also beautiful to look at and hold. When you think about it, it is pretty wild to imagine the first people who tried to preserve and transmit what they heard by writing it down when this had never been possible before. A lovely quote about how a performance is passing from the future to the past (I know I didn't get that exactly right) brings the idea into focus. Cool b Loved it! But I was the music major geek who adored medieval music. I have to go back and sit down with the CD now. The book is also beautiful to look at and hold. When you think about it, it is pretty wild to imagine the first people who tried to preserve and transmit what they heard by writing it down when this had never been possible before. A lovely quote about how a performance is passing from the future to the past (I know I didn't get that exactly right) brings the idea into focus. Cool book.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Sharla

    A book about the development of the notation of music could be incredibly dry ... But this book was easy to read and to understand. The development of musical notation is explained from its beginnings with chant to the system we use today. I had never thought about how revolutionary musical notation was -- being able to "write down," as it were, sounds, so they could be reproduced later is something I take for granted! This book has beautiful reproductions of notation from the medieval era, and A book about the development of the notation of music could be incredibly dry ... But this book was easy to read and to understand. The development of musical notation is explained from its beginnings with chant to the system we use today. I had never thought about how revolutionary musical notation was -- being able to "write down," as it were, sounds, so they could be reproduced later is something I take for granted! This book has beautiful reproductions of notation from the medieval era, and includes a CD of some of the songs discussed. A wonderful book.

  8. 5 out of 5

    Monika

    Loved how Kelly connects a human reason to each development in notation: brilliant problem-solving that met very real needs of a living, breathing language as it evolved and became more complex over time. Content is quite academic and meticulously researched, but Kelly has an engaging, impressively succinct writing style. More of my thoughts on this title can be found on my blog at A Lovely Bookshelf on the Wall. Loved how Kelly connects a human reason to each development in notation: brilliant problem-solving that met very real needs of a living, breathing language as it evolved and became more complex over time. Content is quite academic and meticulously researched, but Kelly has an engaging, impressively succinct writing style. More of my thoughts on this title can be found on my blog at A Lovely Bookshelf on the Wall.

  9. 4 out of 5

    bookinglibrarian

    A lavishly produced book with gorgeous reproductions of medieval music manuscripts, an accompanying CD and a chatty text depicting the innovations of music notation that This lavishly produced book, with its gorgeous reproductions of music manuscripts and accompanying music CD, belie the enthusiastically chatty text chronicling the medieval innovations of western music notation that recorded their music for the future.

  10. 4 out of 5

    David

    4.5 stars. As medieval music notation books go, this is a *much* nicer read for the motivate layman than, say, Apel's "The notation of polyphonic music, 900-1600". Was surprised to see a book published in 2015 include a physical CD instead of some download link. But it did give me an excuse to finally hear what Cordier's "Belle, bonne, sage" sounds like. 4.5 stars. As medieval music notation books go, this is a *much* nicer read for the motivate layman than, say, Apel's "The notation of polyphonic music, 900-1600". Was surprised to see a book published in 2015 include a physical CD instead of some download link. But it did give me an excuse to finally hear what Cordier's "Belle, bonne, sage" sounds like.

  11. 5 out of 5

    Sarah

    I found this history of the origins of written music notation quite interesting. The focus is entirely on the middle ages, starting with the earliest attempts at writing down music (simple marks to remind performers of things) and following the evolution to the basis of our modern notation, including precise notation of rhythm. He addresses two key aspects of notation: pitch and rhythm, with the focus primarily on rhythm. I appreciated that he delved into the philosophical side of things and hig I found this history of the origins of written music notation quite interesting. The focus is entirely on the middle ages, starting with the earliest attempts at writing down music (simple marks to remind performers of things) and following the evolution to the basis of our modern notation, including precise notation of rhythm. He addresses two key aspects of notation: pitch and rhythm, with the focus primarily on rhythm. I appreciated that he delved into the philosophical side of things and highlights how truly incredible and revolutionary is this idea of notating something that occurs in time -- of "recording" music. The evolution of the notation of rhythm is closely related to mathematics and scientific advancements (for example, clocks) and he explains and contextualizes it really well. I came away with a new appreciation for the accomplishments of the middle ages! I particularly enjoyed learning about how the composers of the middle ages pushed the limits of mathematical complexity with regards to notating rhythm, creating pieces that were not rivaled again in their complexity until the 20th century. Our current notation evolved from their systems, but is in some senses actually a simplification of the greater complexity they experimented with. I was a little disappointed that the author doesn't address the origin of notating precise pitch, different keys, semi-tones vs. whole tones, etc. However, the book is complete unto itself and I think such a history would be a whole separate book. It makes sense that early music did not have to deal with these complexities since it evolved from singing, not instruments that are tuned. And I do truly understand now how revolutionary and crucial it was to just invent how to notate rhythm. The book reads smoothly and relatively quickly, but it can also be fairly technical and dense in places. I followed along with the explanations of the various notational systems, but not to the extent that I could really sit down and read early music. I think you could get a lot out of the book even if you don't follow the technical details, but it is a specialized topic so I only recommend it if it sounds intriguing to you!

  12. 4 out of 5

    Emily

    I rated it three stars for my experience only. This has never been and will never be my area of music. The text is well-explained and well-researched, and interestingly written. However, it's still hard to get through if you aren't into history or measured musical text. Easy to read but hard to finish. I rated it three stars for my experience only. This has never been and will never be my area of music. The text is well-explained and well-researched, and interestingly written. However, it's still hard to get through if you aren't into history or measured musical text. Easy to read but hard to finish.

  13. 4 out of 5

    Huey

    A good survey of early (Western) musical notation history; doesn't go into detail too much but really enjoyable nonetheless. Great presentation with the pictures and the recording. The last two, three chapters could be too esoteric for a lay person. A good survey of early (Western) musical notation history; doesn't go into detail too much but really enjoyable nonetheless. Great presentation with the pictures and the recording. The last two, three chapters could be too esoteric for a lay person.

  14. 4 out of 5

    Denise Gossow

    Excellent book on the beginnings of musical notation in the Middle Ages.

  15. 4 out of 5

    Andrei Faur

    This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here. When I started learning how to play the guitar I also started reading a bit of music theory and the first thing that struck me was how non-scientific it seemed. Where do the note names come from, why choose Do Re Mi / A B C? How does one define A precisely (or any other note)? Why does one have to memorize all of these relations between notes (scales, chords) when it's obvious that there exist deeper explanations for why a chord sounds "good" and another "doesn't"? I was looking for mathematical When I started learning how to play the guitar I also started reading a bit of music theory and the first thing that struck me was how non-scientific it seemed. Where do the note names come from, why choose Do Re Mi / A B C? How does one define A precisely (or any other note)? Why does one have to memorize all of these relations between notes (scales, chords) when it's obvious that there exist deeper explanations for why a chord sounds "good" and another "doesn't"? I was looking for mathematical and physical explanations for everything that was taught about music theory in the sources I was studying. I did not find these explanations in this book but I did find the reasons for why (Western) musical notation looks the way it does today. The book is gorgeously illustrated and the author goes from (what I believe is) the earliest form of notation, neumes, to the medieval period where the notation closely resembles the one in use today. For a musician (and especially for one focusing on the history of music) the book might seem superficial and cursory but for the layman it provides a great introduction into the subject of history of notation. I wish there was a chapter dedicated to other notation systems than european ones and perhaps more details about the period of time between the medieval ages and the present; therefore just four stars. SPOILERS HERE (SINCE PRIVATE NOTES ONLY HAVE 512 CHARACTERS): Guido the Monk - complaining that singers have to learn each song separately because they had no system in place (as opposed to the other crafts where one learns the technique and then applies it to each new task). Neumes - first system that caught on, even though other systems existed (alphabets, Dasian). They show the direction of sounds, the "motion". Many medieval systems based on neumes, each with their own subtleties. One still has to know the song in advance when using neumes. Guido came up with a system that represents pitch, notes were arranged on multiple horizontal lines, each one corresponding to a different pitch. The pitches were based on Ut queant laxis, a common chant. Decline in quality, chants were known as flat songs, due to loss of expresiveness in the new notation (when compared to neumes). Rhythym notation appeared because of the need to synchronize voices in polyphonic chants. When the new voice sings more than one note for the original chant there is a need for syncing. Rhythm was created by having note groups arranged in a specific pattern interpreted as a series of short notes and long notes (twice as long as the short notes). That is, a three-note group followed by a series of two note groups would be sung as long-short-long, short-long, short-long, etc. This was purely a convention which one had to know, the rhythm isn't encoded in the notation in any way. The next improvement was to assign a duration to each note by using shapes. The longs become squares with tails and the shorts become squares: diamonds represent a half-short. Franco of Cologne popularized this system and Petrus de Cruce experimented with it by bending some of its rules. Philippe de Vitry is the one that documented a systematic way of writing down rhythm. Independent rhythm notation systems popped up throughout Europe and while they all borrowed from Franco's original notation, they also borrowed from each other.

  16. 5 out of 5

    Michelle

    There were elements in this book that I found very intriguing, but it was just too slow to keep me awake! It was interesting to think about where our music writing system came from-why it is the way it is, how it evolved, the complexities involved in putting sound on a page, the elements we hang on to and the things we give up when writing notes down--but somehow these thought-provoking ideas weren't enough to keep me reading, and I had to turn the book back to the library when I was only 1/3 fi There were elements in this book that I found very intriguing, but it was just too slow to keep me awake! It was interesting to think about where our music writing system came from-why it is the way it is, how it evolved, the complexities involved in putting sound on a page, the elements we hang on to and the things we give up when writing notes down--but somehow these thought-provoking ideas weren't enough to keep me reading, and I had to turn the book back to the library when I was only 1/3 finished. Maybe I will pick it up another day.

  17. 4 out of 5

    Sue

    Three stars just for writing about something I've never given any thought to. The early content was fascinating, but in the later chapters when not much changed in notation, I didn't glean much. A strong music background isn't necessary to enjoy the book, although some passing knowledge of music notation is helpful. I suspect the later chapters mean more to those who identify as musicians. The most unexpected piece of knowledge in this book? The origins of do re mi. Three stars just for writing about something I've never given any thought to. The early content was fascinating, but in the later chapters when not much changed in notation, I didn't glean much. A strong music background isn't necessary to enjoy the book, although some passing knowledge of music notation is helpful. I suspect the later chapters mean more to those who identify as musicians. The most unexpected piece of knowledge in this book? The origins of do re mi.

  18. 5 out of 5

    Brian

    A beautiful book visually. I wish it went a little bit further historically. It stops in the Renaissance era, taking the remainder of notation's history as a fait accompli. Certainly worth reading, but not as good as I had hoped. A beautiful book visually. I wish it went a little bit further historically. It stops in the Renaissance era, taking the remainder of notation's history as a fait accompli. Certainly worth reading, but not as good as I had hoped.

  19. 4 out of 5

    Doc Kinne

    The book was nice and detailed for what it was. While musical notation was certainly an invention of the Middle Ages, and the author gives us a great amount of detail regarding that time period, he breezes past the 14th century in just 5 or so pages. I was left feeling it was worth more than that.

  20. 5 out of 5

    Katra

    Thoroughly researched and recommended for music enthusiasts.

  21. 5 out of 5

    M.G.

    Good info; helped me write my paper. ski-u-mah

  22. 5 out of 5

    Mills College Library

    780.14809 K2986 2015

  23. 5 out of 5

    Nancy

    Informative and quite readable explanation of the development of music notation - includes examples and even a CD of musical excerpts

  24. 4 out of 5

    SallyStenger

    I want to read this because of a review in the Wall Street Journal. It is supposed to be about how the system of music notation developed in the middle ages.

  25. 5 out of 5

    Rachael Mellen

    I would LOVE to own this book! I do wish that instead of a CD, or as an alternative, you could download the accompanying tracks.

  26. 4 out of 5

    Ruth Dipple

    I loved it too, though in parts the maths was quite perplexing! I learned so much from this book, and Professor Kelly's enthusiasm is infectious. I loved it too, though in parts the maths was quite perplexing! I learned so much from this book, and Professor Kelly's enthusiasm is infectious.

  27. 5 out of 5

    aleph3

  28. 5 out of 5

    N

  29. 4 out of 5

    Kyle Hovatter

  30. 5 out of 5

    Anna Craig

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