Music history question
  • In two recent cases, I've seen note values reduced in modern editions of older works.

    In most cases, the note values are halved.
    In the Stella caeli edition I have in front of me, they were quartered.


    Two questions:
    1) Why were such long note values used so commonly in older compositions?
    2) Why do so many editors of modern editions reduce the note values?
  • Richard MixRichard Mix
    Posts: 2,106
    The shift from black notation to white coincided with paper becoming cheaper than parchment. It's harder to explain the timing of the reintroduction of black notes. While modern pigments aren't acidic, Bach's autographs are in dire state of conservation because of the oak gall ink he used, while the big change in paper manufacturing and chemistry happened in the mid 19c.
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  • Most hymns in our hymnals were as recently as two or three generations ago written with the half note as the primary unit for expressing one beat or pulse (see the 1940 or The English Hymnal - not to mention many anthems and motets). Nearly all newer publications put the same music in quarter notes while the tempo remains relatively stable. I think that this is as much convention as anything else. Modern people seem (questionably) to identify white notes as long and black ones (with or without flags) as faster. This is pure convention. Though the beat is relatively unchanging throughout time the notes which express that beat change according to fashion.

    Then, there is the fact that to a Lutheran or an evangelical the beat or tempo of a given hymn will be considerably faster than an Episcopalian or Anglican beat expressed with the same note values.

    (This rather muddled comment probably doesn't really answer your question satisfactorily. There is much more that could be said about the progression of western metrical music and its notation: rhythmic modes, prolation, tactus, and note values and relationships as they developed in the late mediaeval and renaissance eras - and then from renaissance to baroque.)
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  • davido
    Posts: 256
    2. Readability, comprehensibity. We are used to reading quarter notes as the primary/basic note value. I think its because of the way music pedagogy approaches teaching notes these days.
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  • Davido,

    In America, you're probably right about the pedagogy. The entire system of nomenclature is based on semi-equivalent fractions. In England (Tomjaw will set me right if this isn't true anymore) the system doesn't use such an approach until we get to very quick notes: quaver, semiquaver, demisemiquaver.... and so on.

  • Richard MixRichard Mix
    Posts: 2,106
    There's an unexplained tendency to inflation in one direction, as one notices with pitch standards over the last couple of centuries. With Stockhausen we sometimes find breves coexisting with demisemiquavers, but why should Messiaen (one of the books I rescued before the libraries closed is Hill & Simeone's bio, which also reproduces a fascinating transcription of a tinkling waterfall!) be transcribing birdsong exclusively in 32nds & 64ths? Is 3/16 twice as readable as 3/2?
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  • Richard,

    Do I understand correctly that the notation change had to do with printing, ink, and parchment, and not directly with anything intrinsic to the understanding of the music itself? For example, we've had all sorts of divisions of numbers since (it seems) forever, but not expressed as decimals until (relatively) recently, if I understand my mathematics history. This fact didn't play into it, either?
  • Richard MixRichard Mix
    Posts: 2,106
    Unfortunately Wikipedia has little to say about European adoption of decimals!

    The change from black to white longs, breves, & semibreves happened after 1400, about the time Nuremberg got a paper mill. For the later inflation external causes are far less clearcut. One does find void notation for quavers in 18c French music (see p20 of L'Apothéose de Lully, but these fell out of use well before the acid paper manufactured after the 1840's from wood pulp might have made acid ink a moot problem.
  • a_f_hawkins
    Posts: 1,974
    It's a response by choir masters to congregations dragging. This shortening has been going on a l-o-n-g time. What Americans call a whole note we call a semibreve, which is to say 'half a short note'.
    Some changes in the appearance of notes would be driven by changes in engraving techniques, and by ink drying times.
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  • Richard R.
    Posts: 712
    I think the use of the elongated cantus firmus on a chant melody dictated what types of notes were considered the basic pulse, and then divided.
  • Ken of Sarum
    Posts: 386
    Perhaps its easier on the eyes not seeing all those flags, tails, dots, double dots and beams on eighth and sixteenth notes? hmmm?
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