Note Values, Tactus and Mensural Notation: Tempi Part 1

Metrónomo

Classical music is based on many relative concepts, such as note values, tempi (except modern compositions with an absolute metronome value), and dynamics. In fact, this ambiguity is one of the most crucial elements that make music so profound and mysterious, as it gives the players a margin for imagination and creativity. At the same time, this ambiguous nature of music is a real headache for players to interpret.

For instance, we know that Allegro, Moderato, Andante, Adagio, Largo, etc. are all tempi instruction. However, identifying exactly how fast or slow these tempi signify is extremely difficult, as there is no way to know the exact intention of the composers, especially when a large number of the compositions were written in the periods that we haven’t lived. The notion of time can significantly vary depending on the periods, cultural backgrounds, and the acoustic characteristic of the instruments or even the room where the music is performed.

The only solution to this problem is, in my opinion, to make a sensible and personal decision based on good imagination, guessing and the help of some knowledge. Hopefully, this series of essays will give you some insight into the tempi.

 

Note Values and Mensural Notation

The key to understanding the concept of tempi can be found in the development of music notation system. The following is a very simple version of the history of note values.

Early 16th-century manuscript in mensural notation

Early 16th-century manuscript in mensural notation

One of the greatest inventions for European music is "Mensural notation" which achieved for the first time in the history to describe durations of notes on a paper in numerical proportions.

I don't intend to go into detail over the mensural notation system for this essay, but I believe that it is very interesting to see the origin of our modern notation system.

 

Mensural Modern

maxima

maxima

 

longa

longa

 

brevis

brevis

breve/double whole note

breve

semibrevis

semibrevis

semibreve/whole note

semibreve

minima

minima

minim/half note

minim

semiminima

semiminima

crotchet/quater note

crotchet

fusa

fusa

quaver/eighth note

quaver

semifusa

semifusa

semiquaver/sixteenth note

semiquaver

As the chart demonstrates the mensural "brevis" is the ancestor of the modern "breve (double whole note)". Likewise, the "semibrevis" corresponds to the "semibreve (whole note)", the "minima" to the "minim (half note)", the "semiminima" to the "crotchet (quarter note)", and so on.

Before around 1300, only "maxima", "longa", "brevis", and "semibrevis" were used. Between the 14th and 16th centuries, composers repeatedly introduced shorter notes. As a result, the older and longer notes were slowed down in proportion.

 

Tactus

The ancestor of today's "beat" was called "tactus". In the 15th century, "tactus" was marked by falling and rising motion of the hand. The concept of "beat" was very different at the time. It was, more precisely, something closer to a "bar (measure)" of the modern notation.

Because of the lack of bar lines in the mensural notation, it was necessary to have a type of a unit to refer.  According to Franchinus Gaffurius, an Italian music theorist and composer of the Renaissance period, one tactus was equal to the value of a "semibrevis". And the duration of each semibrevis was equal to the pulse of a man who is breathing quietly. Thus presumably, semibrevis/semibreve (whole note) = about 60-72 per minute (Practica musicae, 1496).

In this way, the "semibrevis" which was originally the shortest note value and also the origin of modern "bar/measure" became the "semibreve (whole note)" that we commonly use as the longest note today.

Interestingly, unlike today's relative note values, the notes at this time had almost absolute durations (a heartbeat). Therefore, the tempo and the duration of each note can be obtained literally by the value of the notes represented on the notation. It is believed that this practice generally lasted throughout the century.

Many composers have sought a new style of music throughout history. Every time a new style was born, the prevailing notation system and concepts became obsolete and inadequate to express new ideas. Consequently, composers continuously extended and modified the existing system, or sometimes they invented a new one. While some of the old values, symbols, meanings, or ideas inherited from the past were replaced with the new ones by some composers, other old systems or musical languages remained in use by other composers. Such things were then called "tradition" by the successors.

To be continued.