Paleography and Music Notation: Using Research Methods to Develop Pedagogy

Dr Samantha Blickhan is the IMLS Postdoctoral Fellow at the Adler Planetarium in Chicago, where she works on crowdsourced text and audio transcription projects for Her PhD (Royal Holloway, University of London, 2016) thesis focused on the paleography and notation of insular song from 1150-1300. Here, she writes about designing an undergraduate music paleography course as part of her PhD studies in musicology.

For musicologists working with manuscript sources, paleography is an essential skill. Yet in spite of its ubiquitous presence within the field, there are no texts devoted singularly to the paleographic examination of music notation, and very few studies have been published dedicated solely to music paleography. While certain styles of notation have received enough attention to generate a type of ‘standard practice’ for their examination, this is less true for other notational styles, including the notation that was the focus of my doctoral thesis. This lack of dedicated text was part of the inspiration for my graduate research, specifically in regard to teaching, and it is the intersection between ‘doing’ and ‘teaching’ music paleography that I will address in this blog post.

The main body of my thesis was an in-depth paleographic examination of 111 songs from insular miscellany manuscripts between c.1150 and 1300. As part of my research, I examined the ways in which paleography has historically been used in musicology, beginning with the Gregorian revival in the 19th century. Through this historiographic examination, I found that written acknowledgement of music paleography is most present in places like the front matter of critical editions, where scholars use paleographic techniques to justify editorial choices. While this is no doubt a useful place for paleography, I was curious to explore its application to the examination of writing systems in a way that did not simply serve to provide support for the translation of early forms of writing into a supposed modern equivalent. I wanted to know more about the relationship between sound and its visual representation, how the concept of a ‘writing system’ might be applied to a small group of songs with relatively similar geographic written origin (in terms of their physical source), and where the idea of scribal agency fit into these parameters. Therefore, I suggested a new approach to the practice of music paleography, rooted in semiotics, which refers to the study of symbols or signs, and the ways they are interpreted or used.

As I conducted my research, I became convinced that this approach would also be an effective way to teach undergraduate music students about paleography using early forms of music notation, so I applied the new methodology I used for my notational research to the design, development, and execution of an undergraduate notation course called ‘The Notation of Medieval Song’ (hereafter referred to by its course code, MU3423). The course was accepted by the music department at Royal Holloway, and ran in the spring of 2015. I then used the course as a case study in the final chapter of my thesis, to show the effectiveness of this new paleographic approach as a teaching tool.

Course Aims

The course aims and content centered around a combination of traditional and e-learning techniques intended to aid students in their understanding of the notation of medieval song. While the spring 2015 run of MU3423 focused on insular notation from ca. 1150 to 1300, the course was designed in a way that would allow future incarnations to shift the temporal and geographic focus of the subject matter and examine different types of medieval notation, depending on factors such as student interest, research focus of the lecturer, and availability of manuscript images.

The learning outcomes proposed for MU3423 were as follows:

  1. To recognize the notational forms being used in manuscripts of medieval song and understand their usage.
  2. To sing and/or play songs from sources in the period being studied.
  3. To identify and analyze aspects of manuscript layout, script, language, and text relevant to the study of song.
  4. To interrogate and compare the approaches of different music scribes as a tool for analysis of song.
  5. To draw on a range of skills for the close reading and analysis of handwritten musical scores from any period.

The traditional academic skills introduced in MU3423 were codicology, paleography, and musical analysis, all of which can be applied across the curriculum within various subdisciplines in the humanities. However, the design of the course allowed the students to approach these traditional research skills through the use of digital media. Various digital tools were incorporated into MU3423 for use in the classroom as well as for independent use by students, as a supplement to lectures and assigned readings. For the purposes of this blog post, only a few of these digital tools will be highlighted.

Digital Resources

In the early weeks of the course, as a way to practice identifying the different note-forms being examined in the manuscripts, students were given short quizzes. The quizzes encouraged the students to think about both visual and aural recognition of note-forms. To encourage visual recognition, the students were shown individual forms and asked to identify them. Question responses began as multiple choice, and eventually graduated to short answer as students became more familiar with the specialist notational vocabulary (virga, punctum, etc.).

TtC_Image 1

In the aural recognition questions, the students were given a recording of a solo voice singing a pitch or series of pitches (always beginning on the same note). They were then asked to choose the note-form that best represented the sound they heard. In the same manner as the visual questions, the responses began as multiple choice, and eventually became short answer.

Sometimes, the quiz questions were intended to highlight the importance of examining a note-form within its context on the manuscript page. In the example below, the correct response might be a B flat clef, or it could be a note-form called the epiphonus: the height of the figure’s left side might indicate clef over note-form, but the round body is not fully closed, a trait which supports a reading of the form as an epiphonus.

 TtC_Image 2

Because this ambiguity results from decontextualization (the question would more easily be answered by evaluating the figure’s placement on the musical staff in relation to other forms) the answer to the question is ‘d: B flat or epiphonus; would need to see the context to decide’. The quizzes were intended to encourage students to approach forms in terms of their abstracted function (e.g. ‘two notes descending’; ‘three notes ascending’)—as signifiers, rather than as ‘older versions’ of modern notational forms. The idea behind this approach is that if students learn to think of early note-forms as members of a unique writing system which are dependent on their context within a piece of music, students will be less likely to rely on identification techniques which require them to draw parallels between early and modern notational forms.

One of the Internet-based tools used in MU3423 was Open Rev (, an open-source collaborative annotation platform created by a team of Harvard graduate students intended mostly for use in STEM fields. The students in MU3423 used Open Rev to interact with, annotate, analyze, and discuss digital images of medieval music manuscripts. They were given weekly annotation tasks related to the previous week’s lecture; these tasks allowed them to independently practice the skills learned in the lectures, while also having access to annotations made by the other members of the course. The tasks were mostly based around manuscript-focused interpretative skills like paleography and codicology, and each week the tasks became steadily more difficult. For example, during the first few weeks of the course, the students were asked to select a group of notes in one of the songs available for that week, highlight them on the image, and then post a comment that identified the different note forms. This allowed the students to hone their identification skills while learning to cope with the variability of handwriting and—crucially—always seeing the notes in the context of the surrounding notation, text, and manuscript page.

The collaborative element of the Open Rev tasks meant that the students were able to practice critical analysis and interpretation. After completing the tasks individually, the students were frequently asked to comment on the work of a peer. These comments often led to discussions on the Open Rev platform that were continued in person during the next week’s class. The use of this platform meant that a number of people could discuss a single question using the same visual point of reference, thus encouraging independent student discourse outside the classroom. Students were also able to see how the interpretation of certain note-forms and scribal traits could vary among their peers, and be privy to the various routes their colleagues took to come to their own conclusions.

The record of comments remained available during the entire course, so students could return to the tasks from early in the term and see how their skills had progressed. In this way, Open Rev provided a record of the collective knowledge of the class. Students also kept personal blogs, in which they responded to prompts which asked them to consider the weekly topics and evaluate their own understanding of—and interest in—the course content. These writing tasks were assigned to help them prepare for the following week’s lecture and discussion, but were also intended for the students to use as a guide to their educational process; a tool for reflection and introspective examination of their own learning, as well as an opportunity to regularly give feedback on the course.

As mentioned above, the weekly structure of the classroom sessions consisted of a forum and discussion based around the Open Rev task assigned in the previous week. At the beginning of class, each student would present on their engagement with a song or section of notation from a manuscript page. I would often organize these presentations into small groups, either based around which song the students had chosen to comment on, or around the nature of the comments made and questions asked. If there were particularly interesting comments on Open Rev that week, I encouraged students to continue those discussions during the presentations. The discussions were followed by weekly lectures, delivered by my thesis supervisor, Dr. Helen Deeming. The lectures offered ample opportunity for student questions and group discussion, and often included singing activities, where students would break into small groups and sing through examples from the original notation, then discuss which aspects of this activity they found particularly challenging. The singing exercises were not introduced as a skill on which the students would be examined, but rather as a skill that they could use individually to complement the research process. 


Students were asked to complete two pieces of written coursework, both involving close analysis of source material. The multimedia format of the course invited the exploration of non-traditional forms of assessment, and the coursework reflected this ethos. In the first assignment, students were encouraged to use digital images as support for their writing. For example, one student chose to compare side-by-side images of a prick-point (in the left-hand margin of a recto folio) and stave-lines drawn on the same page. The student used the digital images to support their written assertion that the pricking system belonged to the material on the verso side of the folio, because the text- and stave-lines were not aligned with either the pricking or dry-point ruling used. Another student used a screen capture of an image zoomed in very closely to show how individual pixels can help determine specific points at which letter-forms overlap with a stave line. The student used this example to support their conclusion that the stave lines must have been drawn before the text was added.

In the second assessment, students were encouraged to use audio files as well as digital images to support their writing. Incorporating audio into a written assessment can allow students to engage in the process of analysis using a combined aural and visual method that is, in some ways, analogous to the collective oral and visual culture that existed during the time period in which these songs were believed to have been written down. Fewer students chose to include audio examples than digital images, but those who did used the audio examples in very different ways. Some students used very short clips to illustrate aural aspects of specific note forms, while others used longer clips to illustrate how notational variations might change larger melodic aspects of a song.


Within the weekly discussions and the written work produced, the students consistently gave insightful responses to very difficult subject matter. I believe that the strong academic work that they produced, combined with overwhelmingly positive feedback, can be taken as proof of the effectiveness of this teaching method. The process outlined here requires early forms of notation to have a set place and important role in the various paths of music: from conception to written record, performance event, analysis, or any combination thereof. By completing this process without using modern transcription, the students were more successfully able to recognize their internal struggles between previously-held musical knowledge and the notation that exists on the manuscript page, allowing them to develop an awareness of early notations as writing systems in and of themselves.

Dr. Samantha Blickhan, Adler Planetarium, Chicago

3 Replies to “Paleography and Music Notation: Using Research Methods to Develop Pedagogy”

  1. This brief write-up was actually such the good read of which I are going to
    surely suggest it to the friends! The final opportunity I’ve read something as professionally written was along with merely at Thank you for the professionalism and also
    dependability as well as a watch concerning information. Is going to be glad to check
    out much more of your creating!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: