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When was the last time you stopped and thought about music? I mean the actual dots and lines on the page, rather than that more intangible thing for which written music serves as a medium. Thomas Forrest Kelly makes two points early on in his new book. First, the idea of trying to encapsulate in a permanent, written format something so completely ephemeral as a sound is a rather odd concept; second, so weighted is our current musical notation towards certain properties of sound (ie its pitch and duration) that, if we were to start from scratch and build a new system for writing down music, we would almost certainly prioritise different aspects and thereby arrive at a markedly different notational system. Of course, as Kelly elucidates very clearly, the system we do have evolved from being intended for a very specific purpose (to aid the memory of the religious when performing the daily offices or the Mass), and so the shortcomings and strengths of our modern notation derive from those beginnings.

Kelly’s language and approach continually drift from the casual and general to the precise and specialist, but without ever leaving anything unexplained; he takes us through the various important staging-posts in medieval music history, touching on Guido of Arezzo, the Notre Dame school and Franco of Cologne, before leaving us with Philippe of Vitry and Italian developments in the late 14th and early-15th century, just as Petrucci was preparing his frames of type.

This book will be informative and entertaining to those with some facility for reading music, but also to those who have none. My pre-release review copy was only printed in black and white, but the pages are liberally sprinkled with (what will be) brightly coloured photographs of medieval manuscripts, which add much to the enjoyment and understanding of Kelly’s text.

It may be that an advanced reader finds Kelly’s approach too flippant or too generalist – but this book is avowedly ‘not a technical manual’; what it is is an interesting and well-written look at the birth and development of music notation, and is worth seeking out by anyone with an interest in the topic.

ADRIAN HORSEWOOD Read the full review on Agora Classica

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