Thursday, March 3, 2011

Text-to-Music: a Medieval Approach

Although Medieval theorists documented various techniques used to compose chant melodies, a very curious method is discussed by John “Cotton” (ca. 1100) and Guido d’Arrezo (995-1050). Both theorists proposed a method of composition that uncovers a text’s inherent pitch possibilities. One can then fashion a melody out of these possibilities, shaping the text into a melody. This is a bit similar to some of today’s websites that attempt to “translate” text into music. (Visit for one example.) Unlike the online example, the Medieval system for composing monophonic settings of chant utilized only the vowels (a e i o u) of a text to determine pitch possibilities. This one-to-one correspondence (vowel equals pitch) thus strengthened the bond between text and music. It provided a framework in which a composer could make choices, depending on taste, that would aid the process of composition and unite text with music more cogently. For a simple example of this system, what follows is a short summary. Any five sequential notes belonging to a given mode (scale) are written out, and above them are written the five vowels a e i o u.  Each syllable of the chant is assigned a note based on the vowel it is linked with.  For instance, if we use the following order:
       a   e   i   o  u
      D  E  F  G  A
and one of the words in our chant is Dominum, it would be chanted as follows: the syllable Do would be given a G pitch, mi an F pitch, and num an A, producing the melody G-F-A.  For even more pitch choices, an entire scale can be used, and more than one pitch choice can be assigned to a vowel. For instance, the following is possible:
a   e    i   o   u   a   e   i 
G  A   B  C  D  E   F   G
i   o    u   a   e   i   o   u
Thus, the floodgates are opened and the total number of pitch possibilities per vowel is no longer limited to a meager few! Chants composed with such structural emphasis on vowels belong to the realm of “spectral composition” where the structure of the chant is governed both by melodic contour as well as sonic (vowel) opposition. Try this for yourself! You’re bound to come up with some interesting tunes!

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