Category Archives: Middle Ages

Internal Memory Drive

ImageWhen students in my music history classes first approach the earliest forms of Western music notation, they are struck by how little information is provided. Contemporary notation provides specific instructions for pitch, duration, loudness, articulation, among others, but the original neumes of the 9th-century monastaries gave so little detail that one could not perform chant from the source without already knowing the melody. These sources, I explain to students, provide just a point of reference; they are something to jog the memory and not used to preserve the performance details of a piece for individuals who had no familiarity with the repertoire. An extensive practice of memory and recollection was the norm, and the Gothic monks had developed the tools to access material deep in their memory banks, which explains the limited need for notation. Futhermore, bound manuscripts were extremely expensive and slow to produce.

A former professor of mine drew an analogy to the story of Red Riding Hood to make this point. Most students can recreate the narrative from memory, even if slightly different in delivery, because they know the key ingredients of the story (Oh, what big __________ you have). Students do not study the story of Red Riding Hood on a regular basis; however, they’ve developed the tools for reproducing it at will.

Today’s students are rarely required to memorize long texts and this practice seems as arcane as Gregorian chant. But memorization is more than rote; it requires deep focus and attention. When I was in 5th grade, I had to memorize all of the U.S. presidents in chronological order. I eventually accomplished this feat by learning some historical facts about the presidents and grouping them by major U.S. wars and events in territory expansion. Thus, in order to master an accurate delivery, one is encouraged to develop tools for recollection: symbolic words, relevant analogies, structural patterns, underlying meaning, etc. Students can recite the text and understand appropriate contexts for its reference.

A few years ago, Mark Bauerlein encouraged this activity in his blog for several benefits it provides. Search engines may have removed the need for storing information, but the extensive benefits of memorization are still relevant for our students. Courses on historical and global cultures that engage in oral traditions may find that rich discussions lie in the various practices of memorization and their dwindling use in the 21st century, digital age.


When I was a TA in graduate school, I led a professor’s students in an activity that reminded me of a jigsaw puzzle. A 12th-century setting of the Christmas Mass gradual, “Viderunt Omnes,” by Leonin of the Notre Dame School of polyphony was snipped into multiple strips of paper in a sealed envelope. Student teams were responsible for sequencing the polyphonic setting of the traditional chant from its disorder. In order to successfully recreate the complete setting, students had to fully understand the relationship of Leonin’s compositional choices to the structure and style of the original chant setting. Instead of passively observing Leonin’s elaborated version, students had to piece it together from random fragments.

Perhaps students could learn formal structures of large-scale works better through puzzles than models. James M. Lang posted an interesting piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education on the “Benefits of Making it Harder to Learn” and I wonder if we are short-changing students by providing them with the paradigm schema for easy, yet shallow understanding of complex texts. According to Lang, providing challenging learning conditions for students results in deeper encoding, and thus better recall. Although the tests of “cognitive disfluency” cited in the article center on challenging fonts of text, Lang cited some strategies he shared at the Institute for Pedagogy in the Liberal Arts that may prove engaging for classroom activities. The first technique, asking students to process or translate course material using unusual rhetorical or expressive modes, reminded me of the assignment on Leonin’s polyphony, a visual expression of a text for students to process through puzzle solving strategies.

An updated version of this assignment pushes cognitive disfluency further. Instead of having students sequence Leonin’s elaboration through comparison to the original Christmas Mass gradual, I will ask students to work with fragmented excerpts from both versions. This will require an additional layer of difficulty so that students will move beyond just understanding the relationship to discovering that the texts are related in the first place. The following chart illustrates a simplified sequencing of both versions.

Chant Sequencing                                       Elaboration Sequencing

1. Solo Response in Monophony                     1. Solo Response in Organum

     a. Melisma on “Omnes”                                       a. Solo Response in Discant

2. Choir Response in Monophony                    2. Choir Response in Monophony

3. Solo Verse in Monophony                           3. Solo Verse in Organum

     a. Melisma on “Dominus”                                    a. Solo Verse in Discant

4. Choir Verse in Monophony                          4. Choir Verse in Monophony

In working with fragments of both versions together, students will gradually (pardon the pun) discover that there are two fragments for each bit of text, some of which have identical musical settings and others that are different. This will trigger the observation that there are two versions of the same text that are related.  What follows is the goals of the original assignment as developed by the professor when I was a TA, figuring out that Leonin has only updated the solo sections of the chant and that he writes organum for syllabic phrases and discant for word melismas.

I have provided models for most of the musical forms I teach (sonata form, da capo aria, etc.) for students in the past before we observe complete texts, although many students have difficulty processing form when individual musical pieces betray the paradigm. Perhaps puzzles will yield a deeper understanding of formal structures and help students accept that models are the descriptive product of theorists and not the prescriptive framework for composers.