Coming and Going: Plotting Time, Space, and Direction in Medieval Music

In my Freshman Monroe Project, I intend to analyze two different types of procedures found in medieval musical compositions.The first procedure, called isorhythm, is a way of constructing larger compositions based on numbers, a common technique in the Middle Ages. The types of pieces that most frequently use isorhythm are called motets, musical compositions which feature 3 or 4 vocal parts. The bottom vocal part is nearly always a segment from a Gregorian chant. The voice parts over the chant line lay out phrases of varying lengths. These phrases often form particular patterns that may relate the voices to each other and to the chant part, forming a kind of large, numerological structure that presented numbers in terms of sound, duration, and structural organization. The second procedure that I would like to investigate is the use of retrograde melodic motion in a number of works from the 14th and 15th centuries. Retrograde motion is the way in which a melody, rhythm, or both can be presented in reverse, allowing composers to organize their material in ways that may strike us as rather strange today.

In my project, I propose to subject the isorhythmic motets I choose to a structural analysis based on the way they present features of isorhythm and/or retrograde motion. For the first part, I need to decide on a workable number of pieces, probably 3 or 4, then investigate the scholarly literature on these compositions and on isorhythm and retrograde motion in general. I then plan on subjecting the pieces to a thorough analysis of their structural and rhythmical components. Finally, I plan on culminating my research into a final product, possibly a paper and/or another form of visual representation. In this way, I hope to explore the connection between mathematical patterns and medieval music.

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