Manuscript Music Monday!  This page features a type of musical notation called Nagelschrift.  It was used in Germany in the 14th and 15th centuries and got its name because the individual neumes look like horseshoe nails (Nagel = nail, schrift = writing).  Can you see the resemblance?

University of Missouri, Ellis Library, Special Collections,  RARE RES UNCATALOGUED folder 2. More info at Digital Scriptorium.

- Kelli Hansen


Neumes! Magical neumes!

Check out these leaves from a breviary dating all the way back to the 11th century. Contains versicle and hymn for first vespers of Passion Sunday, the Magnificat antiphon, the invitatory (from Psalm 94) with neumes, the vesper oration; the hymn at matins (Pange Lingua), and the first lesson at matins with its responsory, with neumes.

Source: Conception, Conception Abbey and Seminary, Special Collections,  CA 06

Kyrie with Trope, from the Rite of Paris

Around the ninth century, composers began to add words to the complex melodies in order to make the number of syllables more closely agree with the number of musical notes. Such “farcing” or “troping” of the original texts produced a large number of texts. Arrangements varied – in some works the farcing would preceed the invocations; in others it might follow; and in still others it might separate the two words of each invocation, making them the first and last word of eached troped sentence

“The MS belongs to the "Yang” tradition, the most highly involved and regarded chant tradition in Tibetan music, and the only one to rely on a system of notation (Yang-Yig). The chant consists of smoothly effected rises and falls in intonation, which are represented by complex curved lines. The notation also frequently contains detailed instructions concerning in what spirit the music should be sung (e.g. flowing like a river, light like bird song) and the smallest modifications to be made to the voice in the utterance of a vowel.“ (Schoyen Collection)

I love neumes. Do you love neumes?

(These are cheironomic - early, staffless neumes. Ancestors of our modern music notation. Growing out of the different conducting gestures that back then actually indicated pitch, they arose as memory aids for the monks who had to sing for every different event on the religious calendar. I did a whole subject on paleography one semester…ages ago now.)


Look! More neumes!

Single leaf and its reverse from a 12th century Italian breviary. Contains most of the five final readings with their responses and versicles for matins of the second Sunday in Lent; although the leaf is cropped at the bottom, very little text is missing.

Script: Late caroline minuscule for the readings; responses and versicles in a smaller version of the same script.

Source: New York, Columbia University, Rare Book and Manuscript Library,  Plimpton MS 033


Singing in a Late Medieval Church

This manuscript (St. Gallen, Stiftsbibliothek Cod. Sang. 544) written at St Gallen, Switzerland in 1545 contains different kinds of liturgical chants, or ‘plainchant’, including psalms with antiphons, canticles, and hymns. Manuscripts like this would have been used mostly for public devotion during Mass.

This particular folio (1r) is the first folio of the manuscript and starts with a hymn and antiphon with musical notation. The notes are written on a four-line stave – instead of the five-line stave that we use now –  which was used for almost all music at the time this manuscript was produced. This is because chants used in liturgy retained the earlier style of four lines to show the height of notes. Another difference between our modern musical notation and this example of musical notation is the shape of the notes or, as they are technically called, ‘neumes’. The neumes are relatively square, keeping with the Gothic script in which the manuscript is written.

It is important to realize that almost all the music that was written down in the Middle Ages was vocal music and in most cases was performed without instruments. Music played a major part in the religious culture of this time, which is attested to by this manuscript and many others filled with religious and liturgical songs. 

- Sanne Boomsma

This Gradual was produced in 1071 by the archpresbyter of the Church of Santa Cecilia in Trastevere; it contains the musical scores for assorted liturgical songs. These melodies set down in written form make CB 74 the oldest record of Roman song.

I’ve only included this leaf because it begins the Introit “Viri Galilae…” for Ascension Sunday.

The rest of the Gradual can be found here: Cologny, Fondation Martin Bodmer, Cod. Bodmer 74, f. 99v – Gradual · Tropary · Sequentiary. (


Leaves from a 12th century Italian missal. Includes parts of text and music for Masses for the eighth and ninth Sundays after Pentecost with ferias.

Script: Caroline minuscule.
Music: Central Italian neumes on red F and yellow C lines.
Other Decoration: 2- to 4-line initials in red; 1-line initials within text touched with red and occasionally yellow; headings in red.

Source: Berkeley, University of California, Berkeley, Music Library, Music Library MS 1098