MusB Music

Year of entry: 2024

Course unit details:
Musical Notation

Course unit fact file
Unit code MUSC10212
Credit rating 10
Unit level Level 1
Teaching period(s) Semester 2
Offered by Music
Available as a free choice unit? Yes


The main aims of this course unit are to help you gain a more refined and sophisticated understanding of musical notation through the study of primary sources, and to learn to transcribe and edit music from these sources according to modern conventions. The course focuses on early notation, from c. 1420 to c. 1620, and includes study of mensural notation and lute tablature. We will consider the nature of musical sources in this period, and how the notational system used reflects the predominant styles of music at the time. We will investigate the main rules governing notation of pitch and rhythm during the period, which will allow you to interpret examples from the primary sources. The examples we work with in the course will allow you to become familiar with music by composers such as Dufay, Josquin, Ockeghem and Dowland, in the form that it would have been presented in the composers’ own day.



Available as Free Choice (UG) or to other programmes (PG)?

Yes, but note prerequisite of A Level Music or Grade VIII Theory or equivalent.



  • To introduce students to the techniques of reading and using primary sources of musical notation;
  • To provide a foundation for understanding early musical notations, including mensural notation and lute tablature;
  • To introduce students to skills of musical transcription appropriate for early notations;
  • To encourage investigation of the role and responsibilities of the editor when working with early notations, and opportunities to practise editing techniques.

Knowledge and understanding

  • An understanding of the principles of mensural notation, including notation of both pitch and rhythm
  • An understanding of the principles of lute-tablature notation, including notation of both pitch and rhythm
  • Knowledge of the conventions used in modern transcriptions of such repertory

Intellectual skills

  • An awareness of the role of the editor when working with early musical notations and the nature of the decisions s/he has to make

Practical skills

  • The ability to transcribe from primary sources musical repertory from c. 1420 to c. 1620 preserved in mensural notation or lute tablature
  • The ability to apply modern editing techniques in transcriptions of this repertory

Transferable skills and personal qualities

  • The ability critically to evaluate material from primary sources, and to interpret it for non-specialist users
  • A developing ability to produce good-quality work independently with some guidance
  • The ability to communicate ideas and information clearly in written and verbal form

Employability skills

Analytical skills
analysing and understanding primary materials
Group/team working
collaborating with peers in workshops
Problem solving
creative approaches to interpreting challenging and unfamiliar materials
Written communication
high presentation standards in written work
an ability to pay close attention to detail

Assessment methods

Portfolio of 4 short assignments 100%


Feedback methods

  • Formal written feedback will be given for the coursework assignments, and will be provided within the 15-working-day deadline operated by SALC
  • Verbal feedback is given on class exercises
  • Additional one-to-one feedback is available during the consultation hour or by making an appointment

Recommended reading

  • Willi Apel, The Notation of Polyphonic Music, 900–1600 (Cambridge, MA: Mediaeval Academy of America, 1942; 5th rev. edn. 1953 and 1961)
  • Alan Atlas, Renaissance Music: Music in Western Europe, 1400–1600, The Norton Introduction to Music History (New York: Norton, 1998)
  • Margaret Bent, ‘Notation, §3, 3(vii): polyphonic mensural notation, c. 1260–1500’, in Grove Music Online,
  • John Caldwell, Editing Early Music (Oxford: Clarendon, 1985; 2nd rev. edn. 1995)
  • James Grier, The Critical Editing of Music: History, Method and Practice (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996)
  • James Grier, ‘Editing’, in New Grove Online,
  • Carl Parrish, The Notation of Medieval Music (London: Faber, 1958; repr. New York: Pendragon, 1978)
  • Richard Rastall, The Notation of Western Music: An Introduction (London, Melbourne and Toronto: Dent, 1983; 2nd rev. edn. Leeds: Leeds University Press, 1998)

Study hours

Scheduled activity hours
Lectures 11
Practical classes & workshops 5.5
Independent study hours
Independent study 83.5

Teaching staff

Staff member Role
Rebecca Herissone-Kelly Unit coordinator

Additional notes



Return to course details