Visual or Symbolic? Best Practices for Encoding Neumes

Authors: De Luca, Elsa / Behrendt, Inga / Fujinaga, Ichiro / Helsen, Kate / Morent, Stefan

Date: Friday, 8 September 2023, 9:15am to 10:45am

Location: Main Campus, L 2.202 <campus:measure>


A general standard practice in MEI music encoding is to capture the meaning of the music symbols rather than their graphic appearance. While this philosophy is suitable for modern notations, it does not necessarily apply to the encoding of neumes. Early notations (9th – 13th century) conveyed a different set of musical instructions from what we are used to seeing in modern notation because it existed primarily in an oral tradition.

The original meaning of early music scripts is, to various degrees, lost. Early music palaeographers (Atkinson, Treitler, Rankin, among others) managed to pin down some principles behind the various music scripts employed across Europe and part of the Middle East and the Levant. Broadly speaking, the meaning originally attributed to the neumes depended on their graphical appearance (e.g., a vertical stroke mirroring a raising melody) and/or on some conventions established and shared by the scribes and readers familiar with that specific music script. The quantity of musical information conveyed by the neumes to modern readers varies according to the style of the music script. As such, the music encoding of early music scripts requires, on one hand, a system flexible enough to capture musical information unclear to the modern reader (e.g., a rising melody, even though the size of the interval is unknown). On the other hand, it should be able to express something (e.g., a neume) whose original meaning is now lost and the only thing left is a recognizable pen-stroke found repeatedly in the sources.

Recently some historical musicologists proposed some changes to improve the MEI Neumes Module applicability to different kinds of early notations. One of the specific challenges they faced was the difficulty of encoding potentially meaningful visual aspects of the neumes in the current MEI system without being certain of the semantic—musical meaning. Existing MEI schemas will need to be expanded to include several new attributes and elements in order to properly capture the rich graphical variety founds in early music scripts.

This paper proposal aims to bridge the gap between semantic and graphic uses of MEI. We will present a case study highlighting the decision-making process behind some of the changes that will be suggested in the near future to the current MEI Neumes Module. By discussing some neumes in St Gall notation, we aim to contribute to the wider discussion about best practices for the encoding of neumes and, more broadly, to the digital representation of music. Hopefully this paper will give an insight on the laborious process, and specific expertise, required to encode neumes and contribute towards the conversation about the encoding of non-Western music notations. We wish to raise awareness on the peculiarity of neumatic notations within the bigger picture of musical scores and to foster dialogue within the MEI community and beyond, to find together the best system to encode neumes.


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Behrendt, Inga, Jennifer Bain, and Kate Helsen. 2017. “MEI Kodierung der frühesten Notation in linienlosen Neumen.” Kodikologie und Paläographie im Digitalen Zeitalter 4 / Codicology and Palaeography in the Digital Age. Vol. 4. Edited by Hannah Busch, Franz Fischer, and Patrick Sahle, with the cooperation of Philip Hegel and Celiz Krause, Norderstedt 2016. Köln: Institut für Dokumentologie und Editorik e.V, 2017, 281–296.

De Luca, Elsa, and Haig Utidjian. 2023. “Challenging the MEI Neumes Module: Encoding Armenian Neumes.” In Proceedings of the Music Encoding Conference, Dalhousie University, 19–22 May 2022, ed. by Jennifer Bain and David M. Weigl. Forthcoming.

De Luca, Elsa, Jennifer Bain, Inga Behrendt, Ichiro Fujinaga, Kate Helsen, Alessandra Ignesti, Debra Lacoste, Sarah Ann Long. 2019. “Capturing Early Notations in MEI: The Case of Old Hispanic Neumes.” MusikTheorie-Zeitschrift für Musikwissenschaft 3: 229–249.

De Luca, Elsa, Jennifer Bain, Inga Behrendt, Ichiro Fujinaga, Kate Helsen, Alessandra Ignesti, Debra Lacoste, and Sarah Ann Long. “Cantus Ultimus’ MEI Neume Module and its Interoperability Across Chant Notations.” Abstract. Music Encoding Conference, Vienna. Available at

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About the authors

Elsa De Luca is an early music scholar pursuing research on medieval notations at the Centre for the Study of the Sociology and Aesthetics of Music, NOVA University Lisbon. She is the PI of the interdisciplinary project Echoes from the Past: Unveiling a Lost Soundscape with Digital Analysis.

Inga Behrendt is professor of plainchant and hymnology at the University for Church Music of the Diocese of Rottenburg-Stuttgart and also teaches both subjects at the University of Music, Freiburg. Her research concentrates on plainchant, digital plainchant research, and music historiography.

Ichiro Fujinaga is Canada Research Chair in Music Information Retrieval and Professor in the Music Technology Area of the Department of Music Research at the Schulich School of Music, McGill University. He has been working on encoding neume notation into MEI since 2010.

Kate Helsen is Assistant Professor in the Department of Music Research and Composition at the Don Wright Faculty of Music at the University of Western Ontario. Her specialization in plainchant, and Early Music more broadly, has led to her involvement in several international projects that dismantle the traditional boundaries of music and technology.

Stefan Morent, Professor/chair digital musicology/music before 1600 at Tübingen University, speaker of the Exploration Full Fund Sacred Sound. Research: Music of the Middle Ages, Performance Practice, Digital Musicology. International concerts with his ensemble Ordo Virtutum for Medieval Music.

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