History of Music Theory

Featured WiMT: Elina Hamilton

As a pianist, it took me a surprisingly long time before I realized I was bound to music notation. Notation informed me what pitch to play, for how long, with specific articulation, dynamics, and with what kind of emotion a phrase should be presented to an audience. At one point I stopped to ponder the power that “The Score” had over me as I spent hours building up a repertoire for my senior recital. Little did I know at the time that my curiosity would lead me into the wonderfully complex world of medieval music treatises.

For my graduate studies, I moved to the UK to study early music at Bangor University (Wales, UK). Unlike institutions in the United States, music departments in the UK do not segregate musicology and theory, and this enabled me to move freely between the two disciplines. My time in the music department coincided with a newly established Center for Early Music studies in 2007 led by distinguished early music scholars such as Thomas Schmidt, Christian Leitmeir, John Harper, Sally Harper, and Hana Vlhova-Wörner. We sang music, organized conferences, studied manuscripts in archives, and reenacted pre-reformation and post-reformation church music together, all in the hopes of understanding a distant musical past. The Center no longer exists and most of us have since moved on to different institutions, making our encounter in Wales a unique confluence.

In graduate school, I learned that theorists from the Carolingian Renaissance had unique ways in which they described sound. The anonymous author of Musica enchiriadis could not explain music without invoking another more commonly studied discipline: grammar. “Just as the elementary and indivisible constituents of speech are letters, from which syllables are put together, and these in turn make up verbs and nouns, and from them is composed the fabric of a complete discourse, so the roots of song are phthongi, which are called soni in Latin.” These soni are comprised of sounds that are specifically designated, selected out of all other sounds. The notation given these soni were only used in the enchiriadis traditions yet were a part of a musician’s pedagogy for centuries. I became fascinated by the way theorists described the soni, and their sometimes clumsy descriptions. I was particularly intrigued by theorist’s depictions of singing improvised organum, and how they eventually argued for and against the smallest levels of dividing rhythm. When Dorit Tanay kindly gifted me her monograph, Noting Music, Marking Culture, I was inspired to write something about the history of theory.

I narrowed my dissertation research to focus on the importance of individual theorists within the long tradition of medieval music theory, and decided to work on texts written in England during the fourteenth century. The fourteenth century was a time when musicians implemented a quick successions of new ideas about notation. Andrew Wathey’s research on the transmission of music from the continent into England allowed me to begin questioning how theorists might have engaged in an intellectual discourse within the country and across the Channel. I began to map out the transmission of ideas among English theorists, only to discover that they seemed to have had an internal network that was well informed by innovations taking place abroad. To date, my most exciting discovery was when archival research led me to discover that Walter Odington, originally believed to have been both a music theorist and an alchemist, was a conflation of two different individuals working in two institutions based on a misreading of the letters v and n. In my dissertation, I argue that the musician hailed from Evesham Abbey, as distinct from Eynsham Abbey near Oxford, where the alchemist conducted his experiments. Who would have known that two small letters could tell us so much about the history of theory!

Walter is most famous today for being one of the first to reason that the interval of a third, though mathematically complex, is audibly pleasant and therefore should be accepted as consonant. Walter’s De speculatione musicae likely dates from the last decades of the thirteenth century, although only one complete copy from the fifteenth century remains today. Only a few sentences can be reconstructed from the original folio but in the introduction, Walter reveals his distress that young musicians do not fully comprehend the study of music in his day. “They begin from the end, skipping the basics,” he writes in one of the fragmented sentences, and later “[…] the great diversity of notation in melodies invented in our time […] all say different things to corrupt that which has been said by the ancients, as though they were plaster.” The treatise that follows addresses the teachings of the ancients, notably Boethius, while offering a concise but careful description of the newest forms of rhythmic notation. Walter was, in many ways, the father of English music theory, and his writings resonated with other English theorists, who mention him as an authority in their treatises.

My current research has turned towards finding direct connections between the music and theory of the fourteenth century. I am particularly interested in finding out how and what theorists may have known about music composed in different geographic regions. My article, “Phillipe de Vitry in England: Musical Quotations in the Quatuor principalia and the Gratissima Tenor”(forthcoming in Studi Musicali), focuses on the use of Philippe de Vitry’s motet tenors as musical examples in the Quatuor principalia. I suggest that certain motet tenors by Vitry were well known among a group of theorists and composers in fourteenth-century France and England, and possibly even circulated independent of the other voices. The immediate dissemination of this “modern music” within treatises as found in the Quatuor principalia reveals an inner circle of music enthusiasts who were continuously engaged in a musical discourse.

Today, I teach a graduate seminar at the Boston Conservatory at Berklee on the history of music theory focusing on medieval and Renaissance theory. Medieval organization of sound is foreign to the modern performer on many fronts, and most of us enter college reading music notation and understanding the organization of sound in one particular way. In my classroom, I look for ways to expand my student’s perspectives through the history of theory rather than shy away from the past. I emphasize that even if the process of organizing sound differs, we share a continuously changing path of comprehension with the musicians who came before us. I like to remind my students that theorists of the past thrived on the same joy of understanding music at a deeper level that we do today.



elinaElina G. Hamilton is Assistant Professor at the Boston Conservatory at Berklee. She holds a Ph.D. and M.A. in musicology from Bangor University (Wales) and a B.M. in Piano Performance from Portland State University. Hamilton’s graduate research was recognized by The Drapers’ Company with a medal for Outstanding Postgraduate Contribution, only the sixth such medal given in the London guild’s 600-year history. Her work on Walter of Evesham Abbey appears in Musica Disciplina. Hamilton also advocates the need for more research on women in music and her article on Louise Hanson-Dyer appears in Notes.