The Feedback Loop of Early Keyboard Music

by Peter Tracy

Musicians with a water organ 2nd century AD

 “let him thunder forth as he presses out mighty roarings with a light touch”
– Claudian (c. 370 – 404)[1]

“With the introduction of a keyboard, musicians lost direct contact with the source of their music.”[2] So begins Alexander Silbiger’s book Keyboard Music before 1700, a no-nonsense study of the rise of what is perhaps the Western world’s most ubiquitous musical mechanism. Silbinger focuses largely on the point in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries when music written specifically for instruments using a keyboard mechanism begins to appear in surviving textual sources, yet the keyboard existed in theory and in practice for centuries before any surviving notations, beginning in the third century with Ctesibius of Alexandria’s hydraulis. With a complex array of levers, rods, and machinery, the hydraulis embodies the beginning of the disconnect which Silbinger identifies, that of a complex machine coming between the motions of the performer and the musical results of their actions. Yet although Silbiger’s comment on music’s source seems to have more to do with the mechanics of sound production than with any theoretical or psychological concerns, it stands to reason that the organization of the keyboard and the feeling of playing it has also had a lasting impact on musical thought. Where music would be without the iconic symbolism of the piano’s black and white tableau is anyone’s guess, and there are reasons to believe that the impact of this exact layout may have been far reaching indeed.

“Apparently there is nothing more artificial and less artistic in the whole domain of musical instruments than that complicated mechanism of levers, joints, connecting rods, hammers, slides, springs, straps, etc., which constitute a key.”[3] Thus does Willi Apel describe the machinery that makes the piano possible as one of the foundational instruments of Western musical education, theory, and performance. He too seems to be describing the keyboard as fostering a disconnect between player and sound, between music and its maker. One hugs a violin or a cello tight to the chest and body when performing, feeling intimately its vibrations and resonances. But an organ key makes no sound when touched and is answered only by a pipe that could be across the room from the performer.

Late 4th century AD Mosaic of the Female Musicians from a Byzantine villa in Maryamin Syria.

After Ctesibius and the popularity of the water powered organ in the ancient world, the pneumatic organ became the standard across the former Roman Empire. This style of organ replaced the water-pressure-based mechanism of Ctesibius with a bellows that was often worked by assistants, and is mentioned by writers as early as the fourth and fifth centuries. In 757, the Byzantine Emperor Constantine V gave an organ as a gift to King Pippin of the Franks, a testament to the prestige of the organ during this period and its status as both a technical achievement and a symbol of musical sophistication. Still, organs from this period could not produce more than one note at a time, and were largely melodic instruments. Apel argues that from roughly the 9th century onward, so-called double organs may have been produced which could, in theory, have allowed for polyphony between two players, but there is little evidence of this being a widespread practice.

Organs were quickly expanding in both sophistication and scale during this period: as early as the mid-tenth century, the monk Wulstan tells of an enormous organ being erected in Winchester by Bishop Aelfheah, a monstrous instrument of twenty-six bellows requiring seventy men to work and including four hundred pipes.[4] Some organs of the tenth century thus already begin to look much like the massive church organs usually associated with the instrument, and can be assumed to have been just as imposing in volume, yet smaller organs such as the portative and positive organs also emerged which were built to be more or less portable.

Odd as it may seem, the massive organs of places like Winchester can be seen as something of a step backwards in one key aspect: that of the keyboard itself. In many large organs from the tenth century onward, the delicate keyboard of the hydraulis was non-existent, having been replaced by a system of levers which could better withstand and control the immense wind power of larger bellows. Thus there was no room for the quick, florid lines or melodies which would come to grace later organ playing, and while organs still remained largely melodic instruments throughout the tenth, eleventh, and twelfth centuries, the keyboard was by no means as widespread as before. Thus, the most ubiquitous of all musical mechanisms was poised for something of a comeback in the mid-to-late middle ages, one which would shape the centuries of written music to come.

An early diagram of a vertical harpsichord (clavicytherium) by Arnault de Zwolle c. 1430

This comeback took on a variety of forms: In 1367, for instance, King John I of Aragon wrote a letter asking his ambassadors to find someone who could play the exaquir, an instrument which is described as being like an organ with strings.[5] Before 1700, the Latin clavis (key), from which clavier derives, was used as a blanket term for all keyboard instruments, including the organ, the clavichord, the harpsichord, and eventually, the piano. The letter is therefore the oldest surviving evidence of a stringed clavier-style instrument. Because of their shared mechanism, the organ and its stringed cousins likely shared an overlapping repertory in the late fourteenth century, and one can therefore begin to consider keyboard instruments as occupying their own unique musical sphere.

The true rise of the keyboard occurs in the late fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, a time during which the study of classical antiquity (the hydraulis included) and the beginnings of Renaissance humanism were spreading throughout Europe. The most famous music of this time comes from figures such as Josquin des Prez (c. 1450 – 1521) and Johannes Ockeghem (1410 – 1497), who’s highly complex vocal polyphony has remained a technical point of reference for composers up to the present day. Yet if one wanted to write such complex polyphony composed of numerous separate voices, one needed multiple performers. What the reintroduction of a more sophisticated, polyphonic keyboard allowed was the performance of multi-part polyphony with relative ease by a solo performer, a development the importance of which cannot be understated.

A piece by Guillaume de Machault intabulated in the Faenza Codex

Importantly, this was also a period in which musical notation was an increasing concern of musicians throughout Europe, and the older mensural notation, so tailored to the experience of singing, was clearly ill-suited to keyboard music. Thus, the earliest written sources of keyboard music such as the Robertsbridge fragment (1360), the Codex Faenza (fifteenth century) and, the Buxheimer Orgelbuch (c. 1470) feature various forms of tablature which resemble modern notation only in varying degrees. The Buxheimer Orgelbuch provides an example of German organ tablature, in which letters of notes are used as a memory aid for the left hand part while the performer focuses on the more sprightly right hand part, notated in a more recognizable style. The Codex Faenza also uses tablature, yet in this case the notation is strikingly modern, with two staves and clear, regular bar lines which enclose a consistent rhythmic value. Intabulation — the practice of rearranging vocal works for a solo instrumental performer, usually on the lute or the keyboard — was incredibly common during the fourteenth, fifteenth, and sixteenth centuries, such that much of the music of the Codex Faenza consists of works not originally for the keyboard. Many of these are two-part distillations of vocal works which might have had three or more parts in their original versions. Although the keyboard was pivotal in the development of musical notation, then, the unique repertoire of clavier music was just beginning to form.

The result is that a highly unique and unwieldy body of work is to be found in these early sources, which must only offer a smattering of the music which was played on the keyboard in previous centuries, notated or un-notated. The harmony and phrasing of these early pieces sounds slightly odd to modern ears, as if someone attempted to write a Bach chorale and ended up with a slightly lopsided yet ultimately charming parody. But this is putting the cart before the horse: many hallmarks of later music are present in the Buxheimer Orgelbuch, and Renaissance polyphony was a significant reference point for such later musical practices. It could be argued that, in this early keyboard music, one can see the beginnings of the complex instrumental music to come, and while previous composers had often focused on the voice, the Buxheimer Orgelbuch may mark the beginning of the era of the keyboard. Left hand bass, right hand melody; block chords, figured bass, and the highly ornamented keyboard stylings of the Baroque era all may stem from these early keyboard sources.

A page from the Buxheim Organ Book

In this sense, it was the mechanism of the keyboard itself that made the celebrated music of the European eighteenth and nineteenth centuries possible. According to Silbinger, there are concrete links between the ability of the keyboard player to manage multiple voices and the compositional style of later generations:

“Simultaneous negotiation of both hands was, and continues to be, a chief challenge to those seeking to master the keyboard; whereas players of a single line can channel their musicality into realizing the line’s expressive content, players of multiple lines must also manage the interplay and balance among several voices. It is no wonder that keyboard playing would become a nearly indispensable auxiliary skill for all musicians attempting to grasp and manipulate the complex textures of music of later centuries, and that so many composers would come from the ranks of masters of that skill.”[6]

Silbinger draws a clear line between keyboard playing and the mastery of what would become the theoretical foundations of later concert music: counterpoint and functional harmony. As a means of understanding how the various parts of a composition come together into a complete whole, it could be argued that the keyboard helped to usher in a more vertical style of music; that is, a music in which notes are stacked on top of one another to create chords which drive the music forward. That producing a chord on a keyboard is a relatively simple endeavor is, in this view, no accident. Through a feedback loop between musical mechanism and the changing tastes of ensuing centuries, the keyboard altered how music was notated, conceptualized, and performed. If the music which is often termed “Classical” remains closely associated with the clavier in all its forms, one can trace the origins of this phenomenon to the keyboard renaissance of the fifteenth century.

St. Ceclilia by Guercino 1649

One can also find in the story of the keyboard the hints of a different sea-change in musical history. On a keyboard, the same key theoretically produces the same pitch every time it is played, and these notes are organized regularly into what are thought of as twelve repeating pitches moving progressively higher from left to right. While singers can listen to each other and adjust their tuning, keyboards have a fixed pitch, such that decisions as to tuning and temperament must be made in advance. Pitch is relative in earlier vocal notation, meaning that the pitch “A” may be quite different from piece to piece and from town to town. And of course, instrumentalists and vocalists are not always in tune with one another, and may come in and out of tune in the course of a performance. Not so with a keyboard instrument: here there are keys to be pressed in roughly the same way every time, and one can expect the same pitch to be produced from one performance to the next.

Mapped out onto a distinct number of regularly structured intervals, the fixed pitches of the keyboard thus begin to look like a system with its own internal logic, a form which would necessarily structure the music which the instrument and its players produced. In the keyboard music of the fifteenth century, one can see a conception of music which emphasizes reproducibility, notation, and the individual performer, laying the groundwork for the heyday of the composer in the Romantic era and the paint-by-numbers approach which many have towards musical scores in the present day.

If there is a source of music which the keyboard helps to obscure, it is perhaps the notion of music as sound rather than theory. Baked into the keyboard itself are assumptions about what pitches should be used and how they should relate to each other to an extent that no monophonic instrument can match. Performing as a soloist at the keyboard, one seemingly has no need for the give and take of producing a larger, polyphonic whole through a multitude of individual voices. At the helm of an organ, one does not need other musicians, and seemingly has an entire orchestra at one’s fingertips.

All of this serves to emphasize the fact that musical tools — from whole families of instruments to notational techniques, tuning forks, and batons — are not transparent mediums through which music passes unaltered. Rather, these tools change the way people think about and perform music, thereby impacting the creation of new instruments and new notational systems in a feedback loop of creativity. One thing leads to the next in music history, and suddenly the ideas and priorities produced by early keyboard polyphony have morphed and changed to inspire the fugues of figures like Palestrina and Bach. Yet the musical model embodied in the keyboard has had its challengers, and within some idioms the keyboard itself is used in radically different ways. This feedback loop, then, is not inescapable, and whatever source one draws on for the creation of music, one never need look very far to find it.

A playlist focusing on the earliest notated sources of keyboard music.
Early Music Seattle: Early Keyboard Music



 Apel, Willi, and Tischler, Hans. The History of Keyboard Music to 1700. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1972.

Good, Edwin M. Giraffes, Black Dragons, and Other Pianos : A Technological History from Cristofori to the Modern Concert Grand. 2nd ed. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2001.

Parakilas, James. Piano Roles: A New History of the Piano. Yale Nota Bene, 2008.

Rowland, David. Early Keyboard Instruments : A Practical Guide. Cambridge Handbooks to the Historical Performance of Music. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001.

Silbiger, Alexander. Keyboard Music before 1700. 2nd ed. Routledge Studies in Musical Genres. New York: Routledge, 2004.

Woolley, Andrew, and John Kitchen. Interpreting Historical Keyboard Music. Ashgate Historical Keyboard Series. Farnham: Routledge, 2013.

[1]     Excerpt from his Panegyricus dictus Manlio Theodoro consuli.

[2]     Alexander Silbiger, Keyboard Music before 1700, 2nd ed., Routledge Studies in Musical Genres (New York: Routledge, 2004), 1.

[3]     Willi Apel and Hans Tischler, The History of Keyboard Music to 1700, (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1972), 4.

[4]     See Apel and Tischler, 13.

[5]     See Apel and Tischler, 16.

[6]     Silbinger, 1.

My Journey to Early Music

by Mauricio Roman

Everyone has a different musical journey, which often starts at home. For many of us, however, the journey to early music has taken place in our adult life. Early music is a fairly specialized approach involving the use of period instruments and compositions, methods of tuning and performance, coupled with an appreciation of music in its historical context. Why is this important? For me, it has opened up a rich world of musical experience with a wider range of expression while broadening my sense of history.

Using Bach for Concentration
My journey to early music began with Bach seven years ago, when a friend in Silicon Valley introduced me to the concept of music as a tool for concentration. The open working space at the startup where I was working was too distracting. My friend suggested trying focus@will, a startup created on the premise that music can be scientifically optimized to boost concentration and focus, so that if we listen to the right music, we can prime our brain for maximum concentration.

At the time, this service recommended Bach’s music – played by a hired pianist. At first, it helped me concentrate when working on complex tasks. However, the more I played it, the more I sensed that its style was too flat. I am not a music expert, but in my childhood, I heard a fair bit of classical music at home.

After some research, I found a couple of pianists – Glenn Gould and Sviatoslav Richter – whose renditions of Bach’s Goldberg Variations and Well-Tempered Clavier were spirited and graceful. I could play these works over long periods of time, as in these expert hands, Bach has a way of keeping the music going without putting an end to it, which is great when one handles a multitude of interrelated software concepts that need to be expressed in code.

The state of being focused without interruption while working is now called “being in the flow”, a concept popularized in the book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, by Mihaly Robert Csíkszentmihályi. He described being in the flow as a person “being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost.”

Attending an Early Music Concert
After four years of listening to Bach in this mode, I got an invitation in 2019 to volunteer as an organizer for a “Baroque Concert” at Amazon, with a visiting orchestra, which seemed a bit mysterious, and I gladly accepted. My task was to help with planning and ushering. Planning involved a series of meetings – we had to have a tight security plan, foreseeing contingencies such as what to do in case someone in the audience brought dogs (which are popular at Amazon).

When the Seattle Baroque Orchestra (SBO) began its performance, it became evident to me that the musicians were “in the flow”. They played this Baroque music as if it were jazz – fully immersed, feeding off each other, and slightly improvising. The magic of this moment was enhanced by the intimacy and warmth of the place – a large living room we call Van Vorst where historic Amazon events have taken place over the years. The sound was colorful and brilliant, which I later learnt was the product of using period instruments tuned at a slightly lower frequency, or pitch, than modern ones.

This concert was the fruit of a partnership between Early Music Seattle, SBO’s parent organization, and the Amazon Symphony Orchestra. For me, it became a bridge from listening to Bach as concentration music to traveling back in time and expanding the range of human emotions associated with music. Diving deeper, I found that music of this period left some room for the performers to improvise, especially in ornamenting melodies. Composers of the time used patterns with variations to create their works. The well-known epic musical narratives for which Beethoven is known today only came at a later time period.

Discovering Early Music Pitch and Temperament
SBO’s director, Alexander Weimann, explained some of the technical nuances of early music. I used to believe that musical notes had fixed frequencies set in stone, but learnt that these frequencies, or pitches, were relative and could change with many factors – what matters is the ratio between frequencies. In Bach’s time, for instance, pitches varied widely from place to place and could be as low as 377 or as high as 567 Hz for A above middle C, based on organ samples. A few decades later, Mozart preferred it set at 423 Hz. In the nineteenth century, as music moved from the halls of the nobility to larger scenarios, pitch was gradually increased. In the twentieth century, with the advent of broadcasting, a global standard was set at 440 Hz (called A440, which can be tested here).

Higher frequencies project better through space. According to one musicologist, larger rooms could accommodate, and even required, high, brilliant pitches at climaxes, effects that could be achieved when playing scores of earlier music by employing instruments pitched higher than those that had performed the same scores in smaller rooms. Early music is typically played nowadays in smaller venues with a lower pitch (415 Hz for A above middle C), a choice which gives this music a different color and a special warmth. For anyone who is accustomed to the A440 pitch, this shift can be hard to adjust to. Luckily, that was not the case with me.

Another reason why early music has a different color is due to how notes are defined, or tempered. Today, we use equal temperament. The key problem at hand is how to divide the frequency range from a note to its double – say from 415 to 830 Hz – spanning an octave. Equal temperament solves it by dividing the range into 12 steps with equal distances – in logarithmic multiples of 21/12. Nowadays, since we have grown accustomed to this “equal temperament”, the journey to early music involves some degree of unlearning.

In an equally-tempered scale, none of the accords – that is, integer proportions of frequencies, such as 2/1, 3/2, 4/3, 5/4 – are exact. Concretely, in this system, a fifth interval (27/12) is slightly lower than the perfect ratio of 3/2, the fourth (25/12) is slightly above 4/3 and the major third (23/12) falls below 5/4, as can be easily verified.

Well-tempered systems were created in Bach’s time to incorporate at least some perfect accords. One system, for example, maximized the number of perfect major thirds (intervals with the ratio 5/4) at the expense of having imperfect fifths (intervals with the ratio 3/2). We do not know, however, which system Bach used for works such as the Well-Tempered Clavier – a portion of which is interpreted in this video using three different well-tempered systems, each of which brings out different shades of musical color. Bach left us with a scribble encoding a well-tempered tuning, shown below, which several researchers have used to come up with different systems.

Exploring National Styles
The next step in my journey was to listen assiduously to Baroque music. Noticing that Amazon Alexa did not respond well to the command “Alexa, play early music” (which results in early 2000s pop music), I programmed it with instrumental playlists from various countries – Italian Baroque to make Seattle’s wet cold days seem a bit warmer, German Baroque to help me concentrate in my work, French Baroque to soften the nostalgia of being far away from friends and family during the pandemic, and Spanish Baroque to evoke that fiery and multi-ethnic civilization which gave birth to my country of origin (Colombia) and many others.

The Seattle Baroque orchestra and Early Music Seattle (EMS) have often explored the national characteristics of early music, primarily but not limited to the Western tradition, with guest musical groups from diverse countries, which many volunteers help accommodate and host to keep overall costs low. During the pandemic, EMS hosted virtual concerts with early music from Ireland and Spain, and a concert with musicians from Cuba had to be cancelled early in the pandemic.

Researching Instruments and Historical Context
At a small concert in Queen Anne, I witnessed a “mano a mano” between a viola da gamba and a violin, which helped me understand how the chirpy violin displaced its larger cousin over time. I understood that musical instruments were also technological devices subject to market dynamics which unfortunately led some to become obsolete. In this transition, something was lost, as the viola da gamba aligns better with the frequency of human speech and can better imitate the human voice in all its modulations. This instrument is now a pillar of the early music revival.

Similarly, the earlier harpsichord used by Bach was replaced by the first pianos used by Mozart and Beethoven. As these instruments progressed, the tension in their strings increased, projecting more brilliant and powerful sound. Another difference is that the piano strings are hit by a hammer, whereas the harpsichord ones are plucked, which make it sound slightly similar to a guitar.

At this time, I applied and was invited to join the board of directors of Early Music Seattle yet, a few weeks later, the pandemic arrived. Board members are actively involved in supporting the organization via fundraising, volunteering for committees, and contributing to the newsletter. One of the interesting tasks was to help think through how to restructure SBO to adapt to the new times. During this period, I also spent some of my free time doing research, seeking to understand composers new to me, such as Monteverdi, within their multifaceted historic contexts, while exploring the intersection of music and art, publishing a series of posts for the newsletter.

Contrasting Tonal and Modal Music
Getting to appreciate instrumental music prior to Bach was, at first, difficult for me. Before his time, music was largely modal: each piece hovered around a central note with each mode incorporating different harmonies; melody remained dominant, tending towards a final note. By analogy, we can think of modes as the color palette used by a painter. Some modes are cheerful, others melancholic, and yet others sound eerie. Modes were thus supposed to align with and elicit emotions.

Continuing with the visual analogy, whereas modal music restricts the artists and their instruments to one palette at a time, tonal music frees composers to use, or modulate across, multiple palettes. Bach took advantage of this innovation, codified in 1722, to compose pieces that modulate across multiple accords (with occasional dissonances) which never really end. By varying patterns in surprising ways, he keeps our mind engaged and our attention focused. For example, in his Well-Tempered Clavier, Bach modulates across all 12 tones – each centered on a different note, along with their minor and major modes. A major mode builds the fifth chord (3/2 ratio) with a major and a minor third (5/4 x 6/5 = 3/2) and is usually cheerful and uplifting, while the minor mode does it in reverse order and is considered melancholic, gloomy and sad.

Modal music gives pride of place to melody over harmony, with pieces which are usually short and tend towards a final note; when coupled with period instruments, I found that they expanded and gave color and depth to the range of emotions that are deeply human and which, during the pandemic, often came to the fore. In modal music, I also saw another benefit – it could serve for me as a bridge to appreciate music from non-Western traditions, as this music is also essentially modal, as is the case with Indian classical music and Chinese pentatonic music.

Looking Forward
Coming full circle, the next step in my journey entails sharing the gift of early music which I once received with other co-workers, by inviting them and their families to experience first-hand this beautiful music, brilliantly composed by Bach and masterfully performed by the Seattle Baroque Orchestra – the Six Brandenburg Concertos – performed at nearby Town Hall. Since Bach likes to modulate a lot and wander through the keys in each of his pieces, director Alexander Weimann will tune his harpsichord with an irregular temperament, close to the Vallotti temperament, which makes for a tuning system that works in all keys, so the instrument does not need to be re-tuned between each concert. This is therefore a unique opportunity to hear Bach in the context of his time period. Looking forward, I plan to read a book recommended by Gus Dernhard, EMS artistic director, called “How Equal Temperament Ruined Harmony (and Why You Should Care)”, available on Amazon.


The Unity of the Brandenburg Concertos and the Idea of the Musical Work

by Peter Tracy

Dedication of the Brandenburg Concertos in Bachs hand

“It is not implausible to view the history of Western music as a struggle on the part of musicians to have their practice regarded as a bona fi de part of whatever at a given time counted as good, serious, or civilized living.”
 – Lydia Goehr, from The Imaginary Museum of Musical Works[1]

Like many of his other works, J.S. Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos have spawned a myriad of arguments as to their backgrounds, intentions, and meanings. The many articles, books, and theses written on these Concertos range from analysis of the music’s formal symmetry to hypotheses about how Bach’s life at the time may have influenced their structure, orchestration, or performance. In historical terms, the Brandenburg Concertos are something of a chimera, a set of works cobbled together as a gift to a potential patron, and it is not clear that Bach himself would have singled them out from his oeuvre for such extensive comment. Their rather plain original title, Six Concerts à plusieurs instruments (Six Concertos for several instruments) as well as Bach’s self-effacing language in his dedication of the set to Christian Ludwig, Margrave of Brandenburg-Schwedt, reveal his intention for these celebrated works to be presented with a humble, unassuming air which is hard to square with the contemporary perception of the Brandenburg Concertos as timeless masterworks.

In fact, the music of the Brandenburg Concertos has humble origins as well. Much of the music of these six concertos was likely written in the course of Bach’s daily duties as music director in Köthen  and Weimar. The First Concerto, for instance, exists in an alternate version (without the third movement) as Sinfonia BWV 1046.1, composed much earlier during his time at the Weimar court and reworked for the Brandenburg Concertos as late as 1721. Musical material from many movements of the Brandenburg Concertos can also be found reworked in pieces which Bach wrote at a later date, such as the first movement of the Third Concerto, to which parts were added in 1729 to form the cantata Ich liebe den Höchsten von ganzem Gemüte, BWV 174. This dizzying cloud of earlier and later versions complicates the idea of the Brandenburg Concertos as a finished, stable work and as a meaningful set of six, connected pieces. What these pieces “mean” is thus also unstable: twenty-first century reception of the work will not only be missing important context as to the details of eighteenth century performance practice, music theory, and aesthetics, but will also be influenced by the centuries of subsequent musical history which have seen Johann Sebastian Bach become a household name and the idea of a musical work become a deeply entrenched category.

one of the two residences of Bach and his family in Köthen now features a 19th century monument to the composer

If the meaning and perception of the Brandenburg Concertos has changed over time and if their existence as a set is tenuous and arbitrary, however, how can writers and commentators concerned with the Brandenburg Concertos all be talking about the same “thing”? That is, if the definition of what the Brandenburg Concertos are is in flux, what are we to make of them? Do they constitute a meaningful set despite their disparate origins and tenuous boundaries? Is there a one, true Brandenburg Concerto No. 1 in F major in existence somewhere, independent of individual performances, scores, versions, and audiences? If the Brandenburg Concertos sound radically different today than they did even in the nineteenth century, can they even be thought of as the same music?

One approach to these questions would be to look at the concertos analytically, searching their form, orchestration, and structure for answers without reference to historical circumstances. In his book The Social and Religious Designs of J. S. Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos, Michael Marissen lays out this type of argument as it relates to the idea of the concertos as a meaningful set:

“The concertos are considered to be linked thematically, since the first movements of all six pieces employ the three notes of the tonic triad in their opening theme. They are also linked stylistically; three of the concertos close with dance movements (the first, third, and sixth), and three close with fugues (the second, fourth, and fifth). And, finally, as Rudolf Eller first pointed out, they are linked tonally by the four keys employed (F major, G major, D major, and B major) to form the two kinds of dominants and double-dominants on either side of C major. These factors all contribute to the unity in diversity said to characterize the collection as a meaningful set.”[2]

Thus, there is a purely musical argument to be made for the concertos as a set, and thereby for their existence as a unified whole. Yet, notwithstanding a historical rebuttal of such an argument, (which might point out, among other things, that many, many Baroque concertos end with dancelike or fugal finales), there are still important problems with considering the Brandenburg Concertos as a complete “work”. While broad musical similarities might be expected between six works written by the same composer using the same general form, one could just as easily emphasize the odd and unpredictable differences between the concertos, such as the famously difficult trumpet part from the Second Concerto or the inclusion of two “fiauti d’echo” (usually interpreted as referring to alto recorders) in the Fourth Concerto. The scoring and orchestration of the concertos does in fact differ quite wildly: while the First Concerto showcases two natural horns as soloists and features oboes and bassoon, the Third Concerto features only three violins, three violas, three cellos, and harpsichord. The Sixth Concerto, by way of contrast, features two viole da braccio, two viole da gamba, cello, violone, and harpsichord.

There are also important differences in form between the six concertos. For one thing, the First Concerto is the only of the six to consist of four movements rather than three. The Third Concerto also features an odd second movement consisting of only a single measure, with two chords forming a cadence. This gesture, in keeping with the instability of the concertos’ musical meaning, has been variously interpreted in performances as an invitation to a cadenza by a chosen soloist or as something of a musical semicolon, giving a brief pause between the two main movements. In some performances, the concerto’s second movement can pass by almost without notice, while in others this middle “adagio” can take on a lengthy and unpredictable new life in the hands of skilled improvisers. Where one falls on the question of the Brandenburg Concertos’ unity, then, is largely a matter of which similarities and differences one chooses to emphasize and which performance one is referencing.

Prince Leopold by an unknown painter c. 1725

To argue that the Brandenburg Concertos constitute both a meaningful set of six pieces and a unified work that can be reproduced, one would have to assume that there is some essence, musical or otherwise, which permeates and connects these six concertos and turns them into a stable object. Because this would be difficult to argue in a more metaphysical sense, many assume that the unifying force which connects the six concertos is Bach himself. That is, one might assume that Bach thought of the concertos as a set after he selected them as such, thus lending them a unity of thought and purpose that they have carried onward into the present day.

Another approach to these questions of unity and meaning in musical works would thus be to approach them historically, searching the record for Bach’s intentions and the conscious and unconscious views of his contemporaries concerning the concept of a musical work. At the outset of such an argument, one must acknowledge the fact that there is no evidence of the complete set of Brandenburg Concertos being performed during Bach’s lifetime. In fact, the manuscript for  Six Concerts à plusieurs instruments was sold for a pittance after the Margrave of Brandenburg’s death in 1734, only resurfacing in the mid-19th century and only being musically realized shortly after. Thus, whether the Brandenburg Concertos properly existed before the mid-19th century depends on where one chooses to locate the essence of a musical work: is the score at the heart of a piece, or is a work only realized in performance? Does the music exist outside of its being heard aloud, having been fixed in place by the composer, or do scores and individual performances have a more fluid relationship to each other?

After sending his compilation to the Margrave of Brandenburg in 1721, Bach moved on, in 1723, to a new job as Kapellmeister at Thomaskirche in Leipzig. It is likely that he rarely thought of the concertos afterwards unless he needed musical material for some other occasion, yet there is some evidence that Bach did think of them as a unified set. As Lydia Goehr explains,

“When ‘his very humble and very obedient servant’ Bach wrote a letter of dedication to ‘his Royal Highness Monseigneur Christian Ludwig’ , to accompany the manuscript of his Six concerts avec plusiers instruments (the Brandenburgs), he arguably indicated something important. Speaking of some ‘pieces of my Composition’ , he perhaps indicated that he thought   of them as constituting a single or total compositional work, despite his having constructed and perfected each piece independently of any other. For the phrase ‘pieces of my Composition’ could have referred to the fact that they were pieces constituting a total composition — a set of pieces — as well as the fact that they were pieces composed by Bach.”[3]

Christian Ludwig Margrave of Brandenburg by Antoine Pesne around 1710

Aside from speculation about Bach’s meaning in this passage, much has also been made of the impact which Bach’s surroundings at the court in Köthen might have had on the music of the concertos. For instance, Bach’s employer at the time, Prince Leopold, was an amateur musician and is thought to have wanted to take part in the music making. According to Marissen, “Bach knew how to write a piece in such a way that no excessively demanding passages were assigned to the prince, who was thus spared the embarrassment of exposing his technical limitations to his chamber musicians.”[4] Thus, the oddly basic viola da gamba part and strikingly soloistic viola lines of the Sixth Concerto as well as other oddities of scoring that result in some of the more heterogeneous aspects of the concertos can be explained away as being a result of the constraints Bach faced in Köthen. Being beholden to the whims of his employer, Bach was required to produce music for a variety of different occasions and for a variety of different instrumentalists at a rather brusque pace, such that he might also be forgiven for occasionally reusing older musical material to meet a deadline.

If one considers Bach as the unifying force behind the Brandenburg Concertos, then they can be thought of as a set simply because Bach compiled them as such, thereby leaving them with a personal artistic touch that has fixed these previously individual pieces together into a set. By this logic, the only evidence which one might need to establish the validity of the Brandenburg Concertos as a stable category is that one man was behind it all, and that he, in some either physical or abstract way, bequeathed , in 1721, the unshakable object known as the Brandenburg Concertos to posterity rather than to the Margrave of Brandenburg.

Contrary to this view, Lydia Goehr argues that musical “works” are more akin to categories than objects, and that they change meaning overtime much like words and phrases do. In her view, the idea of music as being contained in certain “works” with hard boundaries is a historically-bounded concept that originated in eighteenth century Europe. On the other hand, it seems as if most music gets along fine without such a concept of individual ownership or universality. As Goehr explains,

“Most of us tend… to see works as objectified expressions of composers that prior to compositional activity did not exist. We do not treat works as objects just made or put together, like tables and chairs, but as original, unique products of a special, creative activity. We assume, further, that the tonal, rhythmic, and instrumental properties of works are constitutive of structurally integrated wholes that are symbolically represented by composers in scores. Once created, we treat works as existing after their creators have died, and whether or not they are performed or listened to at any given time. We treat them as artefacts existing in the public realm, accessible in principle to anyone who cares to listen to them.”[5]

While this view is certainly easier to maintain given the ready access to recordings afforded by twenty-first century technology, it is certainly true that there are musical contexts in which this mindset would seem very odd indeed. Goehr argues that the musical milleu of Bach’s time was one such sphere, and that he and his contemporaries would not have thought of his own works as fixed sound objects existing outside of performance. Having been composed in a world in which concert music was created and discarded largely based on the occasion, Bach’s works were picked up again during an era in which the individual artist and their oeuvre were of paramount importance and in which certain musical works were beginning to be thought of as timeless masterpieces. In some sense, Bach’s works found themselves in the right place at the right time, and his subsequent fame would likely have made little sense to a man accustomed to a life somewhere in the middle of his own time’s social hierarchy.

There is danger, therefore, in leaning too heavily on either the analytical or the historical approach to the question of musical works. By extension, there is no concrete answer to the riddle of the Brandenburg Concertos. One can easily slide into an essentialist position from either side, arguing that the Brandenburg Concertos exist as a unified object outside of history or, from the other angle, arguing that they have an absolute and correct historically-grounded interpretation which is the “true” and ideal version. It is also true that, at the end of the day, a musical work is a category people agree on in common, an idea that is useful but which, like many other such generalizations, reveals many paradoxes under closer scrutiny. While the idea that the Brandenburg Concertos are a musical category which the listener fills with their own meaning might seem frightening in its implications, it might not have been for Bach, and it need not be for the twenty-first century listener. Bach likely thought of his music as a product of his job, but also as a part of a spiritual and cultural sphere which he thought of as good and just. In the twenty-first century, it is difficult for many to share what we assume to be his views on the nature of religious music making and the purpose of music. But in rejecting Bach’s interpretation of his own work, one might feel freed to bring to the Brandenburg Concertos their own conceptions of unity, harmony, goodness, and meaning. In my own view, the meaning of the Brandenburg Concertos is something we create together over time, and this, to me, is a project worth continuing.



Boyd, Malcolm. Bach, the Brandenburg Concertos. Cambridge Music Handbooks. New York, NY, USA: Cambridge University Press, 1993.

Dequevauviller, Vincent. “Le Secret des Concertos Brandebourgeois: Une Hypothèse.” Musurgia 4, no. 2 (1997): 39–56.

Elbon, Virginia Elizabeth. Symmetry and Proportion: Generative and Formative Procedures of J. S. Bach’s “Brandenburg Concerto No. 3”, 2001.

Goehr, Lydia. The Imaginary Museum of Musical Works an Essay in the Philosophy of Music. Oxford [England] : New York: Clarendon Press ; Oxford University Press, 1992.

Leonard, Michael F. Bach as Humanist: The Influences of the Classics and Court Aesthetics on the Design of the Six Brandenburg Concertos, BWV 1046-1051, 2015.

Linde, Hans A. “‘Clear and Present Danger’ Reexamined: Dissonance in the Brandenburg Concerto.” Stanford Law Review 22, no. 6 (1970): 1163–86.

Marissen, Michael. The Social and Religious Designs of J. S. Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001.

Marissen, Michael. “J. S. Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos as a Meaningful Set.” The Musical Quarterly 77, no. 2 (1993): 193–235.

Michael Kennedy ; Tim Rutherford-Johnson ; Joyce Kennedy. “Brandenburg Concertos.” The Oxford Dictionary of Music, 2012, The Oxford Dictionary of Music, 2012-01-01.

Spitzer, John. “Metaphors of the Orchestra–The Orchestra as a Metaphor.” The Musical Quarterly 80, no. 2 (1996): 234–64.

Taruskin, Richard. Music in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries. The Oxford History of Western Music. New York, New York: Oxford University Press, 2010.

[1]     Lydia Goehr, The Imaginary Museum of Musical Works an Essay in the Philosophy of Music (Oxford [England] : New York: Clarendon Press ; Oxford University Press, 1992), 120.

[2]     Michael Marissen, The Social and Religious Designs of J. S. Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001), 82.

[3]     Goehr, 201.

[4]     Marissen 2007, 4.

[5]     Goehr, 2.

The Early Guitar and the Art of Categories

by Peter Tracy

“A language is a dialect with an army and navy.”
— popularized by Max Weinreich

A 1672 painting by the Dutch artist Johannes Vermeer featuring a five course guitar

Writing history means investigating connections: between ideas and actions, between people and places, between scattered manuscripts and objects and archives of all kinds. These and other lines of inquiry help to build up a composite picture of the past that can be rather compelling, but which is never fully complete. There is always more to discover, and there are always new connections and distinctions to be made.

The history of musical instruments is also a history of connections, of techniques and diagrams and objects spreading and changing over time. Organology, the study of musical instruments and their categorization, is a science of distinctions and fine details. The pervasive Sachs-Hornbostel classification system, for example, divides musical instruments into categories such as aerophones, cordophones, idiophones, and membranophones based on how they work to produce sound. The classification system functions much like the taxonomic ranking system of organisms in biology, separating musical instruments from each other into different camps based on incrementally more obscure details of construction. Both of these classification projects speak to a pervasive human impulse to categorize, differentiate, and find patterns, a need to understand how things evolved and where they fit in.

Pareidolia is the perception of pattern or meaningful order where there is none. In a series of upcoming articles for Clef Notes, I’d like to take a few of the most common instruments in the world — the piano, the violin, and the flute, among others — and treat them as categories rather than fixed objects. That is, I’d like to treat terms like “piano” as containers that different people, in different places, and at different times have filled with all sorts of different meanings and connotations, investigating the connections and patterns that come about through looking at instruments not as individual objects but as points in a broader web of sound and life. By briefly sketching these early portraits of well-known instruments, I’d like to emphasize that music’s place in the world is always changing, and that conclusions about its uses, meanings, joys, and pitfalls can never be applied universally

A depiction of Orpheus playing a vihuela by Luis de Milán 1536

According to the Sachs-Hornbostel classification system, one of the worlds most ubiquitous and beloved musical instruments, the guitar, is considered a composite cordophone or, more specifically, a necked box lute. A cordophone because it produces sound with strings, a composite cordophone because its resonator is an integral part of the instrument itself, and a necked box lute because its handle is attached directly to a resonator that is, well, boxy.

In investigating the guitar there is one rather obvious connection to be made: the guitar is a lot like the lute. In the grand scheme of things, the instrument which is usually thought of as the lute differs from the guitar largely in the shape of its resonator, which is bowl shaped rather flattened (never-mind the slight difference in tuning). In fact, there is a whole cloud of instruments, painstakingly categorized by Sachs and Hornbostel, which have been advanced as candidates for entrance into the guitar family tree: the vihuela, the gittern, the citole, and even the kithara, an ancient Greek lyre consisting of between three and twelve strings strung over a hollow wooden frame.

Simon Gorlier, a 16th century French printer, bookseller and musician, provides a first example of tenuous connections in the writing of history. In his preface to a collection of arrangements for guitar, he claims:

“The Ancients were satisfied with such instruments as the Guitar [Guiterne], which they called Tetrachordes because it had four strings. Not that I claim to prefer it to other instruments, but at   least, if merely in honor and memory of Antiquity, I wanted to show that it had its own limits for reproducing music in two or three voices or parts, as well as does a larger instrument.”[1]

So much for fine grain distinctions between cordophones. In Gorlier’s view, any four-course, plucked string instrument is, for all intents and purposes, a guitar. Gorlier is making a connection here (of the bold type one makes when historicizing publicly) which rests on the assumption that “The Ancients” categorized their instruments just as the musicians of 16th century Lyon did, projecting his own concept of the guitar backwards in time. Gorlier also uses the word guiterne in a radically different way than Sachs and Hornbostel, taking the word to mean, essentially, any small, four-course member of the lute family. The reasons behind Gorlier’s pareidolia are obvious and familiar: he is justifying his own work by connecting it to a glorious, imagined past.

A Roman representation of a woman playing the cithara c. 40-30 BC

Gorlier was writing at a time in which the guitar was only just emerging out of a wide variety of plucked string instruments that had populated Europe for centuries. His insecurity about the guitar’s worth is evident, yet understandable given the fact that the guitar of his time was most often a small, high-pitched, instrument with two strings per course (for a total of eight gut strings) that was seen, in France, as a novelty next to the more well established and venerable lute. The two strings of each course were tuned to the same pitch except for those of the lowest course, which were in octaves, and the four courses together were tuned in intervals resembling the top four strings of the modern six string guitar. In mid-sixteenth century Spain, the early guitar was barely differentiated from the vihuela, a six-course, guitar-shaped instrument that was tuned like a lute and which a 21st century observer might readily mistake for a modern six string. The guitar featured only as an afterthought in the many 16th century publications of Spanish vihuela music, a treble instrument that lacked the range and flexibility to take part in the virtuosic, multi-voice vihuela music of the time.

The small, boxy new trend was also introduced in England where it was often referred to as the gittern. Oddly enough, this is also the name of another small, necked box lute which was most popular from the 13th century to the end of the 15th century, but which never died out completely. The gittern, too, spread across Europe in the 13th, 14th and 15th centuries, becoming (among other names) the quitare and guiterne in 13th century French, the gyterne in 14th century English, the guitarra in 14th century Spanish, and the chitarra in 14th century Italian.  Laurence Wright opines that all forms of this name “stem from the Arabic qitara, itself derived from Greek kithara.”[2] He notes further that all gui- forms must have come from the Spanish guitarra.[3] According to Wright’s own constellation of connections, then, “there is no obvious break, as far as literature is concerned, between the medieval gittern and the Renaissance guitar.”[4]

Painting of a European viol from a Japanese painting of the Momoyama period (1573-1615)

As a final example of this type, the first publication of music specifically for guitar in Italy was Melchiore de Barberiis’s Opera intotolata contina, a 1549 manuscript of lute tablature that, much like the contemporary Spanish vihuela publications, included a few guitar pieces as something of a curiosity. James Tyler and Paul Sparks note in their book The Guitar and Its Music from the Renaissance to the Classical Era that Barberiis was likely one of Padua’s many lutenists of the period who taught at the city’s prestigious university. It was there that he may have encountered the four-course guitar via some of his French, Flemish, or English students. In Italian, the four-course guitar was referred to as the chitarra da sette corde because its four courses contained two strings each for the top three courses, with one string in the bass rounding out a total of seven strings. It was also referred to by  such names as the chitarrina alla Napolettana. This is in contrast to the chitarrina alla Spagnola, a five-course guitar that was clearly named to indicate its Spanish origin, and which is variously described as a variant of the guitar or an entirely different instrument. In the coming centuries, argue Tyler and Sparks, the guitar in Italy would aid in the development of the new style known as monody, a defining musical trend of the early Baroque era[5].


Thus the early guitar had a variety of different associations for people around Europe in the 16th century. While the Italian lutenist, theorist, and composer Scipione Cerreto (1555-1633) calls the four-course instrument the “bordelletto alla Taliana”[6](little Italian brothel guitar), Gorlier makes his gesture towards the grandeur of Antiquity. For some, it was a trivial, high-pitched novelty hardly distinguishable from its stringed colleagues, while for others the guitar helped to provide the impetus towards stylistic change that only the foreign and fascinating can give. Still, different plucked string instruments clearly coexisted in the 15th, 16th,, and 17th centuries. Far from being the instrument clearly fated to take over the musical world, the guitar was, at its semi-official origin in the 16th century, one among many in its Sachs-Hornbostel camp, both an exciting innovation and a riff on an old theme.

More perplexing than the differing reactions to the early guitar is the fact that, as I have briefly suggested, the coexisting plucked string instruments of the Middle Ages, Renaissance, and Early Baroque eras often had overlapping names, roles, and associations. Much like early human history, different instrumental species of the same genus regularly intermingled, cohabited, and coexisted in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Yet just as homo sapiens seems to have won the race for early human supremacy, so to does the guitar, now so pervasive as to nearly eclipse all of its gut-stringed cousins, seem to have coalesced into a stable and dominant musical category.

The categories and conceptions that characterize today’s ostensibly global musical culture existed, if at all, in a radically different manner during the period which is usually considered the purview of early music. Indeed, on a second review Gorlier might not be quite so far off: many instruments with similar names and, outside of the strictures of Sachs and Hornbostel, relatively similar appearances and methods of sound production were in use in Europe and across the Mediterranean for centuries before the more narrowly defined guitar of the Spanish 16th century appeared on the scene. If Gorlier can be given the benefit of the doubt, one might see him as working within a more nebulous definition of the guitar, one defined more by its fundamentals than its surface details and more by its cultural lineage than its exact schematics. This, it seems, was a popular perspective of the time.

depiction of musicians playing a gittern and a set of aulos c. 1322

Can clear distinctions be made in a field so populated with similar instruments? Are the distinctions between such narrowly defined categories as the gittern and the chitarra da sette corde musically meaningful? Are there clean breaks in music history, or is it all one slow continuum, the distinctions between instruments and styles and eras only a matter of semantics?

Like language, music spreads on a spectrum. There is no Platonic form of the guitar, and the difference between a gittern and a citole, a vihuela and a cittern, may also differ based on time, place, and circumstance. Ask a native of Valencia about their language and they may claim to speak Valencian rather than Catalan, a distinction which many linguists regard as dubious. Yet for a Valencian, this is a matter of pride and specificity, a means of reproducing and recreating one’s own local cultural sphere in contrast to another. Musical distinctions  can take on this flavor as well: sometimes, they are more about setting oneself apart from an “other” than engaging in a thoughtful and rigorous classification exercise.

Where one chooses to draw the lines — between instruments and their variants, between dialects and languages, between musical genres and sub-genres — is often more reflective of the perspectives, projections, desires, hopes, and dreams of the categorizers than a historical reality. Fine tuning the lenses through which the past is viewed can change one’s understanding of it, and each new connection can help to illuminate some previously unseen angle of the whole, wonderful, overwhelming constellation. In the end, though, a guitar is what we make of it.

A playlist of guitar music from the origins of the instrument.
Early Music Seattle: Early Guitar



Acosta Zavala, Kathy. Toward a History of the Institutionalization of the Classical Guitar: Vahdah Olcott Bickford (1885–1980) and the Shaping of Classical Guitar Culture in Twentieth-Century America, 2020.

Eisenhardt, Lex. Italian Guitar Music of the Seventeenth Century : Battuto and Pizzicato. Eastman Studies in Music ; v. 130. Rochester, NY: University of Rochester Press, 2015.

Morrish, John, ed. The classical guitar: A complete history. Hal Leonard Corporation, 2002.

Timofeyev, Oleg Vitalyevich. The Golden Age of the Russian Guitar: Repertoire, Performance Practice, and Social Function of the Russian Seven-string Guitar Music, 1800-1850, 1999.

Tyler, James, and Sparks, Paul. The Guitar and Its Music from the Renaissance to the Classical Era. Early Music Series (London, England : 1976). Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007.

Wade, Graham. A Concise History of the Classic Guitar. Pacific, MO: Mel Bay Publications, 2001.

Wright, Laurence. “The Medieval Gittern and Citole: A Case of Mistaken Identity.” The Galpin Society Journal 30 (1977): 8-42.

[1]     James Tyler and Paul Sparks, The Guitar and Its Music from the Renaissance to the Classical Era, Early Music Series (London, England : 1976, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), 21.

[2]     Laurence Wright, “The Medieval Gittern and Citole: A Case of Mistaken Identity”, The Galpin Society Journal 30 (1977): 10.

[3]     Wright, 10.

[4]     Wright, 14.

[5]     See Tyler and Sparks, Part I, Chapters 4 and 5.

[6]     Tyler and Sparks, 33.

“Peace Shall Be Her First Glad Ringing”: Bells, Community, and Auditory Culture

by Peter Tracy

Toning the Bell (1874) by Walter Shirlaw

“Peace Shall Be Her First Glad Ringing”[1]

“Our bell, her metal voice devoting
Alone to grave, eternal things,
Shall ever feel, while she is floating,
The throbbing touch of time’s swift wings.
The tongue of fate, she shall be ringing:
Heartless herself and pitiless,
She shall accompany with swinging
Life’s game of constant changefulness.”

– from Friedrich von Schiller’s “The Song of the Bell”[2]

There are several legends told in Brittany of a place called Ys, a mythical city rich with gold and cedar yet hallowed by its many bell towers. The legends differ as to the cause of the Ys’ demise. Some say it was the king’s own daughter, Dahut, who mistakenly opened the city’s dikes while trying to rendezvous with a secret lover. Others claim that Ys was a decadent city, a luxurious cousin to Sodom and Gomorrah that sealed its own fate when it aroused the displeasure of St. Gwénnolé. Whatever the reason, all accounts agree that Ys was lost forever beneath the waves off the Breton coast, never to be seen again. It’s bells, some say, can still be heard on windy days, tolling out the doom of their forgotten city from the depths of the ocean. “Who has not heard of the submerged bells of Ys”, wrote Lewis Spence, “and who has not heard them ring in the echoes of [their] own imagination?”[3]

The bells of the European past were more than simple tools to mark the hours. The tolling of village bells was a means by which people communicated across long distances, constituted themselves as communities, and communed with the sacred. Bells and bell towers could be the pride of a village, town, or city, and the silencing of a community’s bells — whether by force, by edict, or both — was associated with defeat, punishment, sacrilege, and sacrifice[4]. Writing about church bells in 14th century Catalonia, Michelle E. Garceau enumerates the myriad ways in which bells constituted their own auditory cultural sphere: “they signalled the hours of the day and times for prayers; they warned of tempests and enemy armies; they heralded masses, funerals, and deaths. The pealing of bells brought men, women, and children together, choreographing communal behaviour in time and space.”[5]

The oldest known depiction or a person playing a carillon (1612) by Angelo Rocca

Although the culture of bells in Europe was tied to their use in Christian ritual, bells did not always have a monopoly on the summoning of the faithful. “Early medieval religious societies”, write John H Arnold and Caroline Goodson, “were capable of producing something that we would recognize as bells, made either by hammered sheets or cast metal, but these were most often hand-held objects of smallish size.”[6] As early as the 7th century, bells were in use in various parts of Europe, but mainly in monasteries, where they marked the hours of the liturgical office and were tolled to sanctify the deaths of community members[7]. Larger, cast bronze bells became widespread in Europe only in the 9th and 10th centuries, and even then their use remained uneven. In the Old Testament, horns and trumpets were the instruments used to gather the spiritual community, yet other sonic tools could and did fill the same role throughout the centuries. Arnold and Goodson tell of a cleric who, on “visiting Rome in 831, was surprised to find that Romans used wooden clackers to bring the people to church, rather than bronze bells; this, he said, came from longstanding tradition, based originally in poverty but continued from respect for the past.”[8]

Cast bells were expensive and time consuming to produce, requiring a master craftsman to oversee a labor intensive, dangerous process that was by no means guaranteed to succeed. Bell founding was also a high status activity, with powerful figures in the church and the aristocracy financing its continuance. Notker of St. Gallen tells, in the 9th century, of an evil bell caster who stole silver given to him for a new bell by Charlemagne himself. Formed from tin and copper instead of the proper silver and bronze alloy, the bell emerged from its founding pit unable to ring and, according to Notker, fell from the rafters onto the head of the caster, killing him.[9]

Big Ben and the Quarter Bells in Elizabeth Tower Palace of Westminster 1858

The casting of new bells was all but a necessity in late medieval Europe due to their increasing importance as an auditory tool. “It is clear that by the twelfth century, bells were a recognized, essential element in Christian practice, and could be read as part of the “short hand” by which Christian identity was signaled”, write Arnold and Goodson. They go on to give the example of “the opening chapter of Islendingabók, a twelfth-century Icelandic history”, which “explains that the first immigrants from Norway realized that Irish monks must have settled in Iceland in a previous era, because they found books, bells and crosiers — holy objects identifying the earlier settlers as Christian.”[10] With bell towers and cathedrals sprouting up all over Europe, the tolling of bells was increasingly the soundtrack to Christian life, a sonic barrage that marked out the extraordinary from the ordinary, the living from the dead, and the secular from the sacred.

According to Garceau, “the ubiquitous presence of bells reflected the omnipresence of God in the medieval world.”[11] The diffusion of a peal of bells over a landscape marked out a sonic space in which the spiritual life of a community took place, allowing the internal and the abstract to become physical through sound. This is particularly obvious in those cases in which the call represented by tolling bells was challenged or even rejected, or where the cultural sphere which the sound of bells demarcated overlapped with other sonic professions of faith. During the period of Islamic rule on the Iberian peninsula, numerous Christian writers such as Paul Albar relate, with scorn, the reactions of Muslims to the bells of Christendom in the 9th and 10th centuries:

“But when they hear the bell of the basilica, that is the sound of ringing bronze, which is struck to bring together the assembly of the church at all the canonical hours, gaping with derision and  contempt, moving their heads, they repeatedly wail out unspeakable things; and they attack and  deride with curses (not in uniform derision, but with a thousand different infamous outrages) both sexes, all ages and the whole flock of Christ the Lord.”[12]

The reverse was true as well: the calls to prayer of the Muslim muezzin, the adhan, served a similar function to that of Christian church bells, and the Christian writer Euologius describes his grandfather’s attempts to plug his ears when it sounded from Cordoba’s minarets. Thus the adhan and the peal of church bells were seen, at least by the religiously zealous, as part of competing auditory systems of identity and meaning. Just as the cross and the crescent (among other symbols) represent Christianity and Islam visibly, so too did the adhan and the call of bells represent these seemingly contrasting cultures of the 9th and 10th centuries sonically.

The capturing of standards — flags and other items denoting rank, unit, and allegiance — has been a longstanding feature of warfare, and the same is true of the capture of bells. Arnold and Goodson relate, for instance, that “in 997 the Cordoban ruler al-Manshr sacked the town and shrine of Santiago de Compostela, razed the pilgrimage church, and carted the bells home to Córdoba with Christian captives, apparently hanging them as trophies at the Great Mosque.”[13] The Qarawiyyin mosque in Fez features a number of chandeliers made of converted church bells, some of which still exist. Thus the silencing of bells marked the conquest of a community and their subordination to a different sonic system of meaning. In later times, early-modern European commanders were assumed to have the right to a captured city’s bells (which could then be sold or converted to canon), a custom which continued even into the 20th century. As late as the First World War, there are examples of the Germans confiscating bells in occupied territory, likely because their power to summon the people and raise the alarm could be an active threat to occupiers.[14]

Church of St. Etienne du Mont Paris (1839) by Thomas Shotter Boys

Bells were important to the people of the late-middle ages not only because of their scale, their cost, and their visual appeal but because of their sound. Church bells marked the important occasions that constituted the cycle of life, helping to construct the identities of communities and individuals alike. An old man in a rural French village of the 13th century might have been able to remember the baptisms, funerals, and weddings of all the members of their community, and each of these events would have been accompanied by the tolling of bells. The sound sanctified the event, and vice versa.

Language and other systems of signs shift their meanings overtime, and the history of bells in European society is no different. Changes in technology and the role of the church in European life meant that bells were increasingly put to secular uses after the 14th century, or at least were developed along lines that had little to do with their original role as calls to prayer. As I have mentioned elsewhere, the instrument known as the carillon, a system of chromatically tuned bells playable by lever or keyboard, was developed in the Low Countries beginning in the 14th century, and its spread throughout the following centuries allowed for whole musical pieces to be played from clock towers. Advances in bell founding and techniques of performance also allowed, beginning in the 17th century, for what is known as change-ringing, a distinctly English phenomenon that re-imagines the ringing of bells as a mathematical game:

 “Change-ringing, which still sounds from English church towers today, uses all the bells in a tower, ringing them in rounds. Every bell must be rung in every round, and the order in which they are rung must never be repeated. The aim is, in theory at least, to work through all the possible orders in which the bells can be rung, without ever repeating a round, and with strict rules about which bells swap places and how.”[15]

Bells were therefore expanding their reach in the early-modern period, moving from markers of liturgical time to alarms, tools of civic celebration, and musical instruments in their own right. As the material power of the church in Europe waned, the use of bells was increasingly subordinated to civic rather than religious needs, yet their lingering power is evidenced by the many conflicts over and decrees concerning bells which can be found in the history of the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries. Citizens of a town might attempt to ring their bells to mark an ancient saint’s feast day or the anniversary of a peasant uprising, only to be reprimanded and shut out from the bell tower by bewildered authorities. A  village’s bells might be kept from ringing or confiscated entirely by an insulted mayor or a wily archbishop, leading citizens to take matters into their own hands. The tide, however, was changing, and the fight to preserve the auditory culture of bells in its pre-modern state was a losing one.

In his fascinating book Village Bells, Alain Corbin traces this change through the history of France after the revolution of 1789. By the Napoleonic period, there were numerous instances in the collective memory, stretching back centuries, of rural communities in which bells were confiscated and either sold or destroyed. The causes differ: a village might have their bells smashed as punishment for a period of insurrection, but they could also be sacrificed and fashioned into canon when a community was under threat from marauding armies. The Napoleonic Wars saw an expansion of the power of regional administrators and the central government in France, such that authorities and bureaucrats were able to interfere with all aspects of French life, including its sonic landscape. France’s celebrated “ringing towns” formed a sonic patchwork that connected villages, abbeys, cities, and chapels across the entire French countryside, yet by the late 18th century the number of bells in each locale had already been significantly reduced. Decrees from the central government mandated the turning over of bells from suppressed monasteries and churches: the early revolutionary government known as the Constituent Assembly (lasting from 1789 – 1791), for instance, decided that these bells would be better put to use as bronze coinage.[16] Still, it is clear that some of the motivation for the confiscation of bells was the lingering power of bells to create and cultivate a community which was in some sense antithetical to the project of secular nation-building.

Rue des Chantres (1862) by Charles Méryon

Not only the number of bells, but their culture and meaning changed significantly during the French 19th century. It might be more accurate, in fact, to describe this change as a movement toward a lack of meaning. “The rural peals of the nineteenth century”, writes Corbin, “which have become the sound of another time, were listened to, and evaluated according to a system of affects that is now lost to us. They bear witness to a different relation to the world and to the sacred as well as to a different way of being inscribed in time and space.”[17] Even in the 19th century, Romantic writers (following Schiller’s example) were simultaneously celebrating the power of bells and mourning the loss of the auditory landscape which the ringing towns of France had made manifest. In a world that was quickly incorporating, first steam power, then heavy industry, electricity, and further noisy technological changes, the idyllic world which many of the 19th century Romantics remembered or imagined was rapidly fading. The times in which church bells served to punctuate the long silences of rural life were already gone, and the intervening century has only completed this process.

The systems of sounds which govern our lives are not limited to music. From the robotic voices of public transportation to the digital dings of phone notifications and the white noise of nearby superhighways, the auditory landscape of the 21st century might seem, to a 19th century Romantic, to be polluted beyond repair. Like the bells of lost city of Ys, the auditory culture of bygone centuries has left us, yet it continues to be felt and heard in our stories, our music, our language, and our attitudes towards sounds of all kinds. The 21st century, one could argue, is louder than any preceding era, such that it can be difficult to find meaning in the chorus of noise. Yet while we have lost the codes of meaning that defined bells throughout European history, we have gained other things in their stead: the soft, gentle static of a stuttering radio; the slow glissando of a subway car leaving the station; the mournful drone of a distant airplane: these are also sonic signs, and they too leave their mark on us. Although bells have lost their power to constitute a community and an identity, many further, more pluralistic sources of noise can and should take their place.

A playlist centered around bells and their auditory landscape.

Early Music Seattle: Bells



[1]     From Friedrich von Schiller’s “The Song of the Bell”, quoted from Margarete Münsterberg, ed., trans. A Harvest of German Verse (New York: D. Appleton and Co., 1916).

[2]     From Friedrich von Schiller’s “The Song of the Bell”, quoted from Margarete Münsterberg, ed., trans. A Harvest of German Verse (New York: D. Appleton and Co., 1916).

[3]     Lewis Spence, Legends & Romances of Brittany (London: G.G. Harrap and Co., 1917), 184.

[4]     Alain Corbin, Village Bells : Sound and Meaning in the Nineteenth-century French Countryside. European Perspectives (New York: Columbia University Press, 1998), 292.

[5]     Michelle E. Garceau, “‘I Call the People.’ Church Bells in Fourteenth-century Catalunya.” Journal of Medieval History 37, no. 2 (2011): 197.

[6]     John H Arnold and Caroline Goodson, “Resounding Community: The History and Meaning of Medieval Church Bells.” Viator (Berkeley) 43, no. 1 (2012): 99-130.

[7]     Arnold and Goodson, 107.

[8]     Arnold and Goodson, 108.

[9]     Arnold and Goodson, 111.

[10]   Arnold and Goodson, 112.

[11]   Garceau,197.

[12]   Arnold and Goodson, 112.

[13]   Arnold and Goodson, 113.

[14]   Corbin, 9.

[15]   Katherine Hunt, “The Art of Changes: Bell-Ringing, Anagrams, and the Culture of Combination in Seventeenth-Century England.” The Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies 48, no. 2 (2018): 388.

[16]   Corbin, 9.

[17]   Corbin, xix.