At the event: Encoding Music

Welcome to Encoding Music

Welcome to Encoding Music

On Saturday 12 March, the music department at Cambridge University Library took part in the Cambridge Science Festival with Encoding Music. Last week, we outlined our plans for the day in this blog. Today, I would like to start with thanking everyone, volunteers and visitors, for taking part with such great enthusiasm. It was a fantastic morning and we couldn’t have done it without you!

Musicians rehearsing before the event

For the first time ever a trail of music displays and listening stations led our visitors through the library towards the Anderson Room, the music reading room, where displays, hands-on music notation and music performance all took place in happy harmony. Through the concept of look, listen, play all ages and backgrounds had the opportunity to explore music notation.


First stop was the theme Around the world. Highlights on display included the Fue no zu “flute map” for the ryûteki (dragon flute) and a Biwa-fu (four-stringed lute) tablature, both treasures from the Picken collection.


Fue no zu “flute map” for the ryûteki MS.Picken.157.

The flute map is part of a little handbook in two sections, the first describing the structure of musical pieces, the second explaining the notation of various instruments. The ryûteki is a seven-holed transverse flute made of bamboo. The first three holes are played by the left hand, the last four by the right hand. The “salt-plum” hole at the bottom is used only for ornamentation. The symbols marked by red dots along the top of the drawing indicate hole-fingerings. Beneath the drawing is a set of six Japanese pitch-names matched to individual holes.  We would like to thank Dr. Wolpert, one of our frequent researchers at the music department, for providing texts on how this fascinating notation works especially for our music event.

Looking at the Cambridge songs

We also looked at Indian Sargam notation and early Byzantine neumes. Leading on from the latter we entered the Western world of early music notation, using adiastematic and diastematic neumes. Cambridge University Library holds some beautiful and rare examples of secular notation in the early and later  Cambridge songs. On display was a single leaf originating from a compilation of mainly textual educational material used in the late Anglo-Saxon period (MS Gg.5.35).  The so-called Cambridge Songs, a repertoire of secular songs that can be traced back to the Rhine region, are thought to have been copied in Saint Augustine’s priory in Canterbury in the 11th century and the music notation is among the earliest known examples of secular song. The neumes are written in quite a simple hand, using vertical strokes for the virga and dots for the punctum. The Later Cambridge Songs (MS Ff.i.17.1) have been fully digitized and are available on Cambridge Digital Library.

Listening to early music

The theme square, modal and mensural notation was illustrated by the Dublin Troper and renaissance part books.  The Dublin Troper (MS Add.710) is a 14th-century manuscript which consists of a ritual book containing the forms and ceremonies of Sarum use, a troper-sequentiary with primarily plainchant, and documents relating to Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin. The music is written in single columns with rough black square notation on 12 red 4-line staves per page. It also contains some sacred polyphonic songs, written in a later hand. These can be seen on DIAMM (free registration required).

For modern staff notation, we showed one of our latest acquisitions: Keyboard works by Handel, Couperin, Draghi and others, including Handel’s Vo fa Guerra, transcribed for cembalo by Babel. (MS.Add.10119) Cambridge University Library holds a significant collection of non-autograph 18th-century manuscripts. These fascinating documents teach us about cultural history as well as providing access to variant contemporary copies of the actual music.

Arrangement by Babel of Handel’s Vo fa Guerra

Arrangement by Babel of Handel’s Vo fa Guerra

This particular manuscript of harpsichord music, formerly in the collection of Christopher Hogwood, is written mainly in two 18th-century hands. One very notable piece is the transcription of Handel’s Vo fa Guerra “Sung by signora Pilotti in the opera of Rinaldo” by Babel. The copy we see here can’t be identified as Babel’s hand but it appears to be an early version containing alterations and corrections.

Different codes  were explored by looking at tablatures from renaissance lute manuscripts to Iron man for ukulele. Cambridge University Library holds a very important collection of lute manuscripts which has been made available on the Cambridge Digital Library.  Ms. Add.2764(2) is quite an unusual example. It consists of a collection of fragments of pages from a single lute manuscript that was later cut up. Half pages were reused in the 17th century as strengthening material in the bindings of other books and they were only rediscovered in the 20th century. All but two fragments are incomplete. The music was copied by a single hand in French tablature for a 6-course renaissance lute, probably around 1585-90. The full introduction by J. Robinson (Lute Society) is available on Cambridge Digital Library.

William Alwyn's flute

William Alwyn’s flute

From the mind of the composer to performance focussed on William Alwyn‘s flute sonata. The sonata was composed in 1948, and was premiered by his former pupil, Gareth Morris in November that year. At some point between the first performance and the rediscovery of the work by Alwyn’s widow, Doreen Carwithen, the score disappeared, leaving only rough sketches and a flute part in a copyist’s hand. One section around the central Adagio Tranquillo proved especially difficult to navigate. Mrs Alwyn asked for the assistance of flautist, Christopher Hyde-Smith, whose transcription of the work was used in later performances and recordings. It includes tape numbers (556, 572 etc) indicating where different recordings were used and spliced together to produce the final commercial soundtrack. There are also indications of timings. The transcription proved to be very useful in the first publication of the flute sonata.

A colourful selection of tutors, part of our current exhibition, and a selection of scores in graphic notation and facsimiles of various manuscript music rounded off the “looking” part of the event.

Onwards to more listening and playing!

Playing the euphonium

Playing the euphonium

More euphonium fun

More euphonium fun

Performance of artist impression

Performance of artist impression

Tonic Sol-fa in practice

Tonic Sol-fa in practice









Trying out the trombone

Trying out the trombone


Our musicians demonstrated how musical notation sounds and also how their instruments work. All ages had huge fun trying out the instruments and joining in with the performances, which included the debut of our in-house created artist impression of Zak’s Mobilea demonstration of the tonic Sol-fa system and various songs and instrumental pieces.

AP and MJ

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3 Responses to At the event: Encoding Music

  1. Looks great! Congratulations!


  2. Pingback: Such sweet music | MusiCB3 Blog

  3. Pingback: Musical chairs | MusiCB3 Blog

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