Logo der Bayerischen Akademie der Wissenschaften

Lexicon musicum Latinum medii aevi (LmL)

Menu

Dictionary of Medieval Latin Musical Terminology

During the European Middle Ages polyphonic music developed from basically simple forms to highly differentiated compositional techniques.  Numerous genres of composition came into being, and a variety of notational systems – the fundamental prototypes of modern notation – were invented. 

Some aspects of medieval music – for example organum, the earliest form of polyphonic music – are known exclusively through the witnesses of music theorists.  We learn of this practice from musical treatises from as early as the 9th century, that is, from a period before any clear, generally accepted form of musical notation had been established. 

Handwritten Music and Neume Scores

While many elements of modern notation have been derived directly from medieval notations, nevertheless modern notation will not serve as a basis for understanding that of the Middle Ages.  Thus medieval musical treatises form a prerequisite for interpreting medieval notation, for they offer us the necessary explanations.

Manuscripts on Music Theory

Yet we do not merely discover how to understand ancient notations in musical treatises; for they also offer us a broad understanding of musical culture in the Middle Ages: the integral position of music within cosmic harmony, the place of music within the liturgy, techniques forming the basis of musical structures, and much more. But in order to gain an understanding of musical literature, above all else we need a basic understanding of the technical vocabulary used in the treatises.

Musical Terminology

Music, similar to other scholarly disciplines, developed its own particular, highly specialized technical vocabulary.  Theorists of the Middle Ages began by adopting from Greek Antiquity basic terminology describing the tonal system.  Then the cultivation of Gregorian Chant required a new vocabulary appropriate for describing this repertoire and its structure.  The practice of polyphonic song and the gradual development of structural procedures exercised its effect and left its contributions to vocabulary specific to compositional techniques and the variety of compositional genres evident in the late Middle Ages.  

Terminology concerning the notation of music occupied central position in music-theoretical discussions during and following the 13th century.  Together with mensural notation – which for the first time established the possibility of precisely notating rhythmic values together with pitch – an ever more refined system developed – a system often stamped with regional differences.  Simultaneous with these developments descriptions of musical instruments assumed a position of more importance within the treatises. 

Recording and explaining Terminology

The objective of the Lexicon musicum Latinum was to explicate the objective meaning of the multifaceted terminology of medieval music theory and to describe it within its historical context.  The Lexicon musicum Latinum – a research project of the Bavarian Academy of Sciences brought to completion in 2016 – is considered the leading dictionary of medieval Latin musical terminology.  It makes accessible for the first time the comprehensive music-theoretical literature from the 9th century to 1500, taking note as well of more ancient Latin texts insofar as they influenced the formation of medieval theory. 

The source material for articles presently encompasses more than 700 texts with more than three million words.  Along with definitions in both German and English the LmL offers a comprehensive selection of the most significant original citations subdivided according to objective criteria.  The articles are also provided with references to citations in later treatises and text-critical commentary, as well as references to important secondary bibliography. 

Begun in 1960 and successfully brought to completion in 2016, the research project of  the Lexicon musicum Latinum (LmL) of the Bavarian Academy of Sciences thus draws to a close.  Henceforth a comprehensive inventory of medieval Latin musical terminology until the end of the fifteenth century remains available to all in both printed and digital format