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Preliminary remarks
Two note ligatures
Three notes and more    exercises
Let's go!
Josquin ligatures

Observing the few facsimiles available on this site, we discover strange-looking symbols at first sight, though beautiful ones.
Admittedly, the angular shape of notes which are written separately doesn't prevent us to recognize a breve (latin brevis : our modern square note), a semibreve (latin semibrevis : whole note), a minim (latin minima : half note), a semiminim (latin semiminima : quarter note), and finally a fusa (eighth note/quaver) which has been rather uncommon until the 1500s. However, some sequences of tied squares, rectangles, or parallelograms don't fail to be puzzling: these ligatures are just the subject of the present page.

About note names : we use the latin names fusa and semifusa since these notes don't have English equivalents. And we use also the latin maxima, since Thomas Morley has been perhaps the only English speaker who's called it a large.
Many thanks to Warren Steel and Anne-Marie Soulier: Warren helped me to find my way in this delicate question of note names, and Anne-Marie spent a fair amount of time to improve my first English translation. They obviously cannot be considered as responsible for any mistake that you might still find here.

Mx L B S M Sm F Sf
maxime 2 or maxime 1 longua breva semi-breva minima semi-minima fusa semi-fusa


Preliminary remarks

First, let's notice that note values have been affected by a sort of inflation, as can be seen from the breve's name (our modern square note), which once upon a time was the... shortest one! As a matter of fact we'll have to take into account longs and even maximas. When they don't make up the most part of the piece, it's - to my taste - an odd habit to divide note values by 2, 4, or 8! This would lead, for instance, to transcribe semiminims (quarter notes) on the manuscript into eighth notes. I'm not sure I would play these two versions in exactly the same way, not to mention their outer appearance...
In case of a large rhythmic range - for instance ornementations upon a tenor written in large values - they used a clever system of proportions, which requested to play faster or slower the same note symbols. I won't say anything about this system, some parts of which are - and were then - highly controversial ; it's just too difficult for me! I could indeed quote what have written experts about simple cases, or report their own doubts in difficult ones, but in no way would I be able to make up my own opinion, since I've not studied hundreds of manuscripts, as they have!

There's something else that you will not find here: the real value of the notes or rests, since it depended on mensuration signs found at the beginning or in the course of the staff, or on the presence of other notes in the neighbourhood, or on the note's color : you may come upon black breves or semibreves, and even some red notes!
I call this the grammar of the system, as opposed to the lexical rules for ligatures explained below, which establish a simple mapping between symbols and note names: maximas (Mx), longs (L), breves (B), semibreves (S).
(since it's an important subject, I had to write several pages about mensuration).

And now, let's get to the point!


Two-note ligatures

First, no minim or shorter note will be found in any ligature.
You'll see maximas from time to time, and semibreves very often.
As for breves (B) and longs (L), they make up the very heart of the system.

For we'll have to consider first the 4 rhythmic sequences which can be made with these two notes: B L (starting point), then L L, or B B, or L B.

The B L starting point hasn't been choosen at random, it is rooted in rhythmic modes that were in use hundreds of years before the 16th century. However, any further comment about this would be far beyond what I wanted to say on this page (and, BTW, beyond my current knowledge!).
Thus, the symbols and rules given here are those used in the last period of time in which the system came to a steady state before disappearing: 1450-1600 roughly.

So, this is the basic descending B L ligature:  BL down
And this is the basic ascending B L ligature:  BL up

The other ones will be obtained by modifying some graphic element, thus changing a B into an L or conversely.

For a descending ligature, the key point is the presence or the absence of a stroke on the left of the left-hand note, or a diagonal shape of the right-hand note:

LL down = L L: without a left stroke, the left note is now an L.
BB down = B B: the right note has been diagonalized (starting again from the basic sequence).
LB down = L B: reversed basic sequence, since both changes have been applied.

For an ascending ligature, the key point is the presence or absence of a stroke on the right of any one of the two notes:

LL up = L L: by adding a stroke on the right of the left note.
BB up = B B: the right-note stroke has been removed.
LB up = L B: both changes have been applied.

Notice that the long longua appears in 3 of the ascending ligatures (including the basic one).

Ligatures with semibreves

The S S pattern will be seen very often, with its characteristic upper left stroke:

SS down 1 or SS down 2 = S S descending.
SS up 1 or SS up 2 = S S ascending.

Technical remarks

Diagonal ligatures: whenever a longer parallelogram is needed because of a large pitch interval, this must not be understood as a kind of glissando! There are no more than 2 notes, shown by the left and right sides of the parallelogram.

Inner lines: for the same reason, it happens sometimes that the notes must be connected by lines which don't overshoot them upward or downward; such a line should just be ignored when analyzing the meaning of the ligature:
no stroke is not a significant stroke, it's just a technical line (resulting in B B)!


Three notes and more

They shall be analysed in two steps:

First, we'll have to find out one of the patterns shown below as basic, the meaning of which doesn't depend on its position in the ligature.

Then the remaining symbols will be understood by applying simple but numerous rules, which I personally found rather difficult to memorize. That's why I've summarized them in a diagram that I'm happy to differ to your judgment...

Basic rules to be applied first

In any position longua = L, which was already true for a two-note ligature.
In any position SS down 1 or SS down 2 = S S descending, and SS up 1 or SS up 2 = S S ascending, the left upper stroke being again the key element, just like for a two-note ligature.

It seems to exist only one basic sequence mixing up S and B, and to denote it there's perhaps no other choice than reversing the stroke on the right: SB up = S B quite uncommon, as mentionned by Apel already referred to in my bibliography. This writer doesn't say anything of a descending S B sequence SB down , perhaps because he's just never seen it... and believe me: neither have I :-)
However, I found it irritating that he should mention the only S L as a special case, thus increasing my memorization effort, since it seems to me that this sequence SL up is only the natural consequence of the two basic rules stated above...

Analyzing the remaining symbols

Their meaning will depend again on their horizontal position in a ligature containing three notes or sometimes more (ligatures have become more and more uncommon in more recent times). Apologizing for such an anachronism, I'll use the image of traffic lights, in order to distinguish: the head note in the sequence, then those in between called middle ones, and finally the tail note.

Indeed, one cannot exclude any possibility of using candle lights to regulate traffic on horseback, but I'm still waiting for any such evidence :-).

Furthermore, we'll also have to take in account the vertical position of head or tail notes (for middle notes it's irrelevant, provided we've not failed to apply basic rules first). Thus, why not think of the sky and the ground to enlighten these positions?

A little trick of mine

So, this is the diagram which helps me to memorize the rules:

How to use the diagram:

breva at head and bottom is a B ;
breva or diag tl at head and top is an L ;
flag at head is a B  (in any vertical position) ;
any note shape in the middle is a B  (same remark) ;
breva at top and tail is a B ;
diag br at bottom and tail is a B.
breva at bottom and tail is an L.

Applying the basic rules and then using the diagram is equivalent to the rules given by Apel already quoted, on his pages 91 and 92.

After that, you're even allowed to forget about 2-note ligatures, since they can now be deduced from those with three notes and more:
  • apply first the basic rules (longs and semibreves);
  • analyze the remaining notes, using the diagram without the circle in the middle;
  • in case we do not find a sequence in the diagram, let's assume that the diagonal has "won" over the square: flag + diag br resulting in BB down for instance.

An example taken from Apel
example rules to be applied first: 5 = L
diagram: 1 = B (head)
diagram: middle, any shape: 2, 3, 4 = B
diagram: 6 = L (bottom tail: the stroke belonged to note 5)

final result: B B B B L L

And what about maximas?

They don't change the rules, if we don't fail to remember that they may appear as maxima 2 or maxima 1
Apel gives the example BMxL 1 (which could also be written BMxL 2) evaluated as B Mx L, in which the stroke indeed belongs to the maxima, since no rule allows for a left-hand stroke except in case of a note at head.

Test your knowledge

Go and have fun by browsing a sequence of exercises that I've got recently! More and more real examples taken from facsimiles will be added on it, as soon as I'll come upon them.


Let's go!

Now you're ready to translate ligatures like the one shown at the top of the page into a sequence of letters or isolated notes (which is equivalent). By the way, you'll never see two neighbouring notes at the same pitch in a ligature: such a pattern is impossible, and therefore the ligature must be broken into two parts or into isolated notes.

Now, as a parting gift, I'm going to refute partially what I said in the foreword: when coming upon a symbol looking like our modern C at the beginning of the staff, you may assume it is a binary mensuration called tempus imperfectum, in which B = 2 S.

For shorter values, just make sure you don't see anything like a full stop inside the C: in this case you'll also have S = 2 M.
And for notes shorter than a minim, it's easy: M = 2 Sm ; Sm = 2 F ; etc, just like nowadays!

For larger values, more often than not you may assume L = 2 B and Mx = 2 L.

A long at the end of a piece is a kind of padding note: it must be held as long as necessary to be heard with the other parts until the final rest.

So, with a little bit of luck you'll experience the great pleasure to give life to those strange garlands of symbols, which is after all what we had in mind all along - didn't we?

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