Notating aulos music?

When exchanging ideas about playing the aulos, I always try to bear one puzzling fact in mind: as far as we know, ancient musical notation was never used to write down a two-part motion. We may have traces of very rough hints at ‘harmonisation’; we have references to notes used only in the accompaniment, and with which melodic notes these would go; but no source seems to consider aulos playing as polyphonic. When aulos music was notated – and we seem to possess a few scores intended for such instruments – a melody was written down. Period. The performer would know how to create a suitable accompaniment, evidently.

So, what might be the best way of approaching an ancient player’s mindset? I suppose, optimally we’d stick to using ancient notation, which would compel us to work out a suitable environment of skills and teaching, and guide us towards a proper mixture of fixed and improvised elements.

The idea of ancient notation may be intimidating, and indeed the entire two-times-fifteen-scales system is terrifyingly complex. However, as long as one sticks to a simple instrument such as the Louvre aulos, all one needs is a subrange of the simplest scale, comprising about a dozen notes and therefore a dozen distinct note signs. Not all too difficult to memorise, as each note nicely corresponds to a finger hole. Modulation by half-covering holes may be used at one or two places in the scale – the more important one is already included in the dozen…

As I have argued elsewhere, the Louvre aulos and the Berlin aulos are very similar in design, but of different size: differently pitched instruments with similar fingering. In practice, notating music for them in different keys does not make much sense: why preserve a useless notion of pitch, instead of preserving the fingering? Doubtless different keys were indispensible for modulating instruments – but the simple ones never needed anything but the natural key. Actually some of the extant scores use exactly this natural key, which the ancients called “Lydian”. The scales of these scores perfectly fit the Louvre and Berlin auloi.

The fact that such instruments came in several sizes, and continue doing so in the current revival, is equally important if one would not embrace ancient note signs. Optimally, a score in stave notation would also need to be applicable to all these sizes. Therefore I propose using our natural scale for the ancient natural “Lydian”, which maps the ‘white keys’ of the piano onto the finger holes of the pipes, regardless of their actual pitch.

In this way, the lowest note of the Louvre as well as the Berlin aulos would become ‘A‘, and the highest, d. For optimal fit with the ideas of ancient music, I suggest distributing uppercase and lowercase letters across the instruments’ eleventh as follows:

A     B  C     D     e  f     g     a     b  c     d

In stave notation, one would probably want to use the treble clef, if only for its popularity. Alternatively one might consider writing down an aulos air as a sequence of modern note letters, approaching the ancient mindset while disposing of the arcane ancient signs. Perhaps specifying the rhythm by the ancient means of rhythmical diacritics, indicating subdivisions as well as double, triple and longer duration… But that’s another topic…

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3 Responses to Notating aulos music?

  1. Thank you, Stefan! I agree about using the natural scale for all revival instruments, whatever their pitch, and will update my thumb exercises to all naturals (the sounding pitch of the Berlin aulos). That reduces clutter on the page, both in the key signature and in the number of ledger lines.

    Pitch of the EMAP workshop instrument

    I very much like the suggestion that the EMAP workshop instrument is be based on the Berlin aulos. Does it pass the 9-year-old test? Without an instrument and a child, I can’t verify this and am keen to see a photo. Or, if you could you send measurements, I’d make a mock-up to test with my nearly-8-year-old. The larger spacing of the lower pipe must feel comfortable, so a good hand position is established from the outset; if it isn’t, then I suggest going up a tone to 2 sharps. Either that, or reducing the bore to achieve closer finger spacing (and a quieter instrument) without raising the pitch.

    However, it occurs to me that 2 sharps (B minor) and 3 sharps (F# minor) would be better for a tibia band or for a teacher-student duet; far more practical than all naturals (A minor) and 3 sharps (F# minor). Subject to testing with kids at the perfect age to start learning (8, 9, 10), I propose that the EMAP workshop instruments are in 2 sharps, based on the Berlin aulos but scaled down to fit smaller hands, raising the pitch by 200 cents for compatibility in ensemble with the Louvre aulos. Anything that reduces physical struggle is desirable.

    I’m excited about incorporating ancient notation and entering a remote mindset. YES. That’s what this is all about; its greatest value today. But lets also consider what proportion of instrumental music on planet earth has been written down and the circumstances around its being written down – by whom and why. What proportion of a winning aulos competitor’s music was notated? If some of the surviving fragments were intended for aulos, what motivated the writing down of aulos music at a time when the tradition was strong? Who wrote these fragments down and why? How many aulos players used notation? If notation exerted an influence, then on what sort of aulos player(s) and how far-reaching was this influence relative to their unwritten musical inheritance?

    • This is a fascinating subject. With notation I use Ancient Greek letters to denote the notes on my scrolls.
      So for example, I use :
      KK K Δ ΒΒ K E ΔΔ Δ E ΦΦ EE
      ΓΓ Γ A ΦΦ Φ Γ EE K Φ EE ΔΔ
      KK K Δ ΒΒ K E ΔΔ Δ E ΦΦ EE
      ΓΓ Γ A ΦΦ Δ E ΦΦ E Δ KKKK
      for a piece I am learning at the moment.
      (some of these characters would be OVERlined)
      Can you decode this and tell me the composer of this piece?

      Stefan says that “ancient musical notation was never used to write down a two-part motion”, but this is remarkably slimilar to Harpsichord pieces where the continuo part were left to the player, and it was “assumed” that the player would know. Bach
      does not give any dynamics to pieces , such as the favoured Prelude No 1, which my son states that the dynamics are obvious, but don’t seem “obvious” to me.
      I suggest that the notation in Ancient Greece was mainly “memory” and that people learnt by copying – however there are vases which show letters on scrolls.
      Has anyone tried to “play” these?

    • Stefan Hagel says:

      My nine-years old proved able to cover the lowest position of Berlin Pipe L – though the fact that the gap between middle and ring finger is largest does not make it comfortable
      On the other hand, we need to consider that the highest notes on Berlin Pipe H are very unstable even in the original size, and would become significantly more so if we downscale it even more. This would doubtless reduce the fun factor for novices – how many would stay with an instrument that makes it so difficult to play the right intervals in the primary fingering position?
      All in all, I suggest concentrating more on this fingering, if necessary optimising size for a balance between physical and musical comfort here. The lower range will come naturally with growth and progress.
      I need to add that she has not tried playing. I would not give my present reeds to a child – they are much too exhausting. Which does not tell us much about ancient children reeds; professional musical education in those times cared little about health issues…

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