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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