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Talk About Teaching and Learning
September 30, 2008, Volume 55, No. 6

‘Mind the Gap’: Teaching Medieval Music in the 21st Century

Emma Dillon

Of all the music I teach at Penn, the repertories of the Middle Ages are perhaps the least familiar to my students. Indeed, common first reactions to the chants of a 9th-century monastery, to the courtly love-songs of a troubadour, or to the wordy excess of a thirteenth-century motet, are bewilderment, disorientation, and confusion. Perhaps because the cultures that produced this music are so foreign to the students, they often hear the sounds as ‘mysterious,’ ‘mystical,’ ‘ethereal’—fitting words to describe music that seems to come from a place utterly remote from our own. While my courses hope to dispel the confusion, I am convinced, too, that there are lessons in the strangeness of that moment of first contact. Over the past summer of research in the British Library, the London Underground reminded me daily to ‘mind the gap’: and that, in essence, is what I strive to teach my students, too. To mind the gap of history, to confront disorientation as itself relevant. That disorientation is as meaningful an experience of unfamiliar music as its affective power. Teaching medieval music is thus simultaneously an opportunity to explore issues of cultural distance and difference—issues that are, after all, close to the heart of Penn’s own Compact.


I offer here two illustrations of how we might mind the gap in a class on medieval music. The first is a simple exercise in empathy. The entry-point for most of these courses is plainchant: the thousands of melodies associated with the rituals of Christian devotion, and earliest surviving records of European music before the first millennium. In the first weeks, the class explores how these melodies work, how their notational systems can be deciphered and their relationship to memory, as well as chant’s place in religious rituals and devotion. But before that work begins, I often ask students to engage in a more basic activity. ‘Empathy’, a theme in much recent writing in medieval studies, is a mode by which we may attempt to identify with distant subjects through our own basic humanness. It is a particularly useful maneuver with music, for it repositions students in relation to song: no longer just a disembodied ‘work’, song now becomes a portal into human experience. I might ask students to do a simple piece of math. How much of the day would you spend singing if you were a medieval nun or monk? If you were chaplain in a royal household?  If you were a citizen of fourteenth-century Florence? The answers are quite staggering. For the most devout of medieval society, vast portions of the day (and night) were spent singing. Put another way, while speaking may be our default vocality, for some medieval men and women, singing was the norm. Next: what does it feel like to sing? For any length of time? And what does it feel like to sing in a group? Students recall light-headed moments of over-exuberant singing; the engulfing roar of communal song at the baseball stadium; or the intimacy of their close harmony glee club. These simple references back to our own vocal chords, heart rates, lung capacities, and social environments create a simple moment of insight into, and sometimes fleeting connection with, the past. Chant is then no longer just a melodic type or notational style. Empathy opens it up as a story of collectivity; of supremely honed memories; of endurance; and finally of visceral sensation leading to sacred revelation. Above all, it frames music as the story of people. As the humanizing of abstract musical traces begins, we start to bring in the many first-hand voices: from the saintly and mystical, to the anonymous and disenfranchised. We look, too, at other remains of their world—the cathedrals, courts, cities—and imagine song’s place in shaping human experience. 

Empathy, then, is one useful means to explore distance. Bridging distance, though, also involves intensive, specialized work—and doing some of that work yourself. My second illustration involves evidence that, in contrast to sound, is emphatically durable and tangible: and also fiendishly difficult to make sense of. Medieval music exists as inky symbols on parchment—the translation of the voice into visual notation. Manuscripts, then, are the centerpiece of any history of medieval song; without them we would have no evidence for how the music sounded. But manuscripts are more than passive conduits of musical information: they, too, offer invaluable points of contact with the past. For while we cannot hear the monks and nuns from a thousand years ago, we can see and touch in these books the autographs of their voices. These silent witnesses are thus a very immediate way of being in the presence of the musical past. 

We are fortunate at Penn to have a wonderful collection of medieval music manuscripts, recently expanded with the support of Lawrence Schoenberg and Barbara Brizdle; and librarians who are generous with their time, and firmly committed to having students learn, hands-on, from the sources. Over the years, I have made manuscripts a feature of all my classes on medieval music. There is no more vivid demonstration of what that gap of history can mean than observing students’ reactions as they turn the folios of a 700-year old manuscript: wonder, awe, and sometimes even anxiety. But there is much more to such an exercise than simple show-and-tell. Developing skills in proportion to the level of the class, it is also possible to set students to work on these objects, to show them the expertise necessary to entice the sources to yield the story of their originary moment: How can we know when this book was made? How can its style of writing or notation tell us where it comes from? What was its use? What can the doodlings of later readers tell us about who used this book? With our newest acquisitions, this work is all the more meaningful because so many of these questions have yet to be answered. So in addition to acquiring the skills needed to ask these questions, students have the thrill of being the first to figure out the answers. At such moments, course requirements are forgotten, as students devote hour upon hour to trying to solve the mysteries of these books. It simply becomes about the material; about the profound effort and devotion needed to unlock the stories these books can tell. As students lose themselves in these endeavors, their investment in the past deepens. With that deepening comes, too, the recognition of the sheer work needed to make sense of what has gone before. And so work turns into a labor of love.

At the end of a course on medieval music, I hope students leave with an appetite for a period of music-making I find entrancing. And I hope they feel some familiarity with a culture that is remote from our own, and perhaps even some affinity with the people of the past. But I hope, too, that they learn something from the quieter revelations in these activities.  For the gap that separates a 21st-century Penn student from the medieval past is ultimately not so different from other more obvious distances: between different cultures, religions, political factions, and more modestly, between neighbors in the College dorm, students in the classroom. Such gaps can be fraught, confrontational, frustrating or, worst of all, invisible. In learning to negotiate the distance of music history, there is the opportunity to acquire skills not only to appreciate musical creativity of a millennium ago, but also to tackle distances of many other kinds. Mind the gap: but do not be afraid to try and bridge it, realizing that to do so takes patience, courage, empathy, learning, and respect for difference.


Above, a musical manuscript from the University of Pennsylvania, Rare Book and Manuscript Library, MS Codex 1248: Guidonian Hand,
a mnemonic device that had been used to assist singers in learning to sight sing.

Emma Dillon, associate professor of music, won both the Ira Abrams Award and the Lindback Award for Distinguished Teaching last spring.


This essay continues the series that began in the fall of 1994 as the joint creation of the
College of Arts and Sciences and the Lindback Society for Distinguished Teaching.
See www.upenn.edu/almanac/teach/teachall.html for the previous essays.

Almanac - September 30, 2008, Volume 55, No. 6