Music: printing with movable type, 1501

Music: printing with movable type, 1501

'Ottaviano Petrucci was the first publisher of printed music in all of Europe. He had reconfigured Gutenberg's movable type technology with the intent to mass produce musical scores. His meticulously indexed compilation of secular music was titled Harmonice Musices Odhecaton (Canti A, B and C). It gave future generations of performers and musicologists straightforward, legible copies of more than 200 masterpieces by some of the greatest composers of his generation.... For the soundtrack in this video, I selected representative works by Josquin Desprez, Jacob Obrecht, Pierre de la Rue, Gerard Weerbecke and others.... Most of the artwork featured in this video comes from the period between 1470 and 1510.'

Published on 16 Sep 2017

Like the advent of paper in Asia centuries before, the arrival of priniting with movable type had enormous consequences for European culture, many of which remain imperfectly appreciated. A good example is the impact of print on the Western musical tradition. From the sixteenth century onwards, European music developed continuously in scale, sophistication, and ambition for centuries. Ensembles swelled to enormous size, instrumentation proportionately complex, musical forms expanded and evolved, and diverse musical traditions were exchanged from one end of Europe to the other and eventually with the Americas and beyond. One precondition for this steady evolution was a system of musical notation originating in the Middle Ages which was steadily enriched to indicate new aspects of performance. But this constant evolution, exchange, and expansion would have been impossible without the capacity to reproduce pages of this notation mechanically through the application of movable type. Just as the finite number of characters of Western alphabets could be endlessly recombined to create new works of literature, the finite number of notes on the musical scale could be endlessly recombined to create new pieces of music.  The Western traditions of baroque, classical, romantic, and modern music can therefore also be regarded, in no small measure, as by-products of the printing revolution. 

Commentary: Howard Hotson (March 2024)