Listening for the Change

Understanding the period and context in which a piece of music was created can offer great rewards for the listener.

The shellac recording of the Original Dixieland Jazz Band’s ‘Livery Stable Blues’, 1917.  Granger/Alamy

In 1472 or 1473, the Flemish composer Johannes Tinctoris (c.1435-1511) penned an innocuous sounding book, entitled Proportionale musices (‘Proportions in music’). Dedicated to King Ferrante of Naples, it was a rather dry treatise concerned with questions of mensural notation. Its 23 turgid chapters dealt with such mind-numbing problems as the variability of the time values of certain notes (‘imperfection’) and the use of superparticular ratios. But its preface was truly remarkable.

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