Musica ficta

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For other uses, see Musica ficta (disambiguation).

Musica ficta (from Latin, 'false', 'feigned', or 'contrived' music) was a term used in European music theory from the late 12th century to about 1600 to describe any pitches, whether notated or to be added by performers in accordance with their training, that lie outside the system of musica recta or musica vera ('correct' or 'true' music) as defined by the hexachord system of Guido of Arezzo (Bent and Silbiger 2001) — loosely synonymous with accidental.[citation needed]

Modern usage[edit]

In modern usage, the term is often loosely applied to all unnotated inflections (whether properly recta or ficta) that must be inferred from the musical context and added either by an editor or by the performers themselves (Bent and Silbiger 2001). However, words often used in reference books to define musica ficta, such as "chromatic", "inflection", "alteration", and "added accidentals" are not proper representations of the way ficta was defined by medieval and renaissance theorists (Bent 1984, 47).

Historical usage[edit]

Contrary to the modern concept of altering single notes, what musicians up to the 16th century did was to "operate musica ficta" on whole linear segments, which redefines the relationships between the letter-names in the scale. It is a matter of invoking a sub-system of ficta hexachords, not just individual notes, that fall outside of the musica recta system (Bent 1984, 20).


The crucial tool for medieval singers was the solmisation system, in which the total pitch space was represented by overlapping hexachords, shown mnemonically in the Guidonian hand, used to demonstrate where semitones occur amongst whole steps, by pointing to the joints of the fingers. The notes of the basic system of three hexachords is called musica recta or musica vera. This system encompasses the three most common semitone steps, B–C, E–F, and A–B♭, all solmised as "mi-fa". Change from one to another of these three basic hexachords was permitted, and the point of change was termed a "mutation". In the 14th century theorists extended this system to include semitones in other positions, indicated by the same mnemonics. This involved transposing hexachords to "alien pitches" or "unaccustomed places". These were classified as musica ficta, where the hexachord is specially created for the sake of the mi-fa semitone step (Bent 1972, 79–80). Renaissance Spanish Music Theorists, such as Domingo Marcos Durán, were sometimes explicit in the use of the hexachords of music ficta. In his Lux Bella of 1492 Durán gave a circular diagram with hexachords to indicate B, E, A, F, and C (Durán 1492, 10).


One common (though not exclusive) use of ficta was to avoid harsh harmonic or melodic intervals such as the tritone, for example the use of a E instead of a E to avoid dissonance with a B in another part.


In modern transcriptions of medieval and Renaissance music, ficta are usually indicated by an "accidental" sign appearing above the note. (In modern notation, accidentals are written before the note, not above.)

History of theory[edit]

Music theorists from Odo of Cluny in the 10th century to Zarlino in the 16th gave highly different rules and situations for the application of ficta.[citation needed] Thus the controversy is not only among contemporary musicologists; theorists of the Late Middle Ages were never in agreement on the rules of ficta either.

Contrapuntal treatises of the Renaissance, such as Johannes Tinctoris's Liber de arte contrapuncti (1477) and Gioseffo Zarlino's Le istituzioni harmonice (1588), described resolution at cadences through a major sixth into the octave or the inversion, a minor third closing to a unison, which, unless the other voice already descends by a semitone, necessitates the rising voice to add a sharp (see dyadic counterpoint) (Tinctoris 1961,[page needed]; Zarlino 1968, 144–45).


  • Bent, Margaret. 1972. "Musica Recta and Musica Ficta". Musica Disciplina 26:73–100.
  • Bent, Margaret. 1984. "Diatonic 'Ficta'". Early Music History 4:1–48. Reprinted in Margaret Bent, Counterpoint, Composition, and Musica Ficta, 1115–59. Criticism and Analysis of Early Music 4. New York and London: Routledge. ISBN 978-0-8153-3497-2.
  • Bent, Margaret, and Alexander Silbiger. 2001. "Musica Ficta [Musica Falsa]". The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, second edition, edited by Stanley Sadie and John Tyrrell. London: Macmillan Publishers; New York: Grove's Dictionaries of Music.
  • Durán, Domingo Marcos. 1492. Lux Bella. Seville: Quatro Alemanes Compañeros
  • Tinctoris, Johannes. 1961. The Art of Counterpoint (Liber de arte contrapuncti), translated by Albert Seay. Musicological Studies and Documents, 5. [N.p.]: American Institute of Musicology.
  • Zarlino, Gioseffo. 1968. The Art of Counterpoint: Part Three of Le istitutioni harmoniche, 1558, translated by Guy A. Marco and Claude V. Palisca. Music Theory in Translation 2. New Haven: Yale University Press. Reprinted 1976, New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.

Further reading[edit]

  • Allaire, Gaston G. 1972. The Theory of Hexachords, Solmization and the Modal System: A Practical Approach. Musicological Studies and Documents 24. [N.p.]: American Institute of Musicology.
  • Arlettaz, Vincent. 2000. "Musica ficta, une histoire des sensibles du XIIIe au XVIe siècle". Liège: Mardaga. ISBN 978-2-87009-727-4. English summary online:
  • Bent, Margaret. 2002a. "Diatonic Ficta Revisited: Josquin’s Ave Maria in Context". In Margaret Bent, Counterpoint, Composition, and Musica Ficta, 199–217. Criticism and Analysis of Early Music 4. New York and London: Routledge. ISBN 978-0-8153-3497-2.
  • Bent, Margaret. 2002b. "Renaissance Counterpoint and Musica Ficta". In Margaret Bent, Counterpoint, Composition, and Musica Ficta, 105–14. Criticism and Analysis of Early Music 4. New York and London: Routledge. ISBN 978-0-8153-3497-2.
  • Berger, Karol. 1987. Musica Ficta: Theories of Accidental Inflections in Vocal Polyphony from Marchetto Da Padova to Gioseffo Zarlino. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0-521-32871-5 (cloth). Paperback reprint 2004. ISBN 978-0-521-54338-5 (pbk).
  • Coussemaker, Charles Edmond Henri de (ed.). 1864–76. Scriptorum de musica medii aevi nova seriem a Gerbertina alteram. 4 vols. Paris: A. Durand. Reprinted, Milan: Bollettino bibliografico musicale, 1931.
  • Falconer, Keith. 1996. "Consonance, Mode, and Theories of Musica Ficta". In Modality in the Music of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Centuries/ Modalität in der Musik des 14. und 15. Jahrhunderts, edited by Ursula Günther, Ludwig Finscher, and Jeffrey J .Dean, 11–29. Musicological Studies and Documents 49. Neuhausen-Stuttgart: Hänssler Verlag. ISBN 978-3-7751-2423-2.
  • Herlinger, Jan W. 2005. "Nicolaus de Capua, Antonio Zacara da Teramo, and Musica Ficta". In Antonio Zacara da Teramo e il suo tempo, edited by Francesco Zimei, 67–90. Lucca: Libreria Musicale Italiana (LIM). ISBN 978-88-7096-398-4.
  • Hoppin, Richard H. 1978. Medieval Music. New York: W. W. Norton & Co.. ISBN 978-0-393-09090-1.
  • Johannes de Garlandia. 1972. De mensurabili musica, critical edition with commentary and interpretation by Erich Reimer. 2 vols. Beihefte zum Archiv für Musikwissenschaft 10 & 11. Wiesbaden: F. Steiner.
  • Lockwood, Lewis, Robert Donington, and Stanley Boorman. 1980. "Musica Ficta". The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, edited by Stanley Sadie. 20 vols., 12:802–11. London: Macmillan Publishers Ltd. ISBN 978-1-56159-174-9.
  • Randel, Don (ed.). 1986. The New Harvard Dictionary of Music. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1986. ISBN 978-0-674-61525-0.

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