Musica ficta

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For other uses, see Musica ficta (disambiguation).

Musica ficta (from Latin, "false", "feigned", or "fictitious" music) was a term used in European music theory from the late 12th century to about 1600 to describe pitches, whether notated or added at the time of performance, 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).

Modern use[edit]

Today, the term is often loosely applied to all unnotated inflections (whether they are actually recta or ficta notes; see below) that must be inferred from the musical context and added either by an editor or by performers themselves (Bent and Silbiger 2001). However, some of the words used in modern reference books to represent musica ficta, such as "inflection", "alteration", and "added accidentals" lie outside the way many Medieval and Renaissance theorists described the term (Bent 1984, 47).

Historical sense and relation to hexachords[edit]

Throughout the period that incorporated musica ficta, singers sight read melodies through a series of interlocked hexachords that formed the backbone of the solmization system—a method that eventually became the modern system of tonic solfa. To sing notes outside the recta pitches of the gamut (the range generally available to composers and performers, i.e., from G at the bottom of the modern bass clef to E at the top of the treble clef), performers had to invoke "fictive" hexachords to sing pitches such as F or E. Hexachords normally were formed only on C, F, and G, and the interval pattern within each of these hexachords was always tone-tone-semitone-tone-tone, which was sung as ut re mi fa sol la. Hence, if singers needed to sing the pitch F, they had to think of the half step between F and G as the solmization syllables mi and fa, for mi-fa always represented the half step within a hexachord. When they did this, they invoked a nominal hexachord starting on the note D, and this hexachord was considered fictive because it contained a false or fictitious F (that is, a pitch that did not belong to the recta notes of the gamut). Moreover, since the hexachord built on F naturally contained a B, music based on a scale involving the soft or F hexacord had the pitch B as part of the recta notes of the scale (Toft 2014, 267–69). (For a fuller explanation of these procedures, see Toft 2014, 259–61.)

However, in the 16th century, the signs used to represent these fictive notes (the signs for b mollis [] and b durum []) came to acquire their modern meanings of raising or lowering notes by a half step (Toft 1992, 13–14). Adrian Le Roy wrote that "b sharpe doeth holde up the tune halfe a note higher, and b flatte, contrarywise doeth lette it fall halfe a note lower" (Le Roy 1574, fol. 6r). But as early as 1524, theorists also had this understanding of these signs (Toft 1992, 13–14). Moreover, near the beginning of the 17th century, Michael Praetorius employed the words signa chromatica (chromatic signs) to refer to sharps and flats (Praetorius 1619, 31). Hence, no single understanding of the concept existed in the later Middle Ages and Renaissance.

Practical application[edit]

The signs b mollis and b durum were not notated with any regularity in vocal sources of the late Middle Ages and Renaissance, and although the principles singers used to supply the missing information were discussed in theoretical treatises, the explanations are far too cursory to enable modern musicians to reconstruct the old practices with any degree of accuracy (Toft 1992, 3–4). Tablatures, however, because they turn implicit solmization practices into explicit pitches, provide a precise view of how musicians, or at least those in the 16th century, added sharps and flats to vocal sources (the first tablatures were published in the early 16th century). (For an explanation of how lutenists intabulated vocal music, see Toft 1992, 43–44.)

Common practices (taken from Berger 1987, 70–121; Toft 1992, 9–93; Toft 2014, 277–88):

  • Many musicians in earlier times found the linear (melodic) and vertical (harmonic) dissonance caused by clashes between mi and fa aurally offensive (especially when it involved tritones and octaves), and they regularly removed the dissonance. Exceptions to this practice were common, however, particularly at cadences (Toft 1992, 64–65, 73–79; Toft 2014, 280–82); some musicians even found dissonant octaves acceptable at times (Toft 1992, 30, 80–82; Toft 2014, 282)
  • despite the theoretical prohibition of what Zarlino referred to as occasioins when "the parts of a composition do not have a harmonic relation between their voices" ("le parti della cantilena non habbiano tra loro relatione harmonica nelle loro voci") (Zarlino 1558, 179, translation from Zarlino 1968, 65; false or cross relations in modern parlance), 16th-century tablatures demonstrate that musicians sometimes removed and at other times retained these clashes (Toft 1992, 79; Toft 2014, 282–85, 296–98)
  • at cadences and other places where two voice parts proceed to an octave or unison, singers normally approached the perfect interval from the closest imperfect interval; when the closest imperfect interval did not occur naturally in the music, singers created it either by adding a sharp to the voice rising by a whole step or by adding a flat to the voice descending by a whole step (see Toft 1992, 45–71; Toft 2014, 277–78)

These practices were common throughout Europe, but in Germany musicians followed a distinctive set of practices for their own vernacular music, particularly at cadences, where they regularly avoided approaching perfect intervals from the closest imperfect intervals (for a discussion of the German customs, see Toft 1992, 95–102; Toft 2014, 288–95)

Modern editions[edit]

Today, editors usually show their recommendations for ficta in Medieval and Renaissance music by placing an "accidental" sign above the note in question. This indicates that these "accidentals" were not part of the original source. Editors place any signs found in a period document on the staff directly before the note the sign applies to—as they would an accidental placed by the composer of a modern work, and indeed as it appears in the original document.


  • 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.
  • Le Roy, Adrian. 1574. A Briefe and Plaine Instruction to Set all Musicke of Eight Divers Tunes in Tableture for the Lute. London: J. Kyngston for J. Robothome.
  • Praetorius, Michael. 1619. Syntagma Musicum, III. Wolfenbüttel: Elias Holwein. Facsimile reprint, Kassel: Bärenreiter, 1958.
  • 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.
  • Toft, Robert. 1992. Aural Images of Lost Traditiions: Sharps and Flats in the Sixteenth Century. Toronto: University of Toronto Press. ISBN 0-8020-5929-5.
  • Toft, Robert. 2014. With Passionate Voice: Re-Creative Singing in 16th-Century England and Italy. New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-938203-3.
  • Zarlino, Gioseffo. 1558. Le istitutioni harmoniche. Venice: n.p.
  • 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, New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1976.

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.
  • Henderson, Robert V. 1969. "Solmization Syllables in Musical Theory, 1100 to 1600." PhD dissertation, Columbia University.
  • 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.
  • Toft, Robert. 1983. “Pitch Content and Modal Procedure in Josquin’s Absalon, fili mi.” Tijdschrift van de Vereniging voor Nederlandse Muziekgeschiedenis 33:3-27.
  • Toft, Robert. 1988. “Traditions of Pitch Content in the Sources of Two Sixteenth-Century Motets.” Music & Letters 69:334-44.
  • Toft, Robert. 2000. "Musica ficta". In Reader’s Guide to Music: History, Theory, and Criticism, edited by Murray Steib, 476-77. Chicago: Fitzroy Dearborn ISBN 978-1579581435.

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