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Project 9 Examples Research, Part 1: Descant and the Fuzzy Medieval Terminology – Early Beginnings

In my research about rounds and catches, I wrote a post about the blurry lines in the terminology of those two canonic forms. While reading about descant or discant, I found a similar case, where the meaning of the word changed depending on the historical period, however, in a much more complex way.

In 12th century, discantus, as it was termed in the Middle Ages, appeared as the Latin translation of the Greek word diaphonia, which was until around 1100 synonymous with organum. However, starting from around 1175, the various sections of organum began to be stylistically differentiated, with a strict distinction between descant and organum. (Harvard Dictionary of Music, 1969: 236)

All three of these terms – diaphonia, discantus and organum, illustrate well that when a medieval concept as a whole went through a process of reformulation, its individual terms also underwent shifts of meaning and usage. (Grove Music Online, 2001) Thus, discant would be very hard to define without continual reference to organum and diaphonia – the more complex concepts, themselves being great examples of the shifting terminology.

It is not completely clear how the word organum became associated with polyphony. Considering, after all, that at first, in the Patristic Age, organum was used to refer to any musical instrument (The Harvard Concise Dictionary of Music and Musicians, 1999: 480), scholars were under the impression that the polyphonic etymology of organum was in the analogies which can be found between early polyphony and musical instruments, their construction or manner of playing. These analogies include parallel movement of voices and the mixture rank of the organ, long-held notes and an instrumental drone, or between instrumental embellishment and the melismatic vocal decoration. (Grove Music Online, 2001)

In reality though, none of the authors of the actual period suggested the use of organum as a distinction for polyphony because the latter could be analogous in sound or performance to any instrument. The sole exception to this is John Cotto, who around 1100 writes. Still, this statement was fairly belated, made sometime after organum’s appearance in the 9th century, so it seems to be not only vague, but also speculative. On top of that, it was completely ignored by his contemporaries. There are also other, farther theories about the instrumental origin of the term organum, for example, because of the assertion that polyphony itself was instrumental in origin or that it was intended for purely instrumental performance, which are perhaps even more unlikely.

Instead, the word is probably connected to the adjective organicus, derived from the Greek kataskeuē organikē – geometrical construction. Organa in geometry were compasses and straight-edges which, in contrast to stencils with their imprecision, considered to be scientifically reliable. In an abstract sense, organicus came to be used in geometry as something mathematically exact and theoretically sound. Similarly, in music, it could have referred to the exact measurement of pitch. For example, instrumentum organicum was a musical instrument which by virtue of its construction is capable of being exactly tuned. Its pitches, each represented by one or more pipes, strings, keys or bells, exist in a consonant relationship to one another. Another is organicum melos – a tune or melody whose pitches, whether monophonic or polyphonic, vocal or instrumental, are precisely measured. (Groove Music Online, 2001)

But specifically regarding polyphony, as Williams (2004: 35) points out, organum could assign the meaning of organized non-unison music which combined the correctly calculated pitches of the scale – organicus, the exact measurements of which were indispensable in shaping together of the voice parts, making the resulting music distinct from disorganized, crowded noises – the orderless combining of unharmonious, uncalculated tones.

Wiliiams (2004: 36) uses Augustine’s commentary on Psalm 150 as an excellent illustration of the old vs. new meaning of the word. The Church Father used “sicut ordinatur in organo” in the sense “as is arranged in the organ”, to describe the windpipe instrument:

“Nor do I think that I should pass over what musicians say, that there are three kinds of sounds, by voice, by breath, by striking: by voice, uttered by throat and windpipe, when man sings without any instrument; by breath, as by pipe, or anything of that sort: by striking, as by harp, or anything of that kind.”

However, Amalar of Metz laid out this passage with the focus on the idea of ensemble sounds joining in praise:


Amalar uses “sicut ordinatur in organo” rather with the meaning “as is organized in the vocal polyphony”, which is in fact how others from the period used the term, like Regino of Prum a bit later on, when describing the distinction between Isidore’s succentor and concentor:

organum 2

(Williams, 2004: 35)

Turning the attention now to diaphonia, Tenney (1988:9) points out that prior to the ninth century, it meant dissonance, as opposed to symphoniaconsonance. This is not in terms of harmonic intervals, but rather melodic motion and sometimes in an even more abstract way – a general sense of relatedness between pitches. Tenney (1988: 18) continues that while by the 10th century symphonia had continued to mean consonance, but now in terms of simultaneous sound, diaphonia completely lost its earlier linguistic function as antonym for symphonia and came to be synonymous with organum.

Fuller (1981: 53-54) provides Musica Enchiriadis as an illustration of this is. Symphoniae are described to be consonant intervals of fourth, fifth, and octave, because pitches related in these intervals “join together in sweet agreement.” When symphoniae – consonants are sung together, “this is indeed what we call diaphonic song or, customarily, organum”. It is surely confusing as to how the singing of harmonic consonants is suddenly being called diaphony, which was not long before related to dissonance. The treatise doesn’t explain this sudden relation to organum, only stating that: “But it is called diaphony because it consists not in singing uniformly, but in the concordant agreement of separate sounds.”

Fuller (1981: 61-62) then highlights a later treatise, Ad organum faciendum, which clarifies things better, showing that both words pin-point different qualities of the two-part music, painting them as two sides of the same coin. Diaphonia is here described to refer to the duality or separation of sound perceived in two-part music, while organum adheres to its precise symphonic intervals – the fourth and the fifth. Because the voices moving in fourth and fifths do not blend fully as at the unison or octave, but sound distinct, in this way, diaphonia is connected to the literal meaning of the dissonantia – double sound or sounding twice, and not discord (Burney, 1782: 145-146). Indeed, Latin prefix dis- often denotes apart, and similarly the Greek prefix dia-.

Hence, it is translation, like this one of Guido’s passage, that complicates things:

“Diaphony sounds as a separateness of sounds, which we also call organum, in which notes distinct from each other make dissonant sounds harmoniously and harmonize in dissonances.”

What is meant and would make more sense is:

“Diaphony sounds as a separateness of sounds, which we also call organum, in which notes distinct from each other make double sounds harmoniously and harmonize in double sounds.”

As such, this connotation of the word diaphonia for harmonic, simultaneous interval was even used in a much later, 15th-century treatise by Adam von Fulda, as a contrast for periphonusthe melodic, successive interval. (Slemon, 1994: 76)

In practice, the earliest diaphonia or organum is produced when the main voice with its sacred, Gregorian phrases – vox principalis, is being accompanied note against note in parallel by a second voice – vox organalis, in the early times underneath vox principalis. This parallelism is very strict for the fifths. (Fig. 1a) However, the organum in fourths poses a problem – voices cannot proceed completely parallel in fourths, because they can inevitably encounter tritones when going from one tetrachord to the next. The response was to abandon the strict parallelism and allow the organal voice in certain places to dwell on boundary tones, which were quite curiously dissonances. These places usually occur at the beginning and the end of phrases, where the parts move in oblique motion -starting and ending in unison, sometimes with pitch repetition, resulting in a drone effect; The parallelism, on the other hand, occurs in the middle of the phrase. (Fig. 1b)

organum parallel.PNG

Fig. 1a. Parallel organum

alleluia oblique.PNG

Fig. 1b. Motion in the oblique organum

As for the boundary tones, Guido, for example, introduces his solutions with hierarchic ranking for the intervals:


(Tenney, 1988: 20)

In an ironical way, these dissonant boundary tones hint back a bit to the old meaning of diaphonia.

Before concluding this post, here is a video of the parallel organum (starts around 3:20):

Another video of oblique organum:

Moving on from its tricky relationship with dissonance, the new meaning of diaphonia as a compositional process – a synonym for organum, was translated from Greek into the Latin term – discantus. However, the original organum started weakening and shifting its form, with the terms splitting apart, as you will see in the next blog post. There, I will finally concentrate on the discant. Click here to take a look.

List of illustrations:

Fig. 1a. Parallel organum

Fig. 1b. Motion in the oblique organum


Apell, Willi (1969) Harvard Dictionary of Music. Harvard: Harvard University Press

Don Michael Randel (1999) The Harvard Concise Dictionary of Music and Musicians.
Harvard University

Williams, Peter (2004) The Meaning of Organum: Some Case Studies

Plainsong and Medieval Music 10 (2001): 103–20.

Tenney, J. (1988) A History of Consonance and Dissonance. New York: Excelsior Music Publishing Company

Fuller, Sarah Ann (1981) ‘Theoretical Foundations of Early Organum Theory’ In: Acta Musicologica (53)  pp. 52 – 84

Burney, Charles (1782)

Slemon, Peter John (1994), Adam (von Fulda) on Musica Plana and Compositio: De musica, Book II: A Translation and Commentary. (PhD) University of British Columbia

At: (Accessed on)










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