Capturing Music (Hardcover)

The Story of Notation

By Thomas Forrest Kelly

W. W. Norton & Company, 9780393064964, 256pp.

Publication Date: November 3, 2014

List Price: 45.00*
* Individual store prices may vary.


An entertaining history of how musicians learned to record music for all time, filled with art that sings.

In today’s digital landscape, we have the luxury of experiencing music anytime, anywhere. But before this instant accessibility and dizzying array of formats—before CDs, the eight-track tape, the radio, and the turntable—there was only one recording technology: music notation. It allowed singers and soloists to travel across great distances and perform their work with stunning fidelity, a feat that we now very much take for granted.

Thomas Forrest Kelly transports us to the lively and complex world of monks and monasteries, of a dove singing holy chants into the ear of a saint, and of bustling activity in the Cathedral of Notre Dame—an era when the only way to share even the simplest song was to learn it by rote, church to church and person to person. With clarity and a sense of wonder, Kelly tells a story that spans five hundred years, leading us on a journey through medieval Europe and showing how we learned to keep track of rhythm, melody, and precise pitch with a degree of accuracy previously unimagined.

Kelly reveals the technological advances that led us to the system of notation we use today, placing each step of its evolution in its cultural and intellectual context. Companion recordings by the renowned Blue Heron ensemble are paired with vibrant illuminated manuscripts, bringing the art to life and allowing readers to experience something of the marvel that medieval writers must have felt when they figured out how to capture music for all time.

About the Author

Thomas Forrest Kelly is professor of music at Harvard University. The author of The Role of the Scroll, Capturing Music, and Music Then and Now, he lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Praise For Capturing Music: The Story of Notation

From the sparest clues showing the contour of early chant to the most intricate and beautiful musical symbols ever devised, Capturing Music is engaging at every turn. Tom Kelly is a master storyteller.

— Ross W. Duffin, author of How Equal Temperament Ruined Harmony (and Why You Should Care)

Readers will delight in the exquisite beauty of this volume—it looks like a richly illuminated manuscript! And with Blue Heron’s expertly and lovingly produced recordings, this is so much more than a book—it is something rare and wonderful.
— Susan Hellauer, founding member of Anonymous 4

With his characteristic blend of deep scholarship and clarity of style, Tom Kelly has written a timely history of the most significant revolution in musical practice of the last thousand years.
— Peter Phillips, founder and director, Tallis Scholars

Tom Kelly’s Capturing Music is a splendid introduction to the wonders of medieval notational technology, written in an engaging way.

— Margot Fassler, Keough-Hesburgh Professor of Music History and Liturgy, University of Notre Dame

For generations to come, this lucid book will be the go-to study of notation for performers of early music, and a soothing balm for anyone who wants to understand how visual technology reflected the ways music was conceived, performed, and documented.
— Benjamin Bagby, director of Sequentia

Marvelously witty and engaging.

Mr. Kelly’s fascinating book tracks the centuries-long process by which pitches and rhythms were codified.
— Eric Felten

Gorgeously illustrated… If you have ever wondered how a system of dots and lines in space came to express the arrangement of sounds in time, this engaging, chatty book explains how… Thomas Forrest Kelly’s witty and colloquial prose style makes the book much more approachable than you might expect.
— Melinda Bargreen