Philippe de Vitry and the Ars Nova: The Early History of Modern Rhythmic Notation in Music

Updated on February 25, 2020
Picture of Philippe de Vitry
Picture of Philippe de Vitry | Source

Philippe de Vitry and the Ars Nova

Philippe de Vitry was a 14th century French composer, poet, administrator, and later a bishop. He is also believed to be the creator of the Ars Nova (new art) movement in France towards the end of the middle ages.

The Ars Nova itself was initially a treatise (that is believed to have been written by de Vitry) that brought new innovations to the notation of musical rhythms. It grew into an art movement that would spread throughout France and the various Belgian countries in the 14th century.

The Ars Nova would eventually replace the Ars Antiqua, and the previously established style of music notation established by Leonin and Perotin and the Notre Dame School of Polyphony. It was also the last major reformation made for the notation of music. The Ars Nova would lay the groundwork for modern music notation, making it one of the most influential and significant treatises ever written in the history of music.

Note: See the table below for the definition of key musical words or expressions that will be used to explain how rhythmic notation developed during the Ars Nova movement. Words used for the first time that have a definition will be in bold.

Ars Nova Subdivisions

Ars Nova Prolations

Table of Musical Definitions

A musical notation symbol, it had the longest rhythmic duration with the exception of the double long.
A musical notation symbol that was created as a result of the subdivision of the long.
Semi Breve
A musical notation symbol that was created as a result of the subdivision of the breve.
A musical notation symbol that was created as a result of the subdivision of the semi-breve.
The process of subdividing the long into perfect or imperfect rhythmic groups called breves.
The process of subdividing the breve into perfect or imperfect rhythmic groups called semi-breves.
The process of subdividing the semi-breve into perfect or imperfect rhythmic groups called minims.
A voice that holds the melody.
Music where the tenor continously holds out identical sections of rhythm.
A repeating rhythmic unit of music commonly found in 14th century motets.
A repeating melodic unit of music commonly found in 14th century motets.
A notational feature in the 14th century to signify a change in the meter of music.
A stylistic technique where two musical voices alternate in rapid succession.

Rhythmic Developments

The Ars Nova allowed for three new major rhythmic and metrical developments to occur in music notation.

Double and Triple Rhythmic Subdivisions

The first innovation allowed imperfect, or duple subdivisions, to be allowed alongside perfect, or triple subdivisions. This was an important innovation because the basis of modern rhythm today all comes back to dividing and subdividing rhythms into groups of two or three. Before the development of the Ars Nova, music notation for duple meters could not be done.

The diagram entitled Ars Nova Subdivisions explains how each of the three basic note types could be allowed to be subdivided into groups of twos (imperfect) and threes (perfect). The subdivision of the long was called mode, the subdivision of the breve was called time, and subdivision of the semi-breve was called prolation.

Newly Created Subdivisions

The second innovation was creating a new subdivision of notes called minims. By further subdividing musical notes, music notation now allowed for more rhythmic syncopation to occur.

The minim came about because of prolation. After the semi-breve was divided, a new notation symbol needed to be created, and thus the minim was born. The minim is associated with being the precursor to the modern day quarter note.

Mensuration Signs

The third innovation was the creation of mensuration signs. The newly created subdivisions allowed for four different types of metrical rhythmic groupings. These metrical groupings would become the forefathers to the modern time signature in music, and mensuration signs were added to music to let people know what the groups would be.

The four groupings are as follows (see Ars Nova Prolations picture for more details):

  • Perfect Time Major Prolation = 9/8 Modern Equivalent
  • Perfect Time Minor Prolation = 3/4 Modern Equivalent
  • Imperfect Time Major Prolation = 6/8 Modern Equivalent
  • Imperfect Time Minor Prolation = 2/4 Modern Equivalent

The mensuration signs looked like circles or half circles with dots, and each one stood for one of the four metrical groupings bullet-pointed above (see Ars Nova Prolations picture).

The Use of the Ars Nova in Music

Philippe de Vitry wrote some of the earliest known compositions in the new Ars Nova style. His motets made frequent use of isorhythms in his tenor. The isorhythm was not a new musical concept, but rather something that had developed in the Ars Antiqua.

Compared to the Ars Antiqua, the tenor musical lines that made use of isorhythms were longer and more complex than the tenors of their predecessors. Tenor lines in the 14th century could also be a lot longer in duration, making them more of a structural foundation rather than a recognizable melody. Isorhythms were not limited in use to just the tenor voice, but they could also be used by other voices in the ensemble. Isorhythms in all of the voices, when done right, could help give the composition a more unified sound.

14th century motet tenors had two distinctly identifiable elements that were frequently used. The first was called a talea, and that was a rhythmic unit that was repeated. The second was called color, and that was a melodic unit that was repeated. Colors were usually longer than taleas.

With the new sub-groupings of rhythm having been created, changing from one meter to another in the middle of a composition also began to be developed. Changing from meter to meter during the Ars Nova period was called coloration. This term was used because a metrical change in the music in the score would be indicated by a change of the physical color in some of the notes, usually to the color red.

The Ars Nova also saw new stylistic and harmonic innovations being added to music, too. The development of hockets became very popular during this time. The rapid succession of voices are one the period's most identifiable musical characteristics.

Harmonically, the inclusion of thirds and sixths in music began to gradually become more common. 5ths and octaves were still more prevalent, and thirds and sixths still had to be resolved, but their inclusion begins to see a shift in the harmonic language of music.

The Roman de Fauvel
The Roman de Fauvel | Source

Ars Nova: Ironies and Impact on Music

A lot of Philippe de Vitry's music survives because of a French allegorical poem called Roman de Fauvel. The book was put together by a French clerk and it had 77 poems and 169 musical fixtures, some of which can be attributed to De Vitry. The survival of this book contains some of the earliest known music that was written during the Ars Nova.

There are two interesting ironies with the Ars Nova musical notation system when compared to modern music. The first irony is that the Ars Nova had not created a modern equivalent to the 4/4 time signature, the most widely used meter in music for the past couple of centuries. Although that time signature would soon follow, and the Ars Nova opened the door for 4/4 time. It is fascinating to imagine a musical world with time signatures, but none of them are 4/4.

The second great irony was 14th century's preference for the musical subdivision of groups of three rather than two. Today the opposite is true, with the preference of duple meter over triple meter, which began to occur during the Renaissance and Baroque eras.

Besides these ironies, the Ars Nova had a tremendous impact on the history of music. Directly, Philippe de Vitry would be a large influence on the next generation of composers, especially Guillaume de Machaut. The new notation system would spread throughout Europe and eventually begin to develop into the modern musical notation system that is used today.

Music of Philippe de Vitry

More Articles About The History of Classical Music

Below are some other articles I have written about the history and development of classical music.

The Beginning of Modern Music: Leonin and Perotin

Leonin and Perotin were two of the earliest composers to have their compositions documented. These two composers would help establish polyphony as a preferred style of composition, and they provided a strong starting point for the beginning documentation of the history of Western music.

Palestrina: The Savior of Western Music?

Palestrina was an Italian Renaissance composer who would be remembered for his contributions to the development of polyphony in music. This article also explores the long documented claim that Palestrina saved the art of writing polyphonic music from the Council of Trent and the Catholic Church.

The Early History of the Symphony: Origins and Evolving Structure

This article explores the early days of the symphony in classical music. It's rise from being a short orchestral overture to becoming the pinnacle of instrumental music has made it one of the most popular genres of classical music listened to today.


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    • Music-and-Art-45 profile imageAUTHOR


      6 years ago from USA, Illinois

      Thanks for reading and commenting. I don't mind if you link it up at all, as a matter of fact thank you for doing that.

    • profile image


      6 years ago

      This is a great article! I've linked to it in a tweet from @DenverEMC, hope you don't mind. I wish your name were on it - you should be getting some credit for this!

    • Music-and-Art-45 profile imageAUTHOR


      7 years ago from USA, Illinois

      Thanks for stopping by cuttler and thanks for voting up and sharing.

    • cuttler profile image


      7 years ago from HubPages

      This is a very very good article. I don't know much about writing music but I always appreciate learning any bit I can.

      Voted up, awesome and shared.

    • Music-and-Art-45 profile imageAUTHOR


      7 years ago from USA, Illinois

      I've gotten more and more into music from the Medieval and Renaissance periods in history. A lot of the ideas that were musically used back then have become more and more relevant in today's music.

    • chasmac profile image


      7 years ago from UK

      Excellent hub. I love this period of music history, and you've filled in some gaps in my knowledge. Thanks.


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