Music can often provide a window into worlds long past. A particular Schubert song could transport you right back to an ornate parlor in 19th-century Austria. It’s hard not to picture Mozart at the podium in front of a hall full of white-wigged aristocrats when listening to The Magic Flute.
But instead of just invoking certain periods of history, what if music could shed light on the comings and goings of a forgotten culture?
Associate Professor of Musicology Rebecca Maloy and a group of PhD students are beginning to have just that revelation as they study a type of chant found in medieval Spain around the same time as Gregorian chant.
“Old Hispanic has been a neglected area for a long time in chant scholarship,” Maloy explains. “While there are some similarities to Gregorian, all that remains of Old Hispanic is the notation.
“And we don’t know what the notes sounded like in the seventh century.”
Maloy and graduate students Mason Brown, Ben Cefkin, Ruth Opara, Megan Quilliam and Melanie Shaffer recently presented their research on Old Hispanic chant at the International Congress on Medieval Studies in Kalamazoo, Michigan.
“We basically looked through huge databases of chants to find all the text matches we could, then looked at the notation of the Gregorian and Old Hispanic melodies to see whether they were connected,” Maloy says.
From there, the team looked for similarities that could offer clues about what inspired the chant, what it sounded like and the interaction between the two cultures.
Although the Old Hispanic chant is mostly independent from Gregorian chant, Maloy and the students discovered that the two traditions share more repertory than previously thought.
“If there were chants based off the same scripture, for example, that could be a signal that there was some crossover in the traditions,” explains Melanie Shaffer, a PhD candidate in musicology.
“And because we know what the pitches sound like in Gregorian chant, we can compare how the notes moved up and down to guess what they sounded like in Old Hispanic.”
What they found was surprising—and potentially game-changing.
“There were so many connections,” ethnomusicology PhD candidate Megan Quilliam adds. “It was impossible to say they were coincidence.
“The big question is—what does it mean?”
Each student took a different approach to a different quandary, bringing their expertise in musicology and ethnomusicology to the table in different ways.
“We were seeing [that], while there might not be musical correlation, the chants highlighted certain words in the same way,” says Quilliam. “In one of my chants, I was looking at 'lux,’ which means light, and both traditions assigned the same note shapes to each syllable in similar chants.
“That means the two melodies could have come from the same place.”
As researchers, the students say they learned a lot about how to improve their methods by observing and taking cues from their peers.
“I’ve never understood why there’s not more collaboration in musicology and ethnomusicology,” says Quilliam. “By grouping your knowledge together, you see how other people approach their different goals and you make changes to what you’re doing based on what you learn from them.”
“It helps with the workload,” Shaffer adds. “In order to make meaningful observations during a tight timeline, you have to divide up the work to get it finished faster.”
Shaffer says the fact that Maloy has been focused on this subject for the better part of six years helped the seminar class as well.
“There’s something comforting about not feeling you’re trying to reinvent the wheel on a project. We really benefited from Dr. Maloy’s methodology as a launching pad.”
Maloy says the paper was well-received at the interdisciplinary conference. What she and her students found could inform not only music history but also general history about medieval trade, communication and collaboration.
“Historians have studied different forms of prayer and noted these connections, but musicologists haven’t. This is the first time anyone’s looked in depth at parallel chants.
“These chants are tokens of cultural contact that we don’t have any other record of. Trying to discover when and how that exchange happened is fascinating.”