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Read our regular staff blog and get a behind-the-scenes-view of life and work at Stirling Castle.

Musical Head Goes Global

by StirlingCastle 24. February 2010 03:09

Last summer I participated in a media launch to tell the public about the discovery of possible ancient musical notation on one of the Stirling Heads. This was in the form of a curious sequence of Is, Os and IIs round the inner frame of a large 16th-century oak medallion, beautifully carved with the face of a woman.

Bill Taylor and Barnaby BrownThe launch was covered by many UK newspapers, TV and radio programmes. Since then interest in what is properly called Head 20, but most people now call the Musical Head, has gone global. Indeed, internet discussion has been quite active in recent months, especially in America. Ann Heymann has begun offering harp workshops in exploring the notation and its musical possibilities. Cynthia Cathcart wrote an article, published in the Bulletin of the Historical Harp Society (December 2009), which examined different interpretations as well as the symbolism, meaning and intent of the notation. At the Edinburgh International Harp Festival on 12th April I will present a workshop looking at the notation within the context of historical harp music from England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales. I also returned to the Chapel Royal in January to make a recording about the head for BBC Radio 3’s Early Music Show, which will be broadcast on 28th February at 1pm. Between visits to the castle I have performed two different interpretations of the notation on a Highland wire-strung clarsach, which would have been a familiar harp to anyone in 16th-century Scotland.

The sequence of markings on the head is fascinating. They are remarkably similar to those used by medieval harp players in Wales to indicate formulas for composing music. These symbols relate to contrasting sets of notes, which give moments of either tension or resolution. So, if they are musical notation they don’t present a specific tune or melody, there is no indication of rhythm or dynamics, and there are many interpretations for using this sequence to compose a piece of music.

Annoyingly, there is nothing on the roundel which supports the theory that the sequence is musical. The woman in the carving may be an allegorical figure, but she doesn’t hold any musical instruments, nor are there any scenes of music-making.

So, the head and the notation are hugely intriguing, and the media coverage has led to all sorts of ideas and questions – not all of it predictable. For example my harp playing was featured on the nationwide Good Morning America TV show, which flippantly likened the discovery to something from The Da Vinci Code. Afterwards I got a letter from a viewer, which I expected would have ask about either my harp or my interpretation, but no – his question was “where did you get your glasses?”. 

Bill Taylor

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