Tobias Robert Klein

Institute for Music and Media Studies, Humboldt University, Germany


Tones and characters: towards a comparative study of musical letter notation


In various cultures both letters and characters have been employed to notate and fixate musical tones and intervals. In some medieval manuscripts and treatises (e.g. the Musica Enchiriadis or, combined with neumes, the Antiphonary of St. Benigne) two types of letter symbols are thus employed and placed on a single page. While (alphabetical) letters, which are used to write liturgical texts are phonemes (i.e. they do not have an independent semantic function), letter symbols which indicate individual tones (defining the position of a tone within a specific tetrachord) serve as a musical equivalent to morphemes. With this presentation, observations on the letters’ emblematic and material appearance in the manuscripts, their spatial arrangement, interactive agency and logographic function allow for a transcultural comparison with the merits and limits of letter based notation systems outside of Europe.


Tobias Robert Klein has studied, researched and taught in Germany and Ghana, particularly at Humboldt University Berlin, where he read Musicology, African Studies, and Computer Science, and Otto von Guericke University Magdeburg. He was a Research Scholar at the Centre for Literary and Cultural Research in Berlin, an interdisciplinary research institution focusing on the interfaces between literature, humanities and scientific history and an Associate Member of the International Centre for African Music and Dance at the University of Ghana. His publications and current research interests are equally divided between the musical and literary cultures of Western Europe and West Africa. Currently he is a Privatdozent at Humboldt University’s Institute for Music and Media Studies (and from 2018) Senior Research Fellow in a joint German-Austrian-Swiss project on the history and materiality of musical notation.