When the snow finally melts away and the forest begins its eventual but cautious return to life, in our world the birds engage heartily with their work as the true heralds of Spring. We have an interesting relationship with the surprising variety of birds in our forest home in that they appear to return our appreciation of (most) of their songs by listening as closely to our music as we do to theirs. Before the age of Spotify and when we were still able to feed ourselves on our musician’s pittance, our bird feeder was always kept well stocked and was a popular spot for chickadees, finches golden and purple, song sparrows, titmice, downy woodpeckers, nuthatches, indigo buntings, rose-breasted grosbeaks, and many others. Our favorites were the thrushes, which kept their distance and only sang in the gentle early morning hours or mournfully just before twilight.
A few years back, we had a daily rehearsal routine that allowed us to face a tall cylindrical bird feeder just outside a window that offered a pleasant and inspiring view of the forest hillside. We were rehearsing our arrangement of a piece by Josquin des Prez (c.1450 – 1521) with a text that requires a flexible, plaintive, engaged and emotional delivery, but also demands complete control in order to maintain the strict canon between the singing part and the tenor line, with the lute playing all three lower parts. After finally having achieved the desired musical result, we glanced up to see the entire bird feeder—as well as the length of the window sill— lined wing-to-wing with one of the most attentive audiences we have ever had. And they were quietly listening to our music instead of their usual routine of chatter while voraciously tucking into the buffet of bird seed.
The piece we were playing was “Comment peult avoir joye,” a four-part chanson that was set by Josquin, probably circa 1480, but published in Petrucci’s Harmonice Musices Odhecaton, Canti B (1502). The tune is also known in German sources as “Wohlauf, Gesell, von hinnen,” and was the basis for two Mass settings by Heinrich Isaac (c.1450 – 1517), one in 4 parts and one in six 6 parts, in which the strict canonic imitation appears throughout. The piece is also found in Francesco Spinacino’s, Intabulatura de Lauto / Libro secondo (1507, f. 19v) as “Coment peult auoir Joye,” in which all four parts are arranged for solo lute, a challenging version that is very sensitively recorded by Jacob Heringman.
But the one of the more interesting related settings is the Missa Coment peult avoir joye attributed to Pierrequin de Therache, and mentioned in the archives of the Cathedral of Cambrai. This Mass also featured an abundance of strict canonic imitation, creating something of a challenge for the choir, as pointed out in the article by Craig Wright, “Performance Practices at the Cathedral of Cambrai 1475-1550″, The Musical Quarterly, Vol. 64, No. 3 (Jul., 1978), pp. 295-328. Wright cites the following archival document:
December 9, 1517. From the music books should be deleted the Mass written on the song Comment poeult avoir joye [and] it should no longer be sung in this church. [Doc. 3g]
Wright speculates that the Mass may have been withdrawn because of an increasingly intolerant attitude towards the use and incorporation of secular tunes as the basis for liturgical music. But 1517 was several years before the Councils of Trent (1545 – 1563), and there survive several wonderful Masses crafted by some of the finest 16th-century composers in the interim, using secular themes. Wright offers the alternative and very realistic suggestion that the piece was simply too difficult for the choirs to manage. It turns out that the choristers were not uniformly capable,
December 9, 1535. The vicars of the left side of the choir should be admonished to observe and be attentive to the harmony of the singers of the right side. [Doc. 2c]
Nor were they particularly well-behaved. Wright explains both the logistics and the antics:
Cambrai was divided in two equal parts and each half installed in either the right or left side of the choir of the church. An entry in the capitulary acts of February 4, 1473, shows that on only three days of the year did the singers come together to perform in the middle of the aisle: Maundy Thursday, Holy Saturday, and Pentecost…On all other days, they sang from either side, each half grouped around its own lectern, and performing from its own music book. A bizarre confirmation of the existing space between the two sides comes from an entry of September 9, 1493, that reprimands the lesser vicars for throwing meat and bones from one side of the choir to the other during the divine service (Doc. lb).
This is why we must keep a watchful eye on those lesser vicars in our choir lofts.
Our recording of Josquin’s “Comment peult avoir joye” for solo voice and lute is featured on our CD La Rota Fortuna: Chansons & lute solos in honor of Francesco Spinacino, fl. 1507. We invite you to listen and imagine what may have inspired the birds outside our window to still themselves and attend to the music of Josquin. Perhaps they were keen to learn a new tune.
Today’s post is intended to draw deserved attention to an article that raises several questions about the nature and origins of “traditional” music, in particular Irish traditional music. The article discusses some important aspects of licensing for public performance and copyright, a vexing problem for those restricted from participation in sharing what amounts to a cultural heritage. We don’t pretend to understand the complexities of the public performance licensing question in Ireland and the UK, but find ourselves in sympathy with the idea of a common ownership of music in the public domain.
The article is “Playing, paying and preying: cultural clash and paradox in the traditional music commonage,” by Fintan Vallely, published in Community Development Journal, (2014) 49 (suppl 1): i53-i67.
Vallely defines and describes traditional music and states his purpose:
“This essay uses aspects of the music’s practices to show that traditional music is by evolution an artistic and cultural commons, a factor which has driven the impetus of its 1950s-on revival and (ultimately) has underpinned State recognition in both the arts and education. The idea of such a ‘ commons’ has, however, been challenged in the later twentieth century by the pressure to have all forms of music licensed for performance in public spaces as well as for public broadcast. The morality—if not the legality—of such with regard to the traditional is questioned, not just because it has been enforced via State support, but because it amounts to an annexation of sites of performance of traditional music by the commerce of copyright.”
Just as we have discovered researching the origins of many American “traditional” songs and tunes, Vallely points out that a significant amount of the music entered the tradition long ago through antique published versions, were memorized from sheet music and passed on by ear:
“Some of the music classified as ‘traditional’ can actually be found in print not only in older Irish collections of tunes with no composer noted, but also in tune-books accredited to particular Scottish composers such as Neil Gow. Indeed it is clear from Irish collections that a significant amount of music that had been ‘collected’ in the field passed back into oral/aural tradition and transmission and was then re-collected by subsequent collectors.”
Amusingly related, the idea of Morris dancing and English “country dancing” in general was cultivated and perpetuated by a wealthy class of urbanites, as pointed out in one our previous posts quoting from articles by John Ward.
“Aside from the traditional morris tune, the “Bacca Pipes,” and “The Buffoon,” the rest of the morris repertoire dates from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, most if not all of it taken from the popular music of the city, especially the country dance, which, despite its name, was an urban product.”
– From “The Morris Tune” John M. Ward, Journal of the American Musicological Society, Vol. 39, No. 2 (Summer, 1986), p. 320
Vallely finds that much of the same class-crossover is true of traditional Irish music.
“The true commonage of old Irish music seems more likely to have always been the intellectual property of a range of classes. Evidence from the eighteenth through to the twenty-first centuries shows that the music was created, cared for and contributed to by those who had need or occasion to perform it and/or to participate in it…and/or had the necessary interest or passion, leisure time and intellectual training to productively pursue it.”
“Each social group’s music-savvy people had access to, and occasions to hear at least the spill-over of the music of the other. Based on the orally passed-on dance music – the popular music of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries – the more common music had many characteristics of, and contained melodies or themes found also in, the more ‘court’ or ‘art’ music…”
Vallely goes on to address the opportunistic copyrighting of traditional tunes for the sake of royalties and licensing fees for broadcast or public performance. Again, we are removed from these issues but are a bit sensitive to the pillaging of the common property of traditional music and the restrictions placed on public performance, particularly by musicians who are accustomed to freely sharing a tune and a pint in a public house. And raspberries to the class of people today who would encourage the State to hold out their grasping hand and engage in such shenanigans.
Let’s not mince words: Early music bears NO ancestral relationship to what today’s historians and hype-merchants market as “classical” music.
Early music was always functional music of some sort, whether composed for devotional or liturgical purposes, social dancing, entertainment for wealthy patrons, as a domestic pastime, as a theoretical exercise, or as the common indulgence in the craft of converting clever poetry into song. Most music from as late as the mid-16th century survives only in handwritten manuscript form. Naturally, when the printing press and moveable type made published music available to a larger audience, the printed music was costly and only available to the very wealthy elite. Astute composers and ambitious publishers began to take advantage of the potential for financial gain through sales to the nobility and the nouveau riche. But composers invariably sold their rights to the publishers for a pittance and made very little from the sale of the always relatively small print runs of their music. And, when reading through the the prefaces and deferential dedicatory remarks, nearly all our composers mention that the music was written during idle hours and only meant for private consumption.
What we know as “Classical” music was always composed with marketing in mind. From the 18th century onward, church music became something quite grand, and both Protestant services and the Catholic Mass were celebrated with rather large orchestras and choruses, with obbligato instrumentation and including motets with highly ornamented vocal passaggi. In the world of secular entertainment, large-scale theatrical productions and public concerts were produced on a regular basis in hopes of financial success in the form of ticket sales. Even in the realm of domestic chamber music, etudes, sonatas, and small-scale instrumental ensemble works were composed, published and blatantly distributed widely for financial remuneration.
Even though what we have come to call classical music was originally created by primarily young and mostly starving composers, at least in the US, today’s classical audiences are not exactly drawn from the ranks of what you might call the working class. Audiences for classical music pride themselves on participating in an art form that caters to an elitist upper class.
“Why shouldn’t we be elitist…Classical musicians represent some of the finest talent on Earth. They spend a lifetime working tirelessly to perfect their craft. We should celebrate that phenomenon, making classical events a special, elite experience.”
– Norman Lebrecht, from Reframing the Classical Music Experience, keynote address at the Dutch Classical Music Meeting, Oct. 2011
Despite the fact that many early music performers, including Frans Brüggen, began their careers deliberately thumbing their noses at the entrenched world of classical music, today’s early music promoters have somehow morphed their PR materials to emulate their once maligned models, opting to target the same old white elite upper class audience, resulting in a depiction of early music as low-calorie classical music that is really something better than it sounds.
As for attracting young working-class audiences with less disposable income, generic classical music has become a weapon of class disruption, with recordings of Mozart’s greatest hits blasted loudly in public spaces in order to discourage loitering youth:
Classical music has thus been seized upon by Transport for London and a host of other business and government leaders, not as a positive moralising force, but rather as a marker of space: a kind of “aural fence” or sonic wall, signalling “inclusion to some and exclusion to others” through its culturally conditioned associations: white, old, rich, elite.
This amounts to an orchestrated campaign of what French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu termed “symbolic violence”: the use of cultural forms by the powerful to at once assert and legitimise their domination. As one commentator notes, the dangerous message this sends to young people is: “1: You are scum; 2: Classical music is not a wonder of the human world, it is a repellent against anti-social behaviour”.
from – Theo Kindynis, “Weaponising Classical Music: waging class-warfare beneath our cities’ streets,” Ceasefire, Saturday September 29, 2012
When early music experienced a 20th-century renaissance, it was revived by curious historians and creative composers who saw something of interest in older music, which was nearly always considered to be a mere precursor of the later monumental works, or perhaps a source of inspiration for something new and more elaborately developed. Musicians who embraced the early music revival were, for instance, conservatory-trained violinists who did not possess the chops to play the Tchaikovsky concerto (see introductory remarks by Ernst Meyer, in Early English Chamber Music, 2nd rev. edn. ed. Diana Poulton), but they approached the music as a simpler, undeveloped subset of classical music.
The fact remains that, in functional terms, early music bears a closer ancestral lineage to 20th-century popular music by Gershwin, Kern, Straythorn – much of it conceived as either good musical settings of poetry or as functional dance music – than it does with Mendelssohn or Mahler. Early music is more akin to the music of top singer-songwriters like Joni Mitchell, John Lennon, or instrumentalists like George Van Eps, than to the aural assaults composed by Wagner, or the dripping, vibrato-laden romantic music favored by some of our more famous violinists. And how many of our more prominent lutenists who started on classical guitar play with a plodding technical precision, replete with Segovia-like gestures, rather than placing emphasis on shaping the lines like the vocal polyphony that inspired much of the best lute music?
Classical music seems to have annexed early music as a sub-category, or rather ingested the genre like a whale tucking into so much plankton; or the way Home Depot took over the local hardware shops where one might find something unique on the shelf rather than packaged in shrink-wrap. Or the way Walmart displaced the local grocery where one could chat with the grocer and buy three slices of a different type of cheese.
Conservatories with early music programs are missing the point by teaching using the same format and structure as classical repertory. Historically appropriate early music courses should teach improvisation, transposition and playing and singing by ear with a natural voice:
“For from a feigned Voice can come no noble manner of singing; which only proceeds from a natural Voice…”
– attributed to Nicholas Lanier, An Introduction to the Skill of Musick, by John Playford, London, 1674.
Early music courses should embrace the traditions from which the music originally evolved, not through the conventional coursework of the conservatory. And if early music is to survive as a genre worth preserving, it will be because it has inspired musicians young and old who empathize with the oral-aural tradition. It will be because of the music’s honesty, its intimacy and its directness, and not because it is marketed towards the deep pockets of ageing elitist classical music audiences indulging in a low-brow lark.
We often lose ourselves in imponderables such as: Did the people in ancient times realize that they were counting the years backwards up until the birth of Christ? Or do people today realize that money is merely paper that governments just print and allow to be distributed when and to whom they please? Or more likely today money is imaginary digits that occasionally pop up on screen displays, with more zeros added after the digits on screens of those who are more driven and less empathetic.
Today, we wonder what is a “Fantasia”? In more modern terms, we know it is the title of a once slightly popular animated film. But in the realm of historical music, the definition is typically derived from the words of Thomas Morley:
The most principal and chiefest kind of music…is the Fancy [fantasia], that is when a musician taketh a point at his pleasure and wresteth and turneth it as he list, making either much or little of it…In this may more art be shewn than in any other music because the composer is tied to nothing, but that he may add, diminish, and alter at his pleasure. And this kind may bear any allowances whatsoever tolerable in other music except changing the air and leaving the key, which in Fancy may never be suffered. Other things you may use at your pleasure, as bindings with discords, quick motions, slow motions, proportions, and what you list. Likewise this kind of music is, with them who practise instruments of parts, in greatest use. . .
– Thomas Morley A Plain and Easie Introduction to Practicall Music, 1597
It turns out that in earlier times, the term described something more akin to a psychological condition. In Physionomia (1442), a treatise on human physiognomy, written by Michele Savonarola, court physician of Marquis Leonello d’Este, and grandfather of the infamous Girolamo Savonarola, the term pops us in this quote:
“For those who excel in some art appear to have a quality of melancholy, in that such persons are said by ordinary people to lack prudence to some degree. For like melancholics they are fixed in their opinions; they are neither softened by entreaties to exercising the activities of their art, as we frequently see happen with singers and those experienced on lutes [or other plucked string instruments], nor do they carry such activities to a conclusion unless moved by their own fantasia. And ordinary people call such persons bizari, and say that no one can be an excellent artist unless he suffers to some extent from bizaria; from this flaw of bizaria the excellent physician must be altogether free. “
– Michele Savonarola, as quoted in Rob C. Wegman, “And Josquin Laughed…” Josquin and the Composer’s Anecdote in the Sixteenth Century,” The Journal of Musicology,Vol. 17, No. 3 (Summer, 1999), pp. 319-357
From the same article by Wegman, he describes that the term Fantasia as:
“…one of the “inner senses” identified in medieval psychology–others being common sense, imagination, instinct, and memory. Like the latter, fantasia was thought to have a discrete location in the brain, in one of the so-called chambers or ventricles. By this faculty, humans were able to create new images and ideas from forms stored in the memory or in the imagination. In addition, fantasia denoted any thought or image produced by this faculty, including artistic ideas or designs, but also dreams, delusions, and hallucinations…The word fantasia as a conventional designation for a musical genre (usually keyboard or lute pieces in improvisatory style) is not attested before the beginning of the sixteenth century.”
– Wegman, p. 347
Wegman goes on to describe what was probably one of Josquin’s earliest compositions, a three-part instrumental piece called “Ile fantazies de Joskin,” dedicated to Isabella d’Este and presumably dating from the 1480’s. Wegman describes the piece as “the first known composition in history to be identified in terms of the concept of fantasia.”
Lewis Lockwood, in Music in Renaissance Ferrara, 1400-1505 (Oxford University Press, 1984; revised reprint Oxford University Press, 2008), speculates that the piece may not have been composed by Josquin, but rather a “non-canonic” string of points that may have been drawn from other compositions by Josquin. But the scant number of points in the compact piece appear in strict imitation.
For our readers in the lute world, we offer an intabulation of the piece. Due to technical problems, we can’t post it here but you can contact us through our contact form at the header of this blog, and we will send a pdf copy.
ARRANGEMENT OF VOCAL POLYPHONY FOR SOLO VOICE AND LUTE IS NOT A MODERN DEVICE, BUT THE RESTORATION OF A LOST ART THAT WAS IN COMMON PRACTICE DURING THE 16TH CENTURY.
Our energies have of late been diverted from our usual routine, offering us the rare opportunity to pause and take a retrospective look at the sum total of our work over the past 11 years. Despite the fact that we are entirely independent artists who do not engage the services of hype-merchants, and we have very little interest in the antics involved in aggressive self-promotion, we take delight in noticing the way different listeners with very diverse backgrounds and tastes discover our recorded music. We receive appreciative correspondence from notable figures in the world of early music and also from many kind listeners who didn’t know the genre of early music existed.
Our usual routine involves reading through many thousands of neglected works of 16th-century vocal polyphony – sacred and secular – in order to find musical settings that are particularly susceptible to arrangement for solo voice and lute. In secular music, we pay very particular attention to texts from the pens of the best poets.
Without music, poetry is almost graceless, just as music without the melody of verses is inanimate and lifeless.
– Pierre de Ronsard (1524 – 1585)
And, as is the case with every aspect of our music, our choice of repertory is no accident. Particularly when sifting through secular music, we deliberately select pieces that may appeal to a diverse audience because of its attractive melodic characteristics and its appealing harmonic interest. This is a deliberate choice we make with the objective of reaching new converts to early music, those who may be otherwise put off by the anachronistic 19th-century vocal production, either a detached or an overly-mannered extrovert delivery, and the inappropriately precious Victorian diction one hears far too often in performing what was, in its day, considered conversational popular music.
And not popular “lounge” music, nor music that was meant to be heard in a concert hall with row upon row of listless listeners attempting to be polite. Or not polite, as was the case recently when we sat next to a woman, mature in years, who refused to turn off her cell phone, and was constantly texting throughout a concert during which the performers successfully turned a program of beautiful baroque cantatas into a ludicrous vaudeville routine.
Apart from sacred polyphony that was deliberately composed for large forces, and festive music such as the Intermedii, almost all of the music we perform with solo voice and lute was meant for domestic use – music to be played and poetry to be sung for a small number of people in small rooms.
For he…that hearing the sweet accord of instruments or the sweetness of the natural voice feels no joy and no agitation and is not thrilled from head to foot, as being delightfully rapt and somehow carried out of himself – ’tis the sign of one whose soul is tortuous, vicious, and depraved…
– Pierre de Ronsard
We have happily been experiencing a growing interest in our 2009 recording of 16th-century French music, Au pres de vous, despite our usual routine of nearly zero promotion. When we released the recording, we deliberately listed it among modern pop and singer-songwriter offerings, rather than in the early music listings. This is may seem like ineffective marketing, but we see it as effective outreach – and it seems to be working.
Today, we draw your attention to two songs from our recording Au pres de vous that seem to speak across the centuries with an appealing melodic cantus that floats above an intricate web of polyphonic accompaniment on the lute. The first is “Toutes les nuictz” by Clément Janequin (c.1485 – 1558), and the second is a setting of “Pour un plaisir que si peu dure” by Thomas Crecquillon (c.1505 – 1557), one of three settings of the same text included on our recording.
If you believe the engaging sound of the natural voice and the gentle and rhythmically supple accompanying polyphony played on the lute is in any way anachronistic, we beg to differ – and our interpretive approach is reinforced by 16th-century sources. As we published in a recent posting:
“The truth is we invented the early music vocal sound based on what we wanted it to be like, and on the voices of a small number of singers with particular talents. The small-scale, refined, straight, disciplined early music singing that we were used to came out of nowhere..Even when singers began to look at pedagogical sources and so on, they (we) chose to ignore those bits that didn’t fit the model we had in our heads.”
– Richard Wistreich and John Potter, “Singing early music: a conversation,” Early Music, Vol. XLI, No. 1, February 2013
With rumors of Spring in the air and the promise of slightly less ice on the walkways, we stop and take stock of some of the more positive forces of nature that inspire us to continue plugging away in the music racket. A particularly musical force of nature who continues to provide inspiration is one Rob MacKillop.
There was a time when skilled, talented and flexible musicians could easily find outlets for their music that actually paid well enough. Today, it is very difficult for independent musicians to make ends meet without adding a host of other skills to their repertoire. Rob MacKillop, the hardest working man in the plucked string racket, seems to have gleefully embraced the challenge and managed to use all the resources of the internet to get his music out, reaching out to other musicians, students, and listeners around the world. Rob MacKillop is also a talented photographer with a knack for old-fashioned black and white compositions such as this lovely example.
As a teacher and sharer of repertory for several different instruments, we could spend the entire day listing his contributions and accomplishments. Rob keeps Mel Bay’s printing press busy – we easily located 24 titles for ukulele and banjo alone. As a guitarist, he has performed and published several examples of Scots music but he also chooses to play some of the finer examples of modern “classical” guitar rep, such as this lovely waltz by Antonio Lauro. Rob convinced me (RA) of his great good taste when I stumbled across his project to make videos of studies and example pieces from an old guitar tutor, the same book I use for teaching, published by my guitar hero, George Van Eps.
On more than one occasion, we have begun our day listening to Rob’s playing; lute, guitar, banjo, or some other unusual instrument like the Harp Lute, an instrument he had on loan for only a few days and on which he learned to play lovely music in no time at all. Yesterday, we were treated to Rob’s performance of a French courante from the Panmure 5 manuscript, wonderfully played on an instrument by Bill Samson. The performance brought to mind the following quote from another manuscript source roughly contemporary with Panmure:
One must then sit upright in playing to show no constraint or pains, to have a smiling countenance, that the company may not think you play unwillingly, and [to] show that you animate the lute as well as the lute does animate you.
When you begin to play something well, you must alter your way of striking and flatter (as we speak) the lute-that is to strike it sometimes gently. For as the lute is a kind of language, you must imitate the orators,who now raise their voice and then abate it; now they get asleep the hearer, and now they awaken him; now they charm him and now they amaze him…
– from “Miss Mary Burwell’s Instruction Book for the Lute,” as edited by Thurston Dart, The Galpin Society Journal, Vol. 11 (May, 1958), pp. 3-62
Since the video was posted on a certain social media outlet that one of us refuses to acknowledge and is not otherwise available, we are not able to share it here. But suffice it to say that Rob’s performance is among the most musical examples of lute-playing we have heard to date. Wonderfully phrased, sensitively balanced, and gracefully delivered, Rob seems to indulge in the musical experience with as much pleasure and delight as we derived in the listening.
Rob MacKillop’s playing is the definition of musicality, and we return his words in the same spirit – lang may your lum reek!
As we notice the infiltration of electronic devices into every dimension of our lives, we also notice how dependence on one’s phone seems to have resulted in complete erasure from memory the recollection of phone numbers. All it takes is the loss of your phone, the crash of your hard drive, loss of an internet connection, to bring modern life to a screeching halt. We all seem to be supremely confident that all will be restored very soon and we can resume life as normal. But is this a realistic assumption, especially in view of so many examples of efforts to rewrite history?
“The past, he reflected, had not merely been altered, it had been actually destroyed. For how could you establish even the most obvious fact when there existed no record outside your own memory?”
– George Orwell (Eric Arthur Blair, 1903 – 1950), Nineteen Eighty-Four, Part 1 Chapter 3 (1949)
There are far too many political reasons to rewrite the past to gain control of the present and future, such as recent destruction of important traces of past civilizations.
“It’s a crime against Assyria, against Iraq, and against humanity. Destroy the past, and you control the future. The Nazis knew this, and the Khmer Rouge – and the Islamic State clearly understand it too.”
If you spend most of your time buried in old music with the goal of recreating sounds from the past, it is almost essential to work from printed paper scores with pencil in hand to clarify ambiguities, correct original written or printing errors, and scrawl interpretive ideas and notes to self. We now hear of musicians reading from electronic score pads on music stands, and this seems wrong. What if some evil hacker in the audience decided to add wrong notes to the electronic scores, and an elegant string quartet by Mozart suddenly morphed into nightmarish notes of Bartok?
We have remarked on this theme in the past. Aside from this weekly bit of tapping on the laptop, which oftentimes includes links to information we cannot verify as the accurate truth, we read books printed on paper—and we prefer to play from paper scores.
This interesting article suggests that people who read and handle books printed on paper actually absorb and retain information more effectively.
Some of the earliest forms of writing, such as Sumerian cuneiform, began as characters shaped like the objects they represented—a person’s head, an ear of barley, a fish. Some researchers see traces of these origins in modern alphabets: C as crescent moon, S as snake. Especially intricate characters—such as Chinese hanzi and Japanese kanji—activate motor regions in the brain involved in forming those characters on paper: The brain literally goes through the motions of writing when reading, even if the hands are empty. Researchers recently discovered that the same thing happens in a milder way when some people read cursive.
In most cases, paper books have more obvious topography than onscreen text. An open paperback presents a reader with two clearly defined domains—the left and right pages—and a total of eight corners with which to orient oneself…Turning the pages of a paper book is like leaving one footprint after another on the trail—there’s a rhythm to it and a visible record of how far one has traveled. All these features not only make text in a paper book easily navigable, they also make it easier to form a coherent mental map of the text.
At least a few studies suggest that by limiting the way people navigate texts, screens impair comprehension. In a study published in January 2013 Anne Mangen of the University of Stavanger in Norway and her colleagues asked 72 10th-grade students of similar reading ability to study one narrative and one expository text, each about 1,500 words in length. Half the students read the texts on paper and half read them in pdf files on computers with 15-inch liquid-crystal display (LCD) monitors. Afterward, students completed reading-comprehension tests consisting of multiple-choice and short-answer questions, during which they had access to the texts. Students who read the texts on computers performed a little worse than students who read on paper.
When reading on screens, people seem less inclined to engage in what psychologists call metacognitive learning regulation—strategies such as setting specific goals, rereading difficult sections and checking how much one has understood along the way. In a 2011 experiment at the Technion–Israel Institute of Technology, college students took multiple-choice exams about expository texts either on computers or on paper. Researchers limited half the volunteers to a meager seven minutes of study time; the other half could review the text for as long as they liked. When under pressure to read quickly, students using computers and paper performed equally well. When managing their own study time, however, volunteers using paper scored about 10 percentage points higher. Presumably, students using paper approached the exam with a more studious frame of mind than their screen-reading peers, and more effectively directed their attention and working memory.
– Ferris Jabr, “The Reading Brain in the Digital Age: The Science of Paper versus Screens,” Scientific American, Thursday, April 11, 2013