A plaine and easie introduction to practicall musicke. Thomas Morley

A plaine and easie introduction to practicall musicke : set downe in forme of a dialogue: diuided into three parts. The first teacheth to sing, with all things necessarie for the knowledge of pricktsong. The second treateth of descante, and to sing two parts in one vpon a plainsong or ground, with other things necessarie for a descanter. The third and last part entreateth of composition of three, foure, fiue or more parts, with many profitable rules to that effect. With new songs of, 2. 3. 4. and 5. parts / By Thomas Morley, Batcheler of Musicke, and one of the gent of her Maiesties Royall Chappell.

This modestly titled work is by the English composer Thomas Morley and was one of the foundational pieces of music practice and education for 200 years. It is still vital to the understanding and performance of Renaissance music and is one of the most famous musical treatises in the English language.

As with the more familiar work by Johann Joseph Fux (“Gradus ad Parnassum”) Morley’s “A plaine and easie …” endeavours to teach the mechanics of music within a traditional lecture style of master and student. The work is divided into three parts. The first addresses singing, the second descant (the practice of placing a melody above a moving bass), and the third deals with composition. Due to the necessities of space I will be focusing largely on the first section of this work. I would however strongly encourage anyone with even a passing interest in early music to visit the library and look at the significant music collection held at Lambeth Palace Library.

As an aside before we begin the work itself begins with a dedication to William Byrd [Birde] expressing the author’s admiration and debt to the musician and is well worth reproducing in full.



As stated above the work is set out as a classical dialogue between Philomathes and Master and begins as is common in this format with the introduction of the characters, apologies for the students’ lack of knowledge and their requests, or in this case demands, to be taught everything the master knows. The work can be placed within a more overarching cultural discussion as the ‘student’ abandons Stoicism for Pythagoreanism. This was a deliberate choice on the part of Morley. Whilst the dialogical form was popular on the continent, and in Italy specifically, it was rarely used in England. One of the suggested reasons for its use here is that Morley is aspiring to a Platonic dialogue, seeking as it were to impart not only musical but also moral and ethical instruction as well.[1] In an attempt to regulate musical activity, at least on a professional level, the English government had outlawed freelance musical activity completely, and made licensing dependent on employment in a noble house.[2] This led to a flurry of pamphlets on both sides, with Gosson’s “The Schoole of Abuse” and Stubs’ “The Anatomie of Abuses” being for licensing on the one side and Thomas Lodge’s “Protogenes can know Apelles” and Case’s “The Prase of Music” against these restrictions on the other. The latter was influential enough for Byrd to produce a six-voice madrigal setting of “A Gratification unto Master John Case, for his Learned Book”.[1] One of the outcomes of this was the attempt by ‘serious’ musicians to differentiate themselves from their ‘unlearned’ counterparts. This comes with the obvious class distinctions. It is into this conflict, one both intergenerational, class based, and acrimonious that Morley introduced this work. This argument is addressed in the opening of the work where the Master is surprised to learn of Philomathes’ desire to learn music. The prospective student was thought to be Stoic and against music (“he had been heard to speak against the art, as to tearme it a corrupter of good manners and an allurement to vice”), thereby opening the work with a fictional victory over his detractors.

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And so, we begin at the beginning. The author introduces the scales, their degrees, clefs, and the tuning of the notes (including the question of enharmonic equivalence). This is a particularly interesting section with regards to performance practice and how contemporaries thought music might be constructed. Morley was very much aware and involved in contemporary music practices and movements, not only having read Zarino and Zacconi but also being responsible for the popularisation of madrigals in England.[3] This is still a sound world very much defined by the modal system of music. This was the bedrock of musical knowledge taught by theorists from Spain to Germany. What is remarkable about Morley’s work therefore is the small space allotted to these. They are introduced in the third chapter and rather than explain what they are he simply gives examples of their use and moves on. He also places emphasis not only on which key the piece of music starts but also allows these keys to be joined together. For instance, he suggests going from G to its dominant or sub dominant and then back to the tonic.[4] This is one of the fundamental differences between English and Continental music practice. Looking at musical examples such a Tallis or Taverner one can clearly see that they are planned and structured differently to the compositions of Palestrina: with Tallis and Taverner, to put it simply, organising their melodies using a tonal structure and Palestrina still using a more strictly modal practice.

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One of the themes throughout the work is the insistence that not only should the student learn contemporary practices but should also be familiar with the historical styles that were no longer in fashion. This is especially useful to modern musicologists as he not only deals with them practically but also their theoretical underpinnings:

Surely what they know already I know not, but if they account the moodes, ligatures, pricks of devision and alteration, augmentation, diminution and proportions, things of no use, they may as well account the whole arte of musicke of no use, seeing that in the knowledge of them consisteth the whole or greatest part of the knowledge of pricksong. And although it be true that the proportions have not such use in musicke in that forme as they be nowe used, but that the practise may be perfect without them, yet seeing they have beene in common use with the musicians of former time, it is necessarie for us to know them, if we meane to make any profit of their works. But those men who think they know enough already, when (God knoweth) they can scarce sing their part with the wordes, be like unto those who having once superficiallie red the Tenors of Littleton or Justinians institutes, thinke that they have perfectlie learned the whole law, and then being injoyned to discusse a case, do at length perceive their own ignorance and beare the shame of their falsely conceaved opinions.[5]

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What results is one of the most reliable accounts of how to read mensural notation (the musical notation system used for European vocal polyphonic music from the later part of the 13th century until about 1600). The term “mensural” refers to the ability of this system to describe precisely measured rhythmic durations in terms of numerical proportions between note values. There are accounts of note forms; the derivation from the long to the breve, semi-breve and onwards, as well as how to interpret them in context (their values changing depending on location) and explanations on how to read ligatures (notes written together indicating melismatic singing over several notes). He even delves into the system of prolation (the relationship between the semibreve and the minim in mensural notation) and how it can be perfect or imperfect – i.e. one long divided into 3 breves into 3 semi-breves is “perfect/perfect”; one long into two breves into two semibreves was “imperfect/imperfect”. There could also be perfect/imperfect and vice versa. This, as one can see from the picture, our modern symbols have inaccurately referred to as common and compound time.

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The work also contains detailed descriptions of the most common forms of music at the time from motets to madrigals, including how they should be performed, what occasion or company they are suitable for, and what sort of mood the work should convey. It is here in other contemporary theorists that one would expect to see the treatment of modes.

Morley was himself a well-known composer publishing under Tallis and Byrd’s monopoly on printed music, even being hailed by Ravenscroft after his death as “he who did shine as the Sun in the Firmament of our Art”. The situation with regards to printed music at the time was a curious one. There was a well-established market for musical publications: however, much was imported from the continent due to the Royal Patents that operated – commonly from Holland but with growing markets in Italy and Germany. It was only with their lapse during the English Republic that the large-scale publication of printed music in England took off. Another notable feature of this work is that it uses a movable type for musical notation rather than the more common block engravings that one can find in other musical works. Whilst not being responsible for introducing this to England – it having been developed in Italy in the 1500s – he did interestingly enough introduce moveable type for lute tablature however.[6] Whilst its use was important in the dissemination of cheap part books to the public the increasingly florid styles were difficult to set in moveable type, resulting in manuscript editions continuing to be used for a number of years. One final point of interest is in the supplementary material in the back of the book. It is arranged with its performance by a small group of players in mind. Each part is arranged around the page to allow a group to arrange themselves around the table whilst still being able to read the music.

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[1] Mann, Joseph Arthur. “”Both Schollers And Practicioners”: The Pedagogy Of Ethical Scholarship And Music In Thomas Morley’s “Plaine And Easie Introduction To Practicall Musicke”.” Musica Disciplina 59 (2014): 53-92.

[2] Marsh, Christopher W. Music and Society in Early Modern England. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010, pp73-75.

[3] Stevenson, Robert. “Thomas Morley’s “Plaine and Easie” Introduction to the Modes.” Musica Disciplina 6 (1952): 177.

[4] Wienpahl, Robert W. “English Theorists and Evolving Tonality.” Music & Letters 36, no. 4 (1955): 377-93.

[5] Morley, Thomas. A Plain and Easy Introduction to Practical Music Set down in Form of a Dialogue, Divided into Three Parts, the First Teacheth to Sing, the Second Treateth of Descant, the Third Treateth of Composition, by Thomas Morley … As Printed in the Year 1597. London: Now Reprinted [by George Bigg] for William Randall Successor to the Late Mr. J. Walsh, 1771 183. Thomas Littleton wrote one of the first printed texts on English law, his Tenures (1482).

[6] Murray, Tessa. Thomas Morley : Elizabethan Music Publisher. Music in Britain, 1600-2000. 2014. pp82.

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