The Music

The Four Misure

A quick look at the music that follows will show sections marked in different tempi -- bassadanza, quadernaria, saltarello, and piva. Sometimes this assignment is obvious from the time signature; other times the choreography drives the categorization. But what do those indications mean?

Put simply, there are four misure -- types of measure -- that are used in balli. Bassadanza is the slowest and piva the fastest. In this book they correspond to the following time signatures:

- Bassadanza: 6/4

- Quadernaria: 4/4

- Saltarello: 6/8 or occasionally 3/4

- Piva: 2/4 or 6/8

Domenico apparently felt quite strongly that the correct ratio among these misura was 6:5:4:3 -- that is, that a tempo of piva was half the length of a tempo of bassadanza. We have found, as did Domenico, that many musicians are not sufficiently comfortable with the misura to accomplish this. We believe that using the ratio of 6:4:3:2, which results in a semibrevis always having the same duration regardless of misura, is very helpful to musicians.(1) Further, there is considerable controversy about whether Domenico's ratios were meant to be taken literally or were indications of a more general style of playing.(2) The accompanying tape generally uses 6:4:3:2, but we have indicated misura rather than ratios or modern tempo settings to aid musicians and dancers who prefer to explore other interpretations.


The sources indicate several instruments used for the performance of balli. Most commonly mentioned is the combination of shawms and sackbuts, which would work well outdoors or in large rooms where the music needs to carry. A poem written in about 1454 lists the instruments used at a ball in Pergola: shawms, sackbuts, portative organs, and "sweet-sounding" strings: harps, lutes, viols, dulcimers, cithare, and a psaltery.(3) Perhaps Gaugelli's grouping of the strings together indicates that they all played together, while perhaps some of the other instruments played alone or only with others of their types. Certainly loud and soft instruments would not have played together, at least if the latter were to be more than visually decorative.

A. William Smith cites a poem that describes festivities from April 1459 and lists trombones and "pifferi" (sometimes translated as shawms) as providing the dance music.(4)

Ambrosio indicates that the instrumentation dictates the style of dancing; in his discussion of how to recognize a good dancer, he says that if the same ballo is played several times, once each by shawms, organs, lute, harp, drum with flutes, "or whatever instruments", the dance should vary accordingly.(5)

Shawms and sackbuts work well for loud situations when available; consorts of strings can produce a (contrasting) quiet, intimate sound. Groups of recorders and flutes (the instruments were not generally distinguished in writings of this period) should work well, and in fact we have tried to make the arrangements comfortable for recorder players because recorders are such common instruments. Percussion of various sorts would also appear to be appropriate. Finally, mixing these instruments, or even varying instrumentation within a piece, would not appear to be out of place, and we have done so for some of the music on the accompanying tape.

1. In some cases we have transcribed piva in 6/8 instead of 2/4; in those cases the notes must be played faster. All piva sections are labelled so that they can be distinguished from saltarello sections in 6/8.
2. Sparti, page 65 note 11.
3. Sparti, page 51, citing a poem by Gaugello Gaugelli.
4. Florence B.N.C. Magl. VII.1121.
5. PnA lines 1186-1214.