About Cantus Ultimus

Plainchant manuscripts are increasingly accessible online thanks to digitization projects world-wide.

Cantus Ultimus looks beyond mere digitization to imagine fully-searchable plainchant manuscripts. Open to all, Cantus Ultimus search tools will make it easier to discover, study, and interpret chant—for scholars, musicians, and the curious alike.

Cantus Ultimus builds on the digital infrastructure of the existing CANTUS database, one of the oldest and most important scholarly music databases in the world.

Combining the CANTUS database, digitized chant sources, and optical music recognition (OMR) will build CANTUS into Cantus Ultimus: a state-of-the-art research environment where both manuscript music and text are fully searchable.

In development, our manuscript browsing interface already enables searches by neume names, pitch names, and text within select prototype manuscripts.

View our manuscript browsing interface.

CANTUS database

The CANTUS database is a searchable digital archive of Latin plainchants. The database contains nearly 400,000 chant records from more than 130 manuscript and early print sources. Some records already include links to digitized manuscript images and many records include transcribed chant melodies that are searchable using the Melody Search tool.

The CANTUS database is a collaborative endeavour. Chant scholars world-wide collect and catalogue inventories of early liturgical chant manuscripts. Through the CANTUS database, these inventories become available to other scholars and the public.

Currently housed at the University of Waterloo under the direction of Debra Lacoste, the CANTUS database began in the late 1980s with Ruth Steiner at the Catholic University of America. Between 1998 and 2012 the database was housed at the University of Western Ontario under the direction of Terence Bailey.

Why Plainchant?

Plainchant is of great musical, cultural, and historic significance.

Plainchant melodies are among the oldest notated music in the world. Plainchant manuscripts, copied by hand throughout the Middle Ages and beyond, constitute some of the richest records of musical history.

A vital aspect of Christian liturgy and worship since the Middle Ages, plainchant melodies have influenced musicians and composers for just as long. From chant quotation in the motets of Guillaume de Machaut to the Dies irae in George Crumb's Black Angels for electric string quartet, plainchant is deeply embedded in Western musical culture.

Fully searchable, digitized plainchant manuscripts will open the plainchant heritage to scholars, musicians, composers, and the public in ways previously unimagined.

Optical Music Recognition (OMR)

OMR research began in the late 1960s and has since seen continual growth. Most OMR research concentrates on Common Western Notation, which developed in the mid-seventeenth century and continues to be used today. Much less research has been devoted to pre-seventeenth century notation systems, despite the hundreds of thousands of historically important music sources. Of the few published OMR studies on chant notation, many of the most recent originate from our research group.