Definitive, Usable, and Suitable: Medieval Dictation and Musical Copies

The practice of dictating texts in the Middle Ages is a multilayered art. In the first place it served as a way to combat a practical deficit. Scholar Istuan Hajnal expands on this:

“There can be no doubt that one of the essential reasons for the custom of dictation finds its explanation in the fact that, before the era of printing, schools and scholars had no adequate supply of texts. A manuscript book cost much; the simplest way of getting them was for the teacher to dictate the texts to his pupils.”

We do not have this deficit with music today. Abundance reigns, but there is a different deficit. We all start with an empty music library. As it grows, one still wants more. Yet for all of us there exists music that is beyond our grasp: costs too much, too rare, not worth the investment, or generally unavailable. We have to resort to performing a dictation between computers and ourselves. No buying of the CD, LP, or MP3 takes place. Only a copy.

Medieval dictation did not concern itself with the status of copying. “The method of dictation in medieval schools”, Hajnal writes, “had beyond doubt the goal of producing a definitive written text, usable on the spot, suitable to be read by anybody…”

This three-pronged purpose of the copy suits itself to our musical example.It would seem that, similarly, all we want from a copy taken from the Net is the definitive piece of music, usable on the spot, and suitable to be used in any occasion that may see fit (remixes, mixtapes, movies, etc.)

Though even still, we can cop out of a definitive version of a piece. Crappy audio quality exists in many copies strewn through the Net. These versions prove to be just the necessary amount of definitive though. Even if it is not album quality, we take the copy anyway. The usable and suitable quota checks out just fine.

Maybe each of these prongs has different thresholds for every person. Some might not care if the recording is suitable to sample for beats while others only care if it is usable to listen to right away. And then we can even go further to infer that every copy, be it from PirateBay or wherever, has these qualities.

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