London  - The earliest known piece of polyphonic music - a piece of choral music written for more than one part - has be uncovered at the British Library.

It is thought that the simple score, that is is dedicated to Boniface, patron Saint of Germany, was written around the year 900. The piece was discovered by Giovanni Varelli, a PhD student from St John’s College, University of Cambridge, while he was working on an internship. The chant was written using an early form of notation that predates the invention of the stave and  was inked into the space at the end of a manuscript of the Life of Bishop Maternianus of Reims.

Student Varelli specialises in early musical notation, and realised that it consisted of two vocal parts, each complementing the other. Polyphony defined most European music up until the 20th century, but it is not clear exactly when it emerged.

Treatises which lay out the theoretical basis for music with two independent vocal parts survive from the early Middle Ages, but until now the earliest known examples of a practical piece written specifically for more than one voice came from a collection known as The Winchester Troper, which dates back to the year 1000.

This suggests that even at this early stage, composers were experimenting with form and breaking the rules of polyphony at the same time as they were being written.

‘What’s interesting here is that we are looking at the birth of polyphonic music and we are not seeing what we expected,’ Varelli said.

‘Typically, polyphonic music is seen as having developed from a set of fixed rules and almost mechanical practice.

‘This changes how we understand that development precisely because whoever wrote it was breaking those rules. ‘It shows that music at this time was in a state of flux and development, the conventions were less rules to be followed, than a starting point from which one might explore new compositional paths.’