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7 minutes reading time (1471 words)

Music notation: A brief look at its historical evolution

In early Medieval times, if one wanted to learn a song, one listened to someone sing it. ​It wasn't until the ninth century that monks began to experiment with various ways of notating music in written form, with the goal of helping people across a wide geographical area remember the many musical accoutrements of Roman Catholic religious services. As author Thomas Forrest Kelly notes in his interesting and beautiful new book Capturing Music, "musical notation as we use it today is essentially a product of the Middle Ages."1


The first attempts at notated musical memory aids were simply lyric sheets, without specific pitch indications, intended to serve as mnemonic devices for clerics who were already familiar with the music. In order to enhance the value of these lyric sheets, various notations—called neumes (derived from the Greek word neuma which means "a sign")—were subsequently added. These neumes indicated whether the corresponding melodic pitches rose or fell through notations consisting mainly of dots and slash marks, including undulating symbols that suggested musical wavering. These symbols, perhaps something akin in appearance to modern-day shorthand, indicated how many notes there were, what the melodic shape was, and various ornamental features. They did not, however, indicate what the specific pitches were or what the intervallic distance between pitches was. These neumes told the singer, who already knew the song, how to sing it, but not what the song was. One had to know the song in order for these notations to be of any value, as the neumes did not indicate how high up or down the pitches were to move. The next logical (and vital) step in the evolution of music notation was the creation of a notational system that would be specific enough to obviate the need for one to have had previous knowledge of a song in order to sing it.

Guido d'Arezzo

This new development was created by an eleventh-century Benedictine monk named Guido, from the Italian town of Arezzo; hence he is known as Guido d'Arezzo, or Guido of Arezzo. He devised what we now call the musical staff (consisting of four lines in his day) and placed the dots and slashes of the neumes on particular lines or spaces of the staff, assigning solfege names (re, mi, fa, etc.,) to each line or space. This specific pitch designation was seized upon by the clergymen of his time as the ideal solution to one's being able to learn a song without it having to have been heard beforehand, and it is the basis of the method of music reading still in use today. 

Regretfully, however, some of the subtleties and nuances of a song were not possible to achieve under this new system. In the aural tradition, one would have heard these nuances in the performance of a master practitioner and imitated them. It is interesting to note that church music from the Middle Ages has come to be known as plainsong. Are the words "plain song" not a reference to the absence of such subtlety and nuance, author Kelly rightly asks? 

In his system, Guido also assigned different colors to two of the staff lines: red and yellow to represent the notes F and C. Kelly writes: "Letters are given at the beginnings of these lines to serve as a key (or, in French, clef ). We still use letters as clefs, most often elaborate versions of the letters F (for the bass clef) and G (for the treble clef)."2

Guido derived the solfeggio names from the first syllable of each of the first six lines of the following seven line hymn verse:

UT—queant laxis

RE—sonare fibris

MI—ra gestorum

FA—muli tuorum

SOL—ve pollutes

LA—bii reatum

Sancte Iohannes was the seventh line of the hymn; it was not used by Guido.

This provided six different note names, with each successive pitch one note higher than the previous one. The note UT was later changed to DO, because that syllable is easier to sing.

The seventh solfeggio scale note, TI, was added later on. Apparently Guido didn't need that pitch, as he was able to adjust the pitch UT up and down in several different ways in order to achieve all the notes he required.

The successive solfeggio notes of Guido's scale evolved into the scale tones employed today, using the letters C, D, E, F, G, A, B.

Kelly writes:

The system of UT RE MI, of writing notes on a grid [staff], has remained with us for a thousand years. Combining the old with the new, it is and will continue to be the basis of music writing. The neumes already existed and nobody wanted to throw them out, but the regularization of the lines and spaces—the ability to write what somebody else can read—changed the practice of musical performance. It became possible to sing music you didn't know, and to compose new songs and write them down. Music had a bright future.3

Rhythmic notation: The long and short of it

A major weakness of Guido's notational system was the absence of indications regarding how long one should hold a note once it had been sung. Guido's system did not take this into account, but later it was to become the next crucial step in the evolutionary journey of musical notation. This was a most significant step that allowed for the precise coordination of several singers singing polyphonic music.

Why did polyphony come into existence? It was a way to enhance the liturgy, while at the same time permitting the traditional chant to exist in its pure form. This practice of weaving additional lines around a fixed melody became a premise of western musical tradition. There were two basic approaches to polyphony at that time. One was to sing the same melody as the original chant at another pitch. Another was to sing a completely different and independent melody at the same time. Needless to say, this latter approach demanded precise coordination achievable only through the designation of durational values of notes. Twelfth- and thirteenth-century composer/poet Master Leoninus and his successor composer/teacher Master Perotinus, both important officials of the Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris, France, created the first known musical compositions that indicated rhythm. They employed a kind of rhythmic notation that, at least by today's standards, seems primitive, but it did allow for the coordination of multiple parts.

Franco of Cologne

Roughly two centuries after Guido's specific-pitch achievement, Franco of Cologne, a mid-thirteenth century German music theorist, papal chaplain, and preceptor of the Knights Hospitaller of St. John of Jerusalem at Cologne, was responsible for the next major advance in the notation of music: the notation of durational values and the rest, the corresponding symbol representing musical silence. His breakthrough idea was to indicate various durational values by giving notes different shapes, so that one could tell how long to hold a note simply by what the note looked like. This is the way durational values are determined to this very day.

Phillipe de Vitry

One important later refinement of rhythmic notation, according to Kelly, was made by the early-fourteenth century French composer, poet, and music theorist Philippe de Vitry, who conceived of the idea of the subdivision of a note into two or three shorter notes. Several graphic examples of these are provided by Kelly in his book, including the song "Twinkle, twinkle, little star," in which the two shorter notes on the word "little" add up to the durational value of one long note on the word "star."

End notes

To hear, and derive a good sense of, polyphonic music of the Middle Ages, listen especially to recordings of the music of Leoninus, Perotinus, and my favorite fourteenth-century French composer/poet Guillaume de Machaut. Professor Kelly's book comes with a valuable CD of several examples of music from the Middle Ages, including music by these composers, as well as gorgeous photographs of pages of medieval music notation.

The closing paragraph of Kelly's book Capturing Music makes a fitting closing paragraph for this article:

...the fact that we can make signs in space that represent sounds in time is a wonderful thing. It was our medieval predecessors who devised, invented, polished, and refined the system that we still use in the West today. Many of its features would be familiar to a literate person of the twelfth century: it is a piece of durable technology that has presented us with a great legacy from the past, and it has given us the tools we need to preserve and create great art for the future. We owe these musicians a great debt.4

1 Kelly, T. (2015). Capturing music: The story of notation. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., p. 4.

2 Ibid., p. 64.

3 Ibid., p. 77.

4 Ibid., p. 208.

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