Brief History of Notation

System of Notation by Letters

The earliest system of Notation, attributed to Boethius, the Roman philosopher, seems to have been the placing of letters over the syllables, thus:

During the period of history dominated by Pope Gregory the Great, a change was made in this system by which capital letters, small letters and double letters were used, an improvement, since only the first seven letters of the alphabet were employed, thus:

This system seems to have been used chiefly for theoretic demonstration. These two methods indicated the pitch sufficiently, but not the duration of the sounds.


The next attempt was somewhat of a retrogression instead of an improvement. Signs called Neumes were placed over words. These signs consisted of points, lines, accents, hooks, curves, angles and a number of other characters placed more or less exactly over the syllables to which they were intended to be sung, in such manner as to show, relatively, by the distance above the text, how much the voice was to rise or fall. They did not indicate absolute pitch or duration. The number of characters in use, according to manuscripts still preserved, varied from seven to forty. In later forms they appear in the notation


used for the Plain Song melodies (Gregorian) which were recalled into general use by Pope Pius X, in 1904.

Parallel Lines

Another plan was to use a variable number of lines, writing the syllables in the spaces, thus:

This clumsy contrivance indicated relative pitch well enough, but not the key or the duration. The next step was to use lines which varied in number upon or between which the Neumes, which gradually changed to square notes, were written. The pitch was indicated by using a red line for F, and a yellow or green line for C. A further improvement was, to put the letters F or C and later G on one of the lines at the beginning; the modern clefs are simply modifications of these letters.

Characters to Indicate Duration

The honor of suggesting characters to indicate duration is usually attributed to Franco of Cologne, an ecclesiastic who lived in the latter part of the 12th century; but as in the case of Gregory and Guido, we must believe that his name simply stands as representative of a period. A system is rarely the work of one man, rather a development from the labor of many. Franco’s treatise on the subject marked an epoch. Up to the end of the 13th century the notes in use were the Longa, Brevis, and Semibrevis, as well as the Duplex Longa, or Maxima. The smaller values, the Minima, and the Semiminima first occur about 1300. About the middle of the

15th century white notes were introduced in place of certain of the black, the latter color being reserved only for the smaller note values. The signs underwent some change at this time. Maxima, Longa, Brevis, Semibrevis (our whole note), Minima (half note), Semiminima (quarter), Fusa (eighth), Simifusa (sixteenth).

The Beginnings of Harmony

Our information as to the beginning of Harmony is very vague and uncertain. As early as the Saxon times in England some rude kind of part singing, without written rules apparently, seems to have existed. The first intimations we have of any scientific attempts are Faburden or Falsobordone and Diaphony or Organum. Faburden consisted of singing a melody while another voice sang a drone accompaniment below it; thus:

Diaphony or Organum consisted of a succession of fourths or fifths and octaves, thus:

It has been denied by some authorities that such a barbarous manner of singing ever existed; but two considerations have been lost sight of, in making this denial: First, the fourth, fifth and octave were esteemed the only consonances. Secondly, the undisputed fact that as late as the time of Chaucer, if not later, what was called “discanting quatible” or “quinable” existed; this discanting was done as follows: The performer while singing a melody accompanied himself on the lute, playing the same melody a fourth or fifth above. It can hardly be doubted that a style of performance that was esteemed in the 15th, was perfectly satisfactory to the ears of the 10th century.


Another early attempt at harmonic effect was the singing of an extemporaneous part or parts with the melody, called Discanting. In course of time the Discant or Organum gradually crystallized into rules, and other intervals were accepted. Strangely enough, dissonances seem to have been admitted with great freedom, and thirds and especially sixths, were avoided. The only dissonance that was not allowed was the minor second.

The New Organum

In the 11th century, a method of combining sounds, called the New Organum, was developed. This kind of Organum admitted thirds and sixths. The following example will sufficiently illustrate this:

Measured Music

The next step in advance, and one that proved very important and far reaching in its results on the development of music, was the invention of a notation that indicated, although not very conveniently, the relative duration of sounds. This is became possible to express two or more parts in a permanent form. The plan of this first attempt at a notation by means of which relative duration of notes might be expressed was very complicated. Music written with these signs was called Measured Music (Cantus Mensurabilis).

The Record of Early Harmony

There are references to the manner of using voices in combination in the writings of several men associated with the Christian Church in its early days. Censorinus, who lived in the 3rd century, makes mention of a practice of using a melody in octaves accompanied by the fifth to the lower note of the octave, which is also the fourth to the upper. Cassiodorus, in the 6th century, mentions various ways of accompanying the chant with consecutive fourths and fifths. In a work called “Sentences About Music”, written by Bishop Isidore of Seville, who lived in the 7th century, we read that “harmony is a modulation of the voice, the concordance of many sounds and their agreement”. In the 9th century we meet with the names of several writers: Remi d’Auxerre who defines harmony as “a consonance of voices, and their union in one group”; Jean Scot Erigene who recognized that the succession of chords composed of octaves, fifths and fourths is a rational one; Odo or Otger, a churchman of the south of France, whose work was the first to mark an epoch in the development of the art of music. Also another monk, the Fleming Hucbald, who lived in the 10th century. They defined consonance and dissonance, and appear to have been the first to give rules for the construction of Diaphony. Hucbald says in his “Musica Enchiriadis”: “Certain dissimilar sounds sung together make an agreeable effect, and this mingling of voices is sweet to the ear.”

Their immediate successor, Guido, has been credited, unjustly, with being the inventor of nearly every improvement in the art up to his time. The old organum closed with his. The earliest writer who treats of the new organum is John Cotton, in the 11th century. He was the first to promulgate the rule that contrary motion is always to be preferred to similar or oblique. He says: “At least two singers are required in diaphony formed from different sounds. While one voice sings a melody, the other surrounds it with different tones, and at the end of the phrases the two voices unite at the unison or octave.” The fullest development of the new organum was attained in the works of Guy de Chalis, about the close of the 12th century. He gives examples in which we find intervals of the eleventh and twelfth, a demonstration of the existence of a system differing from the Gregorian, which does not exceed the octave. In the same epoch, Denis Lewts, of Liege, a Carthusian monk, gives rules to fix the use of accidental signs, a flat to lower B, a sharp to raise F. He speaks of these as if they had been in use for a long time, and indicated that the idea was to avoid the occurrence of the diminished fifth or the augmented fourth, known in harmony as the tritone. This process is called Musica Ficta, and formed a part of the instruction of singers. The examples cited by Lewts conform to this theory, and show that although in the songs, motets and other compositions of the period the sharps and flats are not found, it is because musicians knew the principles and made the application for themselves. Instruction in those days was chiefly oral, a method which placed a premium on a retentive memory. By the time that the 13th century was reached, musical forms and melodies were widely spread, and as we look back to the 9th century it is possible to note the gradual development. Harmony always existed, in a limited sense; but it did not take on a scientific development until the Middle Ages. It is to the musicians of this latter period, from the 13th century to the 15th century, that we must give the honor of having taken the germ of a science of harmony and of having brought it forward to mature development.

Related Topics