Expanded History of Musical Notation – Part 1

Musical notation is described as the art of expressing musical ideas in writing.

Musical notation is so familiar to us that few are aware of the difficulty of the problems which had to be solved, and the innumerable experiments undertaken for the invention and perfecting of a satisfactory method of recording musical sounds.

In early stages the transference of melody from composer to performer was made through the ear only; but as the art developed and increased in complexity the assistance of the eye became a necessity, for the memory could no longer retain the growing mass of new compositions.

Methods of expressing musical sounds in writing may be conveniently grouped under two heads:

  1. The Phonetic, in which words, letters, or numeral indicate the degrees of the scale, with the addition of signs to show time values and rhythm
  2. The Diastematic, or “Notation by intervals,” in which the rise and fall of melody is presented to the eye by the relative positions of certain signs, called Neumes, or Figures, or Notes.

Amongst the Phonetic notations are that of the Hindus, one of the oldest in use, consisting of five consonants and two vowels, representing the names of the scale degrees, while the addition of other vowels doubles the value of the notes (but the Hindus chiefly trust to memory for transmitting their music); the Chinese, who use characters derived from the names of the scale degrees, with signs for values; the ancient Greek system of letters and signs; that of the Arabs, who divide their octave into thirds of a tone, and write the scale in groups of three Arabic letters or Persian numerals, a survival of the Greek system; the tablatures, in which letters or figures represented the keys or fingering of instruments, rather than the scale degree; the tonic sol-fa, in which (as in that of the Hindus) letters represent the names of the scale degrees, and other signs show time values; and the Paris-Galin-Cheve, in which numerals are used for the scale degrees.

The Diastematic method, which implies a more advanced stage of musical cultivation, embraces the neumes of the Western Church, the notation of the Greek Church (a survival in a much altered form, of the neumes), the classical notation of Japan, the Mensural music of the Middle Ages, and the familiar notation of modern Europe.

It took mankind some time to become accustomed to the idea that musical sounds could be relatively ‘high’ and ‘low.’ The earliest Greek musicians named their scale degrees from the length of the strings on the trigon, or harp, so that their ‘highest’ sound was that given by the longest, or ‘highest’ string, and their ‘lowest’ sound that of the shortest, or ‘lowest’ string. The conception of high and low sounds, although familiar to musicians since about 300 B.C., is, after all, merely a convention, the value of which for musical purposes has caused its general adoption.

The Latin word Nota means a nod, or sign, hence the written sign which represents a particular musical sound. It is customary to speak of the keys of an instruments, and even of the sounds themselves, as ‘notes,’ but this is not, strictly speaking correct; and in some languages, German, for instance, the written sign, the key which it represents, and the sound, are generally kept distinct, the first being called Note, the second Taste, and the third Ton.

In early medieval times, and, in fact, as late as the 14th century, certain short legato passages were conceived of as units of sound, moving upwards or downwards, and hence were represented by a single sign, called figure, or nota composita or simply nota. ‘Pluras chordae sonant dum und nota profertur’ is an expression frequently met with; and the same idea is shown in a remark by Heubald, ‘qualiter ipse soni jungantur in unum, vel distinguantur ab invicnem,’ and another by Joh. De Garlandia, alique longa est quae circumflectet se versus acuitatem et gravitatem.’ Such ‘figures’ or ‘notes’ were called Ligatures, by the mensuralists.

The history of our notation begins with the neumes. The Greek system of notation by alphabetical letters seems to have gradually dropped out of use between 200 and 500 A. D. Boethius and Gaudentius, referring to it, say that the ‘ancients made use of little signs, called natulae, by which any melody could be noted down.’ Boethius knew of no contemporary means of writing music, and the so-called Boethian notation was in reality simply a means of referring to his diagrams of tetrachords by letters of the alphabet, having no connection with the musical scale.

It is probable that up to this time, or even later, the teachers sent out from the singing schools of Rome and Milan taught the melodies of the church by ear. But with its rapidly advancing development, church music began to feel the pressing need of preserving the purity of its melodies by some means of recording them in writing, and recourse was had to the methods used in rhetoric, in which the rise and fall of the speaking voice was regulated by certain rules, and indicated in writing by signs, called accents, i.e., ad cantus, ‘belonging to the (rhetorical) song.’ A rise of the speaker’s voice was indicated by an upward stroke of the pen from left to right, a fall by a downward stroke, and a rise and fall on a single syllable by the junction of the two signs, which thus formed the circumflex accent.

The rhetorical accents seem to have originated in Byzantium, and M. Gevaert supposes that they were first used in connection with the melodies of the church about 680 A.D. Their adoption was a natural outcome of the singing of the prose words of Scripture, from which metre was absent, and which only differed from rhetoric in that the rise and fall of the voice was regulated by the musical scale.

The melodies naturally required additions to the grave, acute, and circumflex accents: and by the 9th century an organized system of notation had arisen, under the name of neumes, from revpa, a ‘nod,’ or ‘sign.’ Each neume was given a name, and there were rules for the proper accentuation, crescendo, diminuendo, ritardando, etc. of the various groups of sounds. No time measurement was required, for the words were sung as they would be pronounced in clear reading, according to the rules of rhetoric.

The heavy monotonous modern method of singing plain song is the result of its alliance with measured music in the Middle Ages, when all its notes were forced into fixed slow measures, of equal time values, without rhythmical accent, in order that it might serve as the cantus firmus or tenor, upon which composers wove their florid contrapuntal parts.

Much has been written of late years concerning the rhythm of plain song, the importance of which is recognized by all, and efforts have been made to attribute long and short values to the various forms of its notes, but these are merely the modern forms of the neumes, and, as such, have no definite time values. The rhythm of of plain song is founded on the balance of sentences and accents in good prose, and has been conveniently called ‘free rhythm’ to distinguish it from the ‘measured’ rhythm of measured music, in which time is divided into portions bearing a definite relation to one and another.

The Anglican Chant gives an excellent example of both forms; the words on the ‘reciting note’ are sung in ‘free rhythm,’ that is, the rhythm of prose, and the inflexion is in the ‘measured rhythm’ of modern music.

The neumes were originally intended only to refresh the memory of those who had previously learned the melodies by ear in the singing schools’; they made no attempt to represent the actual intervals, and hence are in this respect untranslatable; their study is, however, very important, since they show the proper grouping and accentuation of the sounds. But the numerous photographic reproductions of ancient MSS published by the Benedictines of Solesmes, and other learned societies, have shown that the church melodies whose intervals are known through the square notation on a stave, are the same as those written in the early neumes of the 9th century, whose intervals can thus be known by comparing their notation with that of later times.

The figure below shows the elements out of which some of the more important neumes are derived, and the forms they have taken in different countries, and at various times. The table shows how carefully the unity of the individual neumes has been preserved in the Gothic and Square notation.


A comparison of numbers of photographic facsimiles reveals the fact that the groups of square and lozenge notes found in plain song MSS of the 13th century and onwards, are not merely haphazard ligatures, and arbitrary combinations, but the medieval forms of the neumes of earlier MSS, and the Benedictines, in their latest editions, have restored them their proper name of Neumes.

The Punctum appears at first as a dot, and afterwards takes the form of a lozenge, as shown in column 7; this shape is due to a short downward stroke of a broad-nibbed pen. When a knowledge of sight singing became part of the education of all priests and choirmen, a custom arose, which is still continued, for choirs and priests to sing from a singles large book, placed on a high reading desk, the words and music being written so boldly that they could be seen at a distance. The single Punctum then took the form shown in column 13, though it retained its lozenge shape in compound figures. It originally represented a low note.

The Virga, or nod, derived from the acute accent, gradually acquired a head, perhaps at first from the action of the pen in rapid writing; when the stave came into general use, the head of the Virga was enlarged, and placed on the line or space belonging to the scale degree it indicated. It represented a higher note than the Punctum.

The Clivis and Podatus are compound notes, the component parts of which are rarely found separated. In the square notation the Podatus is represented by two squares placed vertically, and connected by stem. These two neumes represented respectively, a higher, followed by a lower, and a lower followed by a higher note.

The Scandicus, and ascending passage, becomes vertical in the Sarum Gradual, but in most MSS. It retains its oblique position.

The Climacus, a descending group, the Torculus (i.e., twisted), a group of low, high, low, and its converse, the Porrectus, retain their structural principles throughout: the down stroke of the Porrectus becomes, in the square notation, a thick oblique line, representing two notes, the first higher than the second, while the third notes is in the form of a Virga, or Punctum, joined to the lower extremity of the oblique line. The construction of the reaming neumes can easily be understood by comparing them with those described, and their translation as given in the columns 11 to 15.

Space forbids us to give more than a passing reference to the accentuation, on which depend the rhythmical properties of the neumes. It must be understood that neumes, whether in the forms of columns 3 to 10, or 11 to 15, have in themselves no time values; any variation of time comes, not from the shape of the notes, but form the rules for the verbal and vocal phrasing, etc. The two simple neumes, the Virga and Punctum, take their time and their accent from the words to which they are allied; the compound neumes are, as a rule, to have their first note accented, i.e., the first note forms the theses, and the other notes the arsis; but to this there are many exceptions, which can only be learned from a treatise.

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5