Expanded History of Musical Notation – Part 2

The time of the several notes of the compound neumes is that of the syllables of the text; but here again the exceptions are numerous.

Certain ornaments must be mentioned, viz., the Quilisma, written thus in the Solesmes version, notation1 a kind of mordent, generally occurring on the lower note of an ascending minor third: the Strophicus (Apostropha, Distropha, Tristropha), representing a sustained sound, sung with a vibrato effect notation2.

The Pressus, a junction of two neumes by means of a common note, producing an effect of the nature of syncopation; and the Liquescents, or Seminotes, represented in the Solesmes version. They seem to have indicated a kind of mezza voce sound on the liquescent letters L, M, N, R, and became the Plica of the Mensuralists.

A complete system of signs of expression is found in many MSS. Under the name of Romanian Letters, from its supposed inventor Romanus, a monk of St. Gall. The most notable example of the system is an Antiphonary, in the library at Einsiedeln (codex 121), which is known to have been written before 996 A.D. The signs refer to Intonation, Rhythm, and Intensity; the following are a few examples:

  • Intonation
    • a, ut altius elevetur admonet
    • l, levare neumam
    • d, ut deprimatur
    • Rhythm
      • c, celeriter
      • t, tenere
      • x, expectare
      • m, moderari

(x and m (ritardando)

  • Intensity
    • f, frangore
    • k, clange clamitat

Any of these signs could be modified by the addition of the letters

  • b, bene
  • v, valde
  • m, mediocriter

It will be seen from the foregoing description of the Neumatic notation, and its development into square and lozenge forms, that it had nothing in common with measured music, except the shapes of the notes, which the Mensuralists borrowed from it. The invention of the organum in the beginning of the 9th century made it necessary to find some method of fixing the intervals and the time relations of the notes. It is almost pathetic to contemplate the tentative efforts of those who were feeling in the dark after a means of writing the new kind of music. The first problem was to fix a convenient nomenclature for the degrees of the scale, hitherto known by their unwieldy Greek names. The monochord, the instrument sued for teaching, was marked with the letters of the alphabet, but apparently without system, each teacher marking it as he liked.

Experiments were made, at first without success, of adapting the letters of the monochord to the neumes. Notker Balbulus (d 912) suggests the following nomenclature, showing that the importance of the modern major mode was already beginning to be recognized, and that the octave had taken the place of the tetrachord as the basis of the scale.


This nomenclature, which is also found in other treatises, seems to have been applied to instruments, rather than voices.

Two 11th century treatises – Musica Enchiriadis by pseudo Hucbald, and Opuscula Musica by Hermannus Contractus – describe the Dasia-notation, in which the ancient sign for the aspirate, with certain additional features attached, is used to indicate the first, second, and fourth notes of each tetrachord, the third being shown by other signs.

The ancient form of the aspirate, continued in use as an alphabetical letter until the 12th century of our era, and was therefore familiar to the musicians of the 11th century; it was also the ancient instrumental note corresponding to Lichanos Hypaton, which became the final (D) of the first mode.

The various additions to the aspirate sign used in the Dasia-notation make it appear something like the letter F in various shapes; and it was used in different positions for the different notes, in accordance with Greek precedent. This notation represented eighteen notes; its signs were as follows:


For the sake of beginners it was used in combination with horizontal lines, and the letters T, S (tone, semitone), the words of the cantus being written between the lines. This is probably the earliest attempt to invent a Diastematic notation in which the intervals were indicated with absolute precision.


The theorists, however, failed to see what an immense advance they had accidentally made, and when the student had become familiar with the signs of the Dasia-notation he was expected to be able to use them without the lines. They were then placed over the words, and must have been even more troublesome to read than Odo’s system described below.

Adelbold, a contemporary writer, being influenced by the Katapyknosis of Greek music, proposes to use the whole alphabet, to represent the three genera, with large capitals for ‘fixed,’ and small ones for ‘movable’ sounds. The diatonic genus works out by his system as follows:


An anonymous writer calls Proslambanomenos A, goes up the scale as far as our G in Latin capitals, uses the round and square b for our flat and natural, shows the second and third octaves by small Latin and Greek letters respectively, and the G below Proslambanomenos by a capital Gamma. Odo of Clugny, the inventor of the Guidonian system (vid, infra), made an attempt to combine the alphabet with the neumes, after the manner of the Montpellier Antiphonary, where letters from a to k are placed below the neumes: but his suggestion seems to have been soon given up. In the middle of the 11th century Hermannus Contractus invented a system of indicating intervals thus:

  • E = Unison
  • S = Semitone
  • T = Tone
  • TS = Minor Third (Tone & Semitone)
  • TT – Major Third
  • D = Diatessaron (Fourth)
  • A = Diapente (Fifth)
  • AS = Diapente & Semitone (Minor sixth)
  • AT = Diapente & Tone (Major sixth)
  • AD = Diapente Y Diatessaron  (Octave)

A dot above or below the letters indicated, respectively, a rising or falling interval. This notation had the fatal defect that a single mistake in an interval would destroy the whole of the subsequent melody.

Vincenzo Galilei, writing in 1571, says that he found in a MS. Of the 10th century in the monastery of San Salvator at Messina, a notation on lines, the spaces not being utilized, thus:


It is untranslatable, since the Greek letters belong to no known system of notation.

The outcome of the experiments was the general adoption of the system known as “Guidonian,” since it was perfected, and utilized by Guido of Arezzo (though suggested by Odo of Clugny) in the first decades of the 11th century, and this has remained with certain modifications to the present day. Commencing with Gamma for G (whence the French Gamme, and the English Gamut, meaning scale), Latin capitals are given to Proslambanomenos and the six notes above it, small Latin letters to the second octave, and the third octave is shown by doubled letters; the round and square b (which eventually became the signs for the flat and natural), being used for the two B’s.


But the alphabetical notation, however necessary for teaching, was not found satisfactory for recording melodies, since it was inconvenient for sight signing, and experiments were now made in another direction. ‘Points’ were placed at definite distances above the words, and above and below one another. In this system, called by the Solesmes writers Notation a points superposes, everything depended on the accuracy with which the points were interspaced; and the scribes, as a guide to their eye, began to scratch a straight line across the page, to indicate the position of one particular scale degree, from which all the others could be shown by the relative distances of their ‘points.’ But this was not found sufficiently definite.

The scratched line was therefore colored red, and a second line was added, colored yellow, indicating the interval of a fifth above the first. Neumes placed on these two lines were to represent the sounds F and c of the Guidonian alphabet, and the other sounds were shown by the relative position of the neumes between, above or below them. The honor of completing the ‘staff’ or ‘stave’ thus begun, is attributed to Guido of Arezzo, who added a black line, indicating a between the red and yellow lines, and another, indicating c, above the yellow line. The pitch of every note within a certain compass was now definitely shown by its position on a line or a space, and four lines have continued to form the orthodox stave of plain song to the present day. Neumes, however, continued to be written without a stave in Germany as late as the 14th century, while staves of one, two, and three lines only, are of frequent occurrence in 12th and 13th century MSS.

When the compass of a melody overlapped that of the stave, it became necessary to alter the names of the lines; hence across tehpractice of placing one or more letters at the beginning of each stave, called Claves signatoe, our ‘Clefs,’ since, as explained by several writers, they are the keys, by which the secrets of the stave are unlocked.

For teaching purposes Guido made use of the syllables ut, re, me,fa, etc., combining them in hexachords; and there were thus at the end of the 11th century three recognized methods of indicating musical intervals with certainty:

  1. The first seven letters of the alphabet
  2. The hexachordal syllables
  3. The position of the neumes on the stave

Nos. 1 and 2, belonging to the phonetic class, were used to inculcate the refinements of No. 3, which suffice for all the requirements of plain song.

No sooner, however, was a melodic notation perfected, than the art of organum, which was now developing into discant and counterpoint, began to make new demands which the notation could not satisfy. The singing of several notes of counterpoint against one sustained note of theplain song, gave rise to the complicated notation called ‘Mensural Music,’ ‘Measured Song,’ or, in Latin, Musica mensurabilis, mensurata, figurate, etc., in which the notes, whose intervals where shown by the staqve, were ‘measured’ in fixed time relationship with one another, while plain song was given fixed and equal note values, to make it available for the ‘New Art.’ The ‘Rules of Measured Song’ are many and conflicting, but all mensural writers agree to adopt the square-headed virga, as a ‘Longa,’ or long note, and the two form of the punctum as the ‘Brevis,’ and ‘Semibrevis.’ The dates of the earliest writers on measured music are a matter of discussion, but we may assume that the system began to take shape during the latter half of the 13th century.

Hieronymus de Moravia gives the following time table, in which instans is to be understood as ‘the smallest time in which a sound can be heard distinctly,’ a survival of the teaching of Aristoxenus, a pupil of Aristotle:

  1. Nota brevissima = 1 instans
  2. Nota brevior = 2 instanses
  3. Nota brevis = 4 instanses
  4. Nota longa = 2 tempora
  5. Nota longior = 3 tempora
  6. Nota longissima = 4 tempora

Nos. 4, 5, and 6, are all represented by the square headed virga, bu the author is doubtful whether Nos. 1, 2, and 3, ought to be shown by the square or the lozenge shaped punctum. The natural twofold division thus set forth by Hieronymus and other early writers was soon to give way to a threefold division of the notes, leading to such endless rules and exceptions, that the power of reading new music at sight could have been attained only by few.

Times was divided by the alternations of long and short notes into ‘Moods,’ for which conflicting rules are given. Franco of Cologne reduces the Moods from seven to five in number:

  1. All longs, or Trochees: –u—u—u–u
  2. Iambics: u—u—u—u–
  3. Dactyls: –uu—uu—uu–uu
  4. Anapaests: uu—uu—uu—uu–
  5. All shorts: uuuuuu

Of ‘Figurae’ he says there are three, the Longa, the Brevis, and the Semibrevis.

The perfect long was of the value of three breves, the imperfect long of two; the Figure was the same for perfect and imperfect, and the values of notes were shown by their positions with regard to each other. Notes were therefore said to be perfect or imperfect by position. Compound figures, he says, are the Ligatures and the Plica. The ligatures were, as we have seen, derived from the compound neumes. The plica, derived from the liquescent neumes, had four figures: ascending long, ascending short, descending long and descending short. It seems to have been an ornament of the nature of that described under its neumatic predecessor.

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