For thousands of year people sang and played
instruments, but they had no way to write down the music.
How did they learn new tunes or songs? Someone taught it by
"word of mouth". That means that one person sang/played the
piece and the other person listened and memorized it from
As people learned more and more songs, they really wanted
a way to write down the music. Many different cultures came
up with ways of writing down the music, but most were based
on somehow showing whether the notes went up or down. Many
did not include any kind of rhythmic notation.
Our modern music notation that we use in the United
States comes from the monks of the early Christian church.
They had so many songs that they had to learn and know, that
they needed some way to remember the melodies. They started
out by simply putting little marks above the words that
showed whether the melody went up or down, something like
This kind of notation system was called, "Neumes". The
monks started using it sometime in the 6th century. It
doesn't tell you much, does it?! At first the monks just put
the neumes above the words as a reminder of how to sing the
melody (you had to know the music before you could make
sense of the neumes.
Then someone got smart and started making the neumes
higher or lower depending on whether or not the melody went
up or down.
The next improvement was to put one red line in the
middle of the notation to indicate where an F was. Anything
above the line was above F, below the line was below F. This
happened in the 10th century.
Pretty soon (a few hundred years later...) they added a
few more lines and a clef sign. For a long time music was
written on a 4 line staff. By the time the monks added a few
more lines and a clef sign, the musicians no longer needed
to know how the song went before they could sing it! Now
(end of the 1100s) the musicians could tell exactly what
note was there and how to sing it -- except there was no
rhythmic notation; that came later.
In Italy, they used a six
line staff for a while. (This example is from the early
1200s). Sometimes music was written on 9 line staves or even
18 line staves!!! But that was pretty confusing! Our five
line staff was developed in France.
Here are some examples of square neumes on a staff (the
notes were square because their pen tips were square!) These
were groups of notes that were meant to remind you of how
you should perform certain groups of notes. For example,
this is a "Clivis":
it would be performed like this:
Here is a "Porrectus"
which would be performed like this:
Follow this link for more on neumes
and how they are written.
Here is an example of neumes on a staff. The little "C"
type mark on the left side of the staff is the clef sign -
it shows you where C is. Also notice that there are only
Here is a link to see a picture of a piece of music
written in neumes.
Follow this link for more detail on the development
of notation from lines above the words to notes in a