Early Music Notation

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 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 hearing it.

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:

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 four lines.


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 staff.

There are lots of other kinds of notations, both currently in use and formerly used. A few are linked below:

Finally, Information From Answers.com comes up with a great set of answers if you ask for "Musical Notation".

Information for this page was taken from the following sources:
  • Apel, WIlli. Harvard Dictionary of Music. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1972.
  • Grout, Donald Jay. A History of Western Music. New York: WW Norton & Co, 1973.
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