Summary · History of musical notation · Early forms of musical notation · Invention of modern musical notation · Guido D'Arezzo · History of B-flat, B-square and Sharp · Birth of rhythmic notation · Birth of expression marks · Modern musical notation Articles
History of music

History of musical notation

Of all human advances and inventions, one has been chosen as the symbol dividing humanity's timeline into prehistory and history: writing.

Writing is the invention that enabled humans to store knowledge more effectively than memory alone. But while writing appeared around 8,000 years ago, we have to wait much longer for musical notation.

Just as with writing, there is no single way to indicate sounds and, over time, various systems have developed that have come down to us.

Early forms of musical notation

The very first example of notation seems to be that found on a Sumerian tablet. More than a real musical notation, it is a description of how music should be performed through cuneiform characters. This system of borrowing the letters of the alphabet for sounds is also common to Greek notation, which is the first real way of writing musical notes using the letters of the alphabet and other small signs. However, we are led to believe that Greek notation was only used theoretically and not really applied to musical study and performance, which remained oral.

Invention of modern musical notation

But apart from these ancient examples, the history of modern musical notation begins in the year 900. In fact, the St. Gallen codex containing the first example of musical notation dates from 930.

This writing, however, is very different from what we are used to today, it is in fact called neumatic because it is based on signs called neumes placed above the text. one can think that these signs imitate the function of the director's hands according to a principle of chironomy.

The main signs are:

  • puntum,
  • verga,
  • podatus,
  • clivis,
  • scandicus,
  • climacus,
  • torculus,
  • porrectus.

These signs, however, as you can imagine, do not give us the possibility to read the pitch of the notes nor the rhythm but are rather an indication, like a reminder for those who already know the chant. And for this reason, this notation is called adiastematic.

From here begins the evolution that will lead us to the notation we know today. The next step that brings us closer to modern notation is the simple addition of a line. This line was marked with a dry point above the text and served as a reference for pitch. The marks written above were the highest and those written below the lowest.

Later, the lines became two: a red one for F and a yellow one for C. With the addition of more lines, came the keys, which are intended to mark which staff corresponds to F, C and then G. The three modern keys are nothing more than a stylisation of the letters C, F, G corresponding to C, F and G. The way of writing the neumes also changed, becoming an increasingly precise way of marking musical intervals.

Guido D'Arezzo

The refinement of this system with four lines is due to Guido d'Arezzo, a Benedictine monk. Guido d'Arezzo is worth dwelling on, given the importance of this personage for music, as he was the one who gave the notes their name, taking the first syllables of the hymn of St John as a reference.

In the tetragrammaton, the notes are written as squares, which is why this notation is called square notation. In this way, however, it is not yet possible to clearly determine the duration of the notes, but for the first time it is possible to write the pitch of the sounds precisely.

History of B-flat, B-square and Sharp

The symbols b-flat sharp and bequadrum were invented for this same purpose. B-flat originally meant B molle, or B soft, because B was the only note that could be altered in the soft hexachord, and to indicate this a b with a round belly was placed in front of the note. For the same reason, a b with a square belly indicated the "hard" interval and this is why this symbol is called a bequadrum. The bequadro also gave rise to the sharps, a word that means interval, and is a bequadro with prolonged lines. The clear distinction between bequadro and sharps will only come about a few centuries later.

Birth of rhythmic notation

At this point, therefore, the rhythm is still missing. We have a first example of rhythmic writing in 1200 with the treatise ars cantus mensurabilis by Francone da Colonia, who uses different note heads to indicate the duration.

This system, called Mensural, is very different from the modern one. The three rhythmic figures are the maxima, the longa, the breve and the semibreve, and later the minima, the semiminima, the fusa and the semifusa.

signs of value

The ratios of the durations are not always the same and depend on the maximode and the mode. In the perfect maximode the maximum is equivalent to three longas while in the perfect maximode it is equivalent to two. The same applies to the mode but taking the longa as a reference.

In the fourteenth century maximodo and modo disappear in favour of tempus and prolatio. What changes is the reference value: the perfect or imperfect tempus defines the value of the semibrevi, while the prolatio of the minima.

tempo prologatio in music

Time and prolatio were indicated with these symbols: perfect time and major prolatio, perfect time and minor prolatio, imperfect time and major prolatio and imperfect time and minor prolatio. These symbols could be crossed out to indicate that time was at a minimum. From this derives, even today, the C or crossed C which, in truth, is not a C but a semicircle.

In any case, the writing continued to have earlier elements, so there were different types of note ligatures and to see each note separated we will have to wait for the Renaissance, as well as the abandonment of the perfect and imperfect modes, towards a type of writing more similar to the modern one.

In fact, at this point the step to modern notation is a short one, all you need to do is make the square notes round and update the symbols.

Birth of expression marks

However, we have not yet talked about all those symbols that do not define the pitch or duration of notes but serve as signs of expression of the Music.

The indication of dynamics is actually very recent, it seems that the first dynamic to appear on a manuscript is that of Vincenzo Capirola on a lute tablature, but I will talk about the tablature in another article. Be that as it may, from the Baroque onwards these signs became increasingly precise and increasingly used, becoming fundamental in Romanticism.

Thanks to publishing, signs that have always been used, but with variations, such as embellishments or accents, are standardised and become clear to everyone.

Modern musical notation

So, now that we have arrived at the notation we are all familiar with, this article could end, except that the evolution of musical notation did not stop there. In fact, with the invention of electronic music in the 20th century, composers had to invent new ways of writing music. To be honest, however, these scores are much more like diagrams and do not use a completely standardised code. In fact, a key part of these scores is the legend, in which the composer explains the meaning of each symbol.

In this type of notation we usually have several lines, we can also have a classical score in case we need to mark the notes and several graphs below, one for example could mark the envelope, another an effect, another the modulation of frequencies and so on. This way of writing makes the score a work of art in itself because the modulations over time are clearly visible.

metastaseis in musica

Obviously, this story is very simplified and focuses only on Western notation because although most cultures in the world today have an oral tradition or a written tradition borrowed from the Western system, there are different systems of musical notation in different cultures, especially in the Asian one.

By Stefano Vivaldini
manuscript of j.s. bach
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In the musical landscape of the late Baroque, a great composer emerged: the german Johann Sebastian Bach. Although he led a sedentary life, always including permanent assignments at courts or religious institutions, he had the ability to introduce the novelties of the changing atmosphere into his music while remaining tied to his own German tradition.

caravaggio lute player
Baroque musical forms

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ancient greek vase
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