Notation, the way of writing down music, has developed over many years.
- Many types of early music, just like stories, were passed down
the generations without being notated, hence they tended to evolve
over time. Notation is required for consistency and precision.
- Notation clearly begun and developed in parallel with music theory,
because you cannot record what notes are being used if you have no
names for the notes, or way of identifying what relationships are
between the notes.
- Hence, as the concepts of scales and
keys began to take shape,
so notes started to be named.
The Greeks and Romans both had non-graphical notations which used letters
of their alphabets to symbolise notes. From this came our use of the letters
A to G to represent notes which is still common in many countries.
- The letter names are sometimes called the "Boethian notation" after
Boethius, a Roman writer and statesman who lived in the 5th century.
He was in the service of Emperor Theodoric, was accused of treason and
executed in the year 524 A.D. He was the first to document the use of
letters as names for notes.
- An alternative method of note naming was introduced about 1000 A.D.
by the monk Guido d'Arezzo. This has survived up to today as
tonic sol fa. The most important aspect
of this development however, is that it used six of the notes which
we use in the major scale today.
- France, Italy and other associated countries now tend to use the
tonic sol fa names (based on C as Doh)
as names of notes, rather than alphabetical letters, but this change
has (I believe) only happened in the last two hundred years.
Early systems of notation which used letters of the alphabet were
the origin of some of the symbols used nowadays
- In early times, B flat was a different note, and a rounded, lower-case "B"
was used to represent it. From this comes our use of a
for a flat sign.
- A squarer, gothic, lower-case "B" was used for B natural, and from this
comes our natural sign:
- Our sharp sign comes from this gothic B with a line through it:
Modern notation is much more precise than older notation.
- When I was a boy in an Anglican choir,
we used a hymn book which had some hymn tunes in old plainsong notation.
(I still have a copy in the cupboard in fact - the English Hymnal of 1933).
- This plainsong notation uses a four line stave instead of five,
no time signatures or key signatures, and has some diamond-shaped notes.
- This notation, compared to modern
notation, is quite imprecise in its specification of how the music should
- However, this was probably good enough for the style of music it was
- This is also true of even older notations: it may seem sparse to
us, but it was appropriate and sufficient for the type of music
Graphic forms of notation are first known from the seventh century
- The earliest forms of graphical notation were probably just marks
indicating approximate pitch to remind readers of a tune they had already
These would have been used by strolling minstrels and monks in monasteries.
- This evolved in church music into plainsong
- Plainsong was at first very imprecise, without clefs or staves
- The modern system for notes was developed initially in the fourteenth
The features of modern notation are there in order to notate music
that we know today.
- Over the years, many experiments have added new signs, new methods and
- Those that proved useful for the music of the day have stuck
- Those that were complicated, cumbersome, or not useful have mostly
- Unfortunately, some old music uses obsolete signs, and in some cases
it is not even clear what they mean
Modern notation developed in Europe and spread to the rest of the world.
- This makes music notation one of the most widely recognised
international languages of all time