Recording on the Page- Written Musical Notation

Learning a song via the oral tradition was one answer but it just won't work if you don't have the time or a good memory. Musical Notation was such a good means of recording that a group of musicians who might not know a a single song could gather around the written music and perform perfectly. This was a great way to record sound.

Come with us as we explore how musical notation evolve as a way to record sound. Click here for the main menu.

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History of Musical Notation

Listen to Music of the 12th century (When Staff Notation became popular)



















The Greeks used two different systems of letters were used to write down  instrumental and  vocal music. . Boethius  (c.A.D. 470–A.D. 525 wrote )  five textbooks on music theory and  applied the first 15 letters of the alphabet to the notes. This was  at the end of Roman times. The  Gregorian chant  utilized neumes,  derived from the  symbols used in the Greek language which  indicated pitch inflection. Neumes were  in use by the 6th cent.. The earliest extant manuscripts using them are  from the 8th cent. The neumes conveyed  the grouping of sounds in a melody, evidently to remidn a singer of  the approximate shape of a melody learned earlier.

Heighted neumes, are arranged above and below a line to  make  the intervals of a melody more discernible. This occured by the 10th-century.  By the end of the 12th century  the staff developed by  Guido d'Arezzo used. Guido put  letters on specific lines to indicate pitch.  The pitch of the remaining lines and spaces was derived from the lines.. The letters changed into clef signs which are used today. Guido invented a system of naming scale degrees. This used the first syllables of the lines of a Latin hymn (ut, re, mi, fa, sol, la). First used for  teaching sight singing, these or  derivatives are used in some languages for naming absolute pitches.

A staff of five lines for vocal music was adopted in France. A staff  of six lines was used  in Italy. Instrumental music used staves of varying numbers of lines until the 16th century. At this time the five-line staff became standard. Signs for chromatic changing of tones appear in the earliest notation. They took on their their modern shapes by the end of the 17th century. 

It took longer to develop  rhythmic notation.   Mensural notation, wherein  each note has a specific time value, was required for the development of polyphony. First, specific patternings of neumes were used to notate  the  rhythmic modes.  In his work  Ars cantus mensurabilis (c.1280), Franco of Cologne devised  a clear indication for each note of   exact rhythmic length and chose specific neumes to notate  tones of long and short length. In this notation, the long value was equal to three of the short values.

In the 14th century. Philippe de Vitry, author of Ars nova, standardized the  duple divisions of the long and short notes.  Either a 2:1 or a 3:1 relationship was implied. A system of signs and colored notes was created to  indicate which relationships were notated or were being  altered.

In the 15th century fractions notated  that one proportionality of rhythmic values was to be  substituted for another. Modern signatures came  from these numbers. Bar lines, expression signs, and Italian terms to indicate tempo and dynamics became popular in  the 17th century.  Around this time  equal temperament was adopted  and  major and minor modes, signatures notating  a major key or its relative minor became conventional. They assumed modern form during the baroque period.

The creation  aleatory music has also  lead to the creation of  notation systems. These vary from piece to piece. They notate  only approximate pitch, duration, and dynamic relations. Notation for electronic music has  not been  standardized.  It does  use traditional  symbols along with special pitch and rhythm notation.

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Listen to Music of the 12th Century....

When staff notation became popular

French  1175 et 1210. click for midi sound

Chanson d'amour

En tous tens que vante bise,
Pour cele dont sui soupris,
Qui n'est pas de moi souprise,
Devient mes cuers noirs et bis.
De fine amour l'ai requise,
Qui cuer et cors m'a espris,
Et, s'ele n'en est esprise,
Pour mon grant mal la requis.

Mais la douleurs me devise
Qu'a la meilleur me suis pris
Qui ainc fust en cest mont prise,
Se j'estoie a son devis.
Tort a mon cuer qui s'en prise,
Quar ne sui pas si eslis.
S'ele eslit, qu'ele m'eslise!
Trop seroie de haut pris.

Et nequedent destinee
Doune a la gent maint pensé:
Tost i metra sa pensee
S'amours li a destiné.
Je vi ja tel dame amee
D'ome de bas parenté
Qui mieuz ert emparentee,
Et si l'avoit bien amé.

Pour c'est drois, s'Amours m'agree,
Que mon cuer li ai douné.
Se l'amour ne m'a douné,
Tant la servirai a gré,
S'il plaist a la desirree,
Que un baisier a celé
Avrai de li a celee,
Que tant ai desirré.


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  W. Apel, The Notation of Polyphonic Music, 900–1600 (5th ed. 1961)

 C. F. A. Williams, The Story of Notation (1903, repr. 1969)

 E. Karkoschka, Notation in New Music (1972)

G. Read, Music Notation (3d ed. 1972).

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Helpful Links

  Indian Notation

Ancient Music History

History of Greek Music

Notation Used to Send Music via E.mail


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