How was music notation invented

Interfacing cultural data

The development of musical notation

Before there was any form of phonetic writing, song lyrics and melodies were passed down orally from generation to generation. The content has changed over time. So they looked for a way to record music in writing. The prerequisite for this was an already developed written language, i.e. a stable culture. The first music systems developed by the Chinese and the Indians. Both systems are almost identical to the Greek one from which our current grading system is derived, among other things.

Greek music scripts (2nd BC 2nd AD)

The oldest document of occidental music writing from the 2nd century BC Chr.

The Greeks use the first seven letters from their alphabet to name the sounds:

This corresponds to the sequence of letters in the Latin script:

Since the human ear perceives the eighth tone as a repetition of the first tone in a higher register, seven letters are sufficient to name the required tones.

In the German-speaking world, this tone-letter sequence was renamed over time: from B to H . So the root tones today are:


Another line of development of our current notation comes from the Roman culture:

The Neumenschrift (8th-9th centuries)

Neumenschrift (neumes (NOËMA [Greek] = sign) is a notation similar to shorthand that records the approximate melodic course of a melody. However, this presupposes that the singers knew the melodies with their precise intervals from the oral traditions were just directional arrows that indicated the rise or fall of the melody.

These neumes were initially set over the lyrics without lines. But since they did not clearly reproduce the melody, the characters were also placed on two or three lines (around 1000 AD).

This notation could not suffice for the development of polyphony. Therefore, the square notes developed from the neum signs.

Square grades (1200 today)

These offered the possibility to indicate at least the simultaneous occurrence of tones in different voices by placing the characters exactly one below the other. Standing on four lines, it is the Roman chorale notation still in use today.

The mensural notation (1280 - 1600)

The mensural notation was developed around 1280. In it, the different duration of the notes was illustrated by different note forms.

This notation was in use until 1600, when the modern notation with the clock scheme prevailed.

The system of lines and spaces was continuously developed. For the range of an average human voice, five lines (including the four spaces in between) proved to be sufficient to assign a fixed position to each pitch.

However, if you want to notate the full range of low male and high female voices, you have to expand the system to eleven lines.

The seven root tones are placed alternately on the lines and in the spaces in between.

In order to increase the legibility, the system of lines was divided into two halves. To further differentiate, the lower half (i.e. the lower register) is marked with the so-called bass clef and the upper half with the treble clef.

Each root note has two derived notes that have the same position on the staff and form a family of notes. If the derived note sounds higher than the root note, a # is placed in front of the note of the root note ("The note is raised by half a step"); An -is is appended to the name of the root note: If the derived note sounds lower than the root note, a b is placed in front of the note of the root note ("The note is reduced by half a step"); an -es is appended to the name of the root note.

Transferred to the piano keyboard, our current staging system looks like this:

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