A Short History of Musical Notation

Sheet Music sample Musical notation has been invented and re-invented several times, and has since gone through a rapid and accelerating process of evolution. From basic indications of a simple song line going higher and lower, the complexity of musical notation has grown so that it can now specify in detail all the music for a 100-strong symphony orchestra and chorus. In this article we look at some of the key stages in that evolution, from hand-written notation, through printing processes, specialist types of notation and the impact on music notation of electronic devices and computers. Using specialist score-editing software programmes, that same orchesteral musical score can now be quickly changed, edited, reformatted, split into multiple parts and printed with relative ease.

The Earliest Music and Musical Notation

Early Bone Flute known as the Divje Babe Flute We know that music has been part of human culture for many years, and was probably part of the cultural explosion which took place in Europe between 60,000 and 30,000 years ago, though early people had undoubtedly experimented with natural sounds prior to this. Although ancient wooden artifacts tend to rot and decay over time, instruments made of bone last longer. Two simple flutes dated to 42,000 to 43,000 years ago were discovered in Germany. One was made from a bird's bone and another from mammoth ivory. It is safe to assume that the techniques of making instruments and playing music were passed via an oral tradition for many thousands of years, by people copying and sharing musical ideas across the generations. However without recording techniques or any form of musical notation, we have no idea what the music of these early periods sounded like.

Ancient Egyptian musical instruments including a harp, a lyre and other stringed instruments Many artistic relics from the world's great civilisations include depictions of music making, and it is clear that music was a normal part of life for the ancient Egyptians, Greeks, Romans and other people. The Greek mathematician Pythagoras studied certain aspects of music theory, particularly the mathematical nature of harmony and musical scales. He knew for example that the pitch of a note from a vibrating string was related to its length, and that simple ratios of length gave rise to harmonious notes (e.g. if you halve the length of a string, its note sounds an octave higher). These early Societies (e.g. Babylonians and Egyptians) used various forms of musical notation, such as indications about using particular strings on a lyre and how the lyres were tuned.

The Seikilos Epitaph - the song is written in the bottom half of the engraving However our knowledge of these is based on surviving fragments and is therefore incomplete. The earliest known example of a complete notated musical composition (a song complete with lyrics) used a method of notation developed by the ancient Greeks. This piece of music is called the Seikilos Epitaph, it is carved on a tombstone in Turkey, and it most probably dates from the 1st century AD. The Byzantine Empire, which grew from the Roman Empire with a new base at Constantinople, developed the equivalent of the Western "sol-fa" scale and a form of notation based on pitches being higher or lower than the previous one. The alternative to the "sol-fa" method of indicating the notes of a scale, is the letter system used today with notes represented by the letters A to G. This means of representing notes seems to have had its origin in "Boethian notation" developed by a Roman philosopher called Boethius in the 6th century AD.

The method used in the Seikilos Epitaph of adding musical symbols above the lyrics of a poem (see the enlargement of the engraving by clicking on the image above) is an early form of what is called "Neume Notation". A set of (bawdy and satirical) poems known as "Carmina Burana" from the 11th and 12th centuries used this form of Neume Notation for a portion of the poems. The manuscripts were discovered in a Bavarian monastery in 1803, and much later in 1935-36 some of these poems were set to music by the composer Carl Orff in a style reflecting their medieval origin.

Early Musical Notation and the Church

Reproduction of Gregorian Chant notation using a 4-line stave The early development of Western musical notation arose in the hands of the Church in various parts of Europe including Spain and Italy. Many of the earliest music notations were for choral music, with the notes being typically indicated above the word or syllable of the text being sung. The church music of this period is known as "Plainchant" or "Gregorian chant" named after Gregory the Great who was Pope from 590 until his death in 604 AD. However, exact pitches were still not specified at this time, only whether notes should be higher or lower than the previous one. This problem was fixed by introducing horizontal lines to the music notation, firstly a single line but before long all Plainchant was notated in churches and monasteries using a system based on a stave of 4 horizontal lines.

Fragment of Pérotin's work called Alleluia Nativitas The stave of 4 lines is usually attributed to an Italian Benedictine Monk called Guido of Arezzo (approx. 991-1033). In "Micrologus" a treatise on music notation, he also used the initial letters of a hymn to define musical pitches. These letters were ut, re mi, fa, sol, la. In most countries "Ut" became "Do" and centuries later with the addition of "ti" the system came to be called the sol-fa notation which was taught in many schools. When Gregorian Chant became more complex, its notation followed suit. The French composer Pérotin (approx. 1200 AD) helped to develop early polyphony. See his "Alleluia Nativitas" at the right which has 3 parts, the top 2 parts using 5-line staves. The next major invention was a means to indicate rhythm, and various rhythmic indications were introduced from about the 13th century. The power of musical notation is now obvious because, with a little knowledge, it becomes possible to create a repeatable musical work. Indeed we can recreate the church music of this period and know what it sounds like. Examples of Gregorian Chant on mfiles include the Dies Irae and the Pange Lingua though recreated using modern notation.

Notation for Non-religious Music

Fragment of the folk song Sumer is Icumen In Of course music continued to evolve outside of the church, though in most cases this continued via an oral tradition. Only educated people could read and write in any case, and the process of writing down music was both expensive and laborious (using quills and rare paper) especially if multiple copies were required. Even those brief times when secular music was written down in notation form (e.g. the song Sumer Is Icumen In, click the image to enlarge to full size) this was done by the church, possibly as part of its engagement with local communities or a particular study of folk music. Perhaps the expense of paper and hand-written notation also resulted in additional forms of notation which economised on space, e.g. instructions to repeat sections or to go back to the beginning. Thus, developments in notation in certain cases paralleled the evolution of musical forms.

Saltarello 2 Manuscript Another preserved manuscript containing many examples of secular music is a medieval Tuscan book thought to date from the late 14th or early 15th century. This book has more than 100 examples of music manuscripts and is currently held in the British Library and catalogued as "Add MS 29987" which you can view online in the Library's website. There are 3 examples of a type of dance called a "Saltarello" (due to its jumping or hopping nature), and the 2nd Saltarello has achieved a certain popularity and can be seen in the accompanying image or at the Library website at page Page f.62v. In modern notation you can find this on mfiles as the original melody Saltarello 2 and in a simple arrangement Saltarello 2 arranged.

Fragment from a page of the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book with works by John Bull and William Byrd A number of further developments then led to what we would regard as modern musical notation. Four horizontal lines became the five used by most staves currently. Clefs were used to indicated the range of pitches shown on a stave, and sharps and flats and key signatures were used to specify the pitches used by a section of music or for individual notes. Two common clefs are the treble or G-clef and the bass or F-clef. A pair of treble and bass clefs together were used to notate keyboard music, and musical notation was used not just for choral music but also for instrumental music. Much early keyboard music was for an early keyboard instrument called a virginal (similar to a harpsichord), and many collections of hand-written virginal music are held today in museums in Europe and beyond. One of these collections is the "Fitzwilliam Virginal Book" (which includes the dance Sellenger's Round arranged by William Byrd). Another interesting collection for folk music historians is called the Skene Manuscript which mostly consists of melodies with some bass notes, and this includes the song Flowers of the Forest.

Printed Musical Notation

Printed Music Score - from Beethoven's 7th Symphony Various methods of "printing" have been in use for many centuries. However it was the invention of the printing press using moveable type which allowed for printing on a large scale. This allowed books, news and information to become more readily available and helped to spread ideas more rapidly across the world. It wasn't long before the concepts of printing text were applied to the printing of music, and the first attempts at this were made in the 15th and 16th centuries. In England Elizabeth I granted Thomas Tallis (and William Byrd his pupil at the time) a monopoly to print and publish music, and this resulted in their works becoming widely known. Elsewhere in Europe the development of printed music helped to give composers a degree of independence from their wealthy patrons since they could earn an income from publishing their music.

Fragment from a page of Beethoven's scored out and corrected hand-written manuscript for his 6th Symphony The printing of music also helped to standardise notation symbols, since there was less room for the inevitable variations that arose from hand-written music. Composers still wrote their music by hand in the first place, and this was then passed to copyists to produce parts for first performances, before later being type-set for printing and wider distribution. In general composers will typically go through many drafts when developing their works, and handwritten manuscripts in museums frequently show an evolution of ideas, with sections of music scored out, and new sections of music or new parts added in. (See the article Manuscripts, Pens and Composers by Jeffrey Dane which has many examples of hand-written scores.) Many composers (such as Beethoven for example) used notebooks to record themes or ideas which might be mulled over for many years before being developed into complete works. However printing facilitates a much wider (and faster) sharing of ideas, and musicians and other composers can learn about the music of others without needing to attend concerts of their works. Widespread availability of printed music also allows music to be studied and analysed by students.

Sample percussion notation - orchestral snare (top) drum kit (bottom) Different methods of representing music have continued to evolve. Some of these alternative or supporting methods are used for particular instruments. For example, it is quite common to see little pictograms used for recorders and other wind instruments to show which holes on the instrument should be covered (or partially covered) to play a particular note. Similarly many percussion instruments do not produce notes of a definite pitch. The notation for such "untuned percussion" may use a different number of lines or just a single line to represent when a note is struck, and a range of different symbols to indicate in more detail how the note should be struck.

Alternative Guitar Notations - Chords (top) stave notation (middle) and tablature (bottom) The guitar is a very popular instrument today, and alternative forms of notation can be used for its music. The simplist is a list of chord names (with or without chord diagrams) which indicate chords to be strummed, and guitar "Tablature" or Tabs uses numbers on a stave of 6 lines to indicate at which fret particular strings should be stopped. Guitar Tabs have descended from that of an earlier stringed instrument, the Lute. It is curious that guitar tabs look very similar to conventional notation, despite the fact that the lines in their stave have a completely different meaning. Some modern styles of music are so unusual that they need strange new forms of music to define them. In fact some such musical pieces don't use notation at all, but consist of a set of instructions to be followed by the musician or musicians.

Cartoon Saxophone Player with musical notes Despite these alternative forms of notation, standard musical notation remains a cornerstone of Western music education. Musical notation is widely understood, many children have the opportunity to learn an instrument at school and the basics of musical notation. Even people who can't read music still recognise a range of symbols since they are ubiquitous in our culture. Musical notes appear in cartoons and comics coming from the mouths of people or birds when they whistle or sing, and notes, clefs, sharps or flats appear frequently on Christmas cards and decorations, in company logos, on wrapping paper, T-shirts, mugs, pencils and all sorts of objects.

Computers and Electronic Representations of Music

Editing an orchestral score using Sibelius Computers have revolutionised the way we do many things, and music is no exception. Just as word processors allow text to be entered, edited and printed, so music notation software (such as Finale or Sibelius used on mfiles) allows music notation to be entered, edited and printed. Indeed the type-setting of music (just like newspapers, magazines and books) is generally done on computers today. Notation software makes many things easier, including the making of corrections in the middle of a piece, the extraction of parts from orchestral scores, the transposition of music between different instruments, changing the key of a piece and many other tasks that continued to be time-consuming even in the world of mass printing facilities. The power of software even allows music to be played using sampled instruments which give a good impression of what it would sound like with real instruments.

Example of a Piano Roll View - using FL Studio Other types of musical software use different ways to represent the underlying music. One method with a real life analogue is the "piano roll" representation. Piano rolls were originally rolls of stiff paper or card with holes punched in appropriate places to trigger the playing of a note by mechanical means, for example on a "player piano" or other instruments. On a computer screen horizontal lines represent the different notes with the length of the line representing the duration of the note. Another method for representing music in a computer is called MIDI. This stands for "Musical Instrument Digital Interface" and was originally developed (and still used) to allow electronic instruments and devices to exchange information. Midi (and its different extensions) includes an ability to apply different effects to the music, typically electronic effects which were not available when musical notation was developed.

Nevertheless despite all these new developments if you want a musician to play some music, then the musician will generally expect you to use a form of musical notation to represent that music. While music notation has evolved considerably from its early beginnings it looks as though its foreseeable future is secure.

Music Notation - Interesting examples and videos

Here is a list of the music examples mentioned in this article, all converted to modern sheet music notation:

For two of the above examples we have videos comparing the original notation with modern music notation:

Here are some further images and videos which illustrate things mentioned in this article:

  • The Elephant from "Carnival of the Animals" by Camille Saint-Saens - the vertical green line following the music in this screen view of Sibelius playing the music, which is for Double-Bass and Piano
  • Sugar Plum Fairy from "The Nutcracker" by Peter Tchaikovsky - this video illustrates typical orchestral sheet music, the bottom 5 lines show the string sections, the tinkly instrument above that is a celeste, with the horns and different woodwind instruments on the upper half of the screen
  • Toccata and Fugue in Dm by Johann Sebastian Bach - this video illustrates sheet music for the organ (played using Sibelius), with 3 lines for 2 manuals and the pedals
  • Etude in D Op.31 No.3 by Fernando Sor - this scrolling sheet music shows the music being played using Sibelius. The music is notated in 2 different ways, the top line shows standard music notation while the bottom line shows the same music in "guitar tablature" (or "Guitar Tab") format
  • Sample of Percussion Sheet Music - this video (created using Sibelius) briefly illustrates sheet music notation for percussion. The first 4 bars shows how an orchestral snare drum might typically be notated using a stave of 1 line, while the next 4 bars show how a stave of 5 lines might be used to notate some typical music for a drum kit, with closed hi-hats, kick and snare drums, with the final bar consisting of a flourish for toms ending on a crash cymbal
  • Promenade from "Pictures at an Exhibition" by Modest Moussogsky - illustrating a scrolling piano roll view of music
  • Arabesque No.1 by Claude Debussy - the piano roll view of this piece helps to show the many musical patterns used by Debussy in this piece
  • This Pinterest Board shows Sheet Music Notation used artistically on lots of different objects - illustrating just how ubiquitous sheet music notation has become in our society

And here are some further videos on YouTube which show alternative graphical ways to illustrate music: