Music Notation and Terminology


The History of Music Notation

Many conflicting statements have been made regarding the history and development of music writing, and the student who is seeking light on this subject is often at a loss to determine what actually did happen in the rise of our modern system of writing music. We have one writer for example asserting that staff notation was begun by drawing a single red line across the page, this line representing the pitch f (fourth line, bass staff), the neumae (the predecessors of our modern notes) standing either for this pitch f, or for a higher or lower pitch, according to their position on the line, or above or below it. "Another line," continues this writer, "this time of yellow color, was soon added above the red one, and this line was to represent c' (middle C). Soon the colors of these lines were omitted and the letters F and C were placed at the beginning of each of them. From this arose our F and C clefs, which preceded the G clef by some centuries."[37]

Another writer[38] gives a somewhat different explanation, stating that the staff system with the use of clefs came about through writing a letter (C or F) in the margin of the manuscript and drawing a line from this letter to the neume which was to represent the tone for which this particular letter stood.

A third writer[39] asserts that because the alphabetical notation was not suitable for recording melodies because of its inconvenience in sight-singing "points were placed at definite distances above the words and above and below one another." "In this system ... everything depended on the accuracy with which the points were interspersed, and the scribes, as a guide to the eye, began to scratch a straight line across the page to indicate the position of one particular scale degree from which all the others could be shown by the relative distances of their points. But this was not found sufficiently definite and the scratched line was therefore colored red and a second line was added, colored yellow, indicating the interval of a fifth above the first."

It will be noted that all three writers agree that a certain thing happened, but as in the case of the four Gospels in the New Testament, not all the writers agree on details and it is difficult to determine which account is most nearly accurate in detail as well as in general statement. Communication was much slower a thousand years ago than now and ideas about new methods of doing things did not spread rapidly, consequently it is entirely possible that various men or groups of men in various places worked out a system of notation differing somewhat in details of origin and development but alike in final result. The point is that the development of musical knowledge (rise of part-writing, increased interest in instrumental music, etc.), demanded a more exact system of notation than had previously existed, just as the development of science in the nineteenth century necessitated a more accurate scientific nomenclature, and in both cases the need gave rise to the result as we have it to-day.

Out of the chaos of conflicting statements regarding the development of music notation, the student may glean an outline-knowledge of three fairly distinct periods or stages, each of these stages being intimately bound up with the development of music itself in that period. These three stages are:

(1) The Greek system, which used the letters of the alphabet for representing fixed pitches.

(2) The period of the neumae.

(3) The period of staff notation.

Of the Greek system little is known beyond the fact that the letters of the alphabet were used to represent pitches. This method was probably accurate enough, but it was cumbersome, and did not afford any means of writing "measured music" nor did it give the eye any opportunity of grasping the general outline of the melody in its progression upward and downward, as staff notation does. The Greek system seems to have been abandoned at some time preceding the fifth century. At any rate it was about this time that certain accent marks began to be written above the text of the Latin hymns of the church, these marks serving to indicate in a general way the progress of the melody. E.g., an upward stroke of the pen indicated a rise of the melody, a downward stroke a fall, etc. In the course of two or three centuries these marks were added to and modified quite considerably, and the system of notation which thus grew up was called "neume notation," the word neume (sometimes spelled neuma, or pneuma) being of Greek origin and meaning a nod or sign.

This system of neumes was in some ways a retrogression from the Greek letter system, for the neumes indicated neither definite pitches nor definite tone-lengths. But it had this advantage over the Greek system, that the position of the signs on the page indicated graphically to the eye the general direction of the melody, as well as giving at least a hint concerning the relative highness or lowness of each individual tone (the so-called diastematic system), and this was a great aid to the eye in singing, just as the relative highness and lowness of notes on the modern staff is of great value in reading music at the present time. Thus although the neumae did not enable one to sing a new melody at sight as our modern staff notation does, yet they served very well to recall to the eye the general outline of a melody previously learned by ear and therefore enabled the singer (the system was used for vocal music only) to differentiate between that particular melody and the dozens of others which he probably knew. Neume notation was used mostly in connection with the "plain-song melodies" of the Church, and since the words of these chants were sung as they would be pronounced in reading, the deficiency of the neume system in not expressing definite duration values was not felt. But later on with the rise of so-called "measured music" (cf. invention of opera, development of independent instrumental music, etc.), this lack was seen to be one of the chief disadvantages of the system.

The elements of neume-writing as given by Riemann in his Dictionary of Music are:

"(1) The signs for a single note: Virga (Virgula) and Punctus (Punctum). (2) The sign for a rising interval: Pes (Podatus). (3) The sign for a falling interval: Clinis (Flexa). (4) Some signs for special manners of performance: Tremula (Bebung), Quilisma (shake), Plica (turn), etc. The others were either synonyms of the above-named or combinations of them...."

Since music in the middle ages was always copied by hand, it will readily be understood that these neumae were not uniform either in shape or size, and that each writer made use of certain peculiarities of writing, which, although perfectly intelligible to himself, could not readily be interpreted by others (cf. writing shorthand). Here then we observe the greatest weakness of the neume system—its lack of uniformity and its consequent inability accurately to express musical ideas for universal interpretation.

Examples of several neumes are given merely in order to give the beginner a general idea of their appearance.

Virga or . Punctus or . Pes or . Clinis or .

As music grew more and more complex, and especially as writing in several parts came into use (cf. rise of organum, descant, and counterpoint), it became increasingly difficult to express musical ideas on the basis of the old notation, and numerous attempts were made to invent a more accurate and usable system. Among these one of the most interesting was that in which the words of the text were written in the spaces between long, parallel lines, placing the initial letters of the words tone and semi-tone at the beginning of the line to indicate the scale interval. An example will make this clear.



This indicated the precise melodic interval but did not give any idea of the rhythm, and the natural accents of the text were the only guide the singer had in this direction, as was the case in neume-notation and in early staff-notation also. Various other attempts to invent a more definite notation were made, but all were sporadic, and it was not until the idea of using the lines (later lines and spaces) to represent definite pitches, and writing notes of various shapes (derived from the neumae) to indicate relative duration-values—it was only when this combination of two elements was devised that any one system began to be universally used.

Just how the transition from neume to staff notation was made no one knows: it was not done in a day nor in a year but was the result of a gradual process of evolution and improvement. Nor is it probable that any one man deserves the entire credit for the invention of staff notation, although this feat is commonly attributed to an Italian monk named Guido d'Arezzo (approximate dates 995-1050). To this same monk we are indebted, however, for the invention of the syllables (UT, RE, MI, etc.) which (in a somewhat modified form) are so widely used for sight-singing purposes. (For a more detailed account of the transition to staff notation, see Grove, op. cit. article notation.) It will now be readily seen that our modern notation is the result of a combination of two preceding methods (the Greek letters, and the neumes) together with a new element—the staff, emphasizing the idea that higher tones are written higher on the staff than lower ones. The development of the neumes into notes of various shapes indicating relative time values and the division of the staff into measures with a definite measure signature at the beginning are natural developments of the earlier primitive idea. In the system of "musica mensurabilis" or measured music which was inaugurated a little later, the virga (which had meanwhile developed into a square-headed neume) was adopted as the longa or long note, and the punctus in two of its forms as breve and semi-breve (short and half-short). The longa is now extinct, but the modern form of the breve is still used as the double-whole-note, and the semi-breve is our modern whole-note.

Red-colored notes were sometimes used to indicate changes in value and before long outline notes (called empty notes) came into use, these being easier to make than the solid ones. The transition from square- and diamond-shaped notes to round and oval ones also came about because of the greater facility with which the latter could be written, and for the same reason notes of small denomination were later "tied together" or stroked. This latter usage began about 1700 A.D.

It is interesting to find that when "measured music" was finally inaugurated there were at first but two measure-signatures, viz.—the circle, standing for three-beat measure (the so-called perfect measure) and the semi-circle (or broken circle) which indicated two-beat measure. Occasionally three-beat measure was indicated by three vertical strokes at the beginning of the melody, while two-beat measure was shown by two such strokes. Upon the basis of these two varieties of measure, primitive in conception though they may have been, has been built nevertheless the whole system now employed, and in the last analysis all forms of measure now in use will be found to be of either the two-beat or the three-beat variety. The circle has disappeared entirely as a measure-sign, but the broken circle still survives, and from it are derived the familiar signs and , which are sometimes erroneously referred to as being the initial letter of our word common (as used in the expression "common time"). The transition from the older style of measure-signature to the present one seems to have occurred during the century following the invention of opera, i.e., from about 1600 to about 1700 A.D.

The rest came into use very soon after "measured music" began to be composed and we soon find rests corresponding with the various denominations of notes in use, viz.:



The terms applied to these rests vary in different authorities, but it will be noted that the pausa, semi-pausa, and suspirum correspond respectively to the double-whole-rest, whole-rest, and half-rest in use at present.

The bar and double bar may be developments of the maxima rest (as some writers suggest) but are probably also derived from the practice of drawing a line vertically through the various parts of a score to show which notes belonged together, thus facilitating score reading. The bar may occasionally be found as early as 1500, but was not employed universally until 1650 or later.

The number of lines used in the staff has varied greatly since the time of Guido, there having been all the way from four to fifteen at various times and in various places, (four being the standard number for a long time). These lines (when there were quite a number in the staff) were often divided into groups of four by red lines, which were not themselves used for notes. These red lines were gradually omitted and the staff divided into sections by a space, as in modern usage. The number of lines in each section was changed to five (in some cases six) for the sake of having a larger available range in each section.

The clefs at the beginning of the staffs are of course simply altered forms of the letters F, C, and G, which were written at first by Guido and others to make the old neume notation more definite.

The staccato sign seems not to have appeared until about the time of Bach, the legato sign being also invented at about the same time. The fermata was first used in imitative part-writing to show where each part was to stop, but with the development of harmonic writing the present practice was inaugurated. Leger lines came into use in the seventeenth century.

Sharps and flats were invented because composers found it necessary to use other tones than those that could be represented by the staff degrees in their natural condition. The history of their origin and development is somewhat complicated and cannot be given here, but it should be noted once more that it was the need of expressing more than could be expressed by the older symbols that called forth the newer and more comprehensive method. The use of sharps and flats in key signatures grew up early in the seventeenth century. In the earlier signatures it was customary to duplicate sharps or flats on staff degrees having the same pitch-name, thus: . (The use of the G clef as here shown did not of course exist at that time.)

The double-sharp and double-flat became necessary when "equal temperament" (making possible the use of the complete cycle of keys) was adopted. This was in the time of Bach (1685-1750).

Signs of expression (relating to tempo and dynamics) date back at least as far as the year 1000 A.D., but the modern terms used for this purpose did not appear until some years after the invention of opera, the date given by C.F.A. Williams in Grove's Dictionary being 1638. These words and signs of expression were at first used only in connection with instrumental music, but were gradually applied to vocal music also.

Other systems of notation have been invented from time to time in the course of the last two or three centuries, but in most cases they have died with their inventors, and in no case has any such system been accepted with anything even approaching unanimity. The tonic-sol-fa system[40] is used quite extensively in England for vocal music, but has gained little ground anywhere else and the chances are that the present system of notation, with possibly slight additions and modifications, will remain the standard notation for some time to come in spite of the attacks that are periodically made upon it on the ground of cumbersomeness, difficulty in teaching children, etc. The main characteristics of staff notation may be summed up as follows:

1. Pitches represented by lines and spaces of a staff, the higher the line, the higher the pitch represented, signs called clefs at the beginning of each staff making clear the pitch names of the lines and spaces.

2. Duration values shown by shapes of notes.

3. Accents shown by position of notes on the staff with regard to bars, i.e., the strongest accent always falls just after the bar, and the beat relatively least accented is found just before the bar.

4. Extent and description of beat-groups shown by measure-signs.

5. Key shown by key signature placed at the beginning of each staff.

6. Rate of speed, dynamic changes, etc., shown by certain Italian words (allegro, andante, etc.), whose meaning is as universally understood as staff notation itself.

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