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Music Notation: Some History Milestones and Evolution

Have you thought of what happens when we look at a score or sheet music? Some of us look at it and immediately begin translating those symbols into sounds. Others among us might not be able to decode what is seen on the page. Happily we don’t need to be able to read music to appreciate it. Reality is that musical notation is complex and that is wonderful because it allows composers to express complex ideas that can make their way to our ears through many different interpreters. 

Did you know that the notes and staves we see today didn’t spring fully formed from one person’s mind? Instead, the notation we see today is the product of centuries of innovation and refinement. Today we will explore some of the most remarkable milestones through its evolution. 

You are probably guessing that music notation is about as old as music itself. That is correct! However, our story will commence in the year of 1025, during the High Medieval Period. If you were a peasant subsisting on unseasoned cabbage, it was probably a terrible year. If you were one of the wealthy castled minorities, it was probably a good year. Furthermore, if you were a monk teaching your choir some new chants, 1025 would prove to be a downright stellar year! That was around the time a monk named Guido moved to a Tuscan city called Arezzo. Thus history has named him Guido of Arezzo.

We don’t have much biographical information concerning Guido of Arrezo’s, but we sure know his great contribution to music notation in Western Europe. He organized pitches into groups called hexachords (like scales), invented solfege (“do-re-mi-fa…”) and advanced a method for notating those concepts more accurately. It was huge step forward!

Before Guido’s time, liturgical music was (and still is) notated using markers called neumes. If you were learning a chant, you would get some parchment with the words with neumes. This neumes would slide up, down, twist or turn. That was the sheet music! The downside was that Neumes did not tell you exactly which note to sing. Rather, they simply indicated the contour of the melody. So, if a line above a word rise, then raise the pitch. It was definitely hard back then!! 

  Text from the chant “Iubilate deo universa terra.” Note the neumes that appear above the words.

During his visits to monasteries, Guido observed just how badly the younger singers were struggling to learn chants in the repertoire. Then, he thought of a nifty tool that would allow someone to sing along, even if they had never heard the music before: the staff. It had four lines (instead of the five we use today) One of them was marked with a “key indicator” — maybe a C or F — indicating its fixed pitch position. Two of those lines would be coloured — yellow for C, and red for F. As Guido wrote young students could “better detect the level of pitch.” Or read the music.

A staff was great, and fixed pitches were even better! But our music was still missing something. How would us know how long to hold those notes? That was a problem for mensural notation to solve. 

Mensural means “related to measuring things,” and that’s just what the notation of the same name set out to do. It was normally used for secular vocal music on a five line staff. Church music was still rocking with staffed neumes, and lutists and other string players were using tablature — but mensural notation used symbols that you can very clearly see are related to modern ones.

Let’s look at some of these notes:

Believe it or not, we still have those note values today! Especially the breve has stuck around — it’s the British English name for what Americans call double whole notes.

Each breve could be further broken down into semibreves, which could be further divided into proportionately smaller values. Corresponding rests also indicated periods of silence. Take a look at the table below for what these symbols looked like, as well as their modern counterparts.

Mensural signs consisted of some combination of circles, half circles and dots, indicating the relationship of those notes for a piece — sort of like a rudimentary time signature. For example, it would tell the singer if it was two or three breves that made up a longa. Check out the chart below to see the possible combinations. Tempus refers to the division of breves into semibreves, and prolatio determined the relationship of the semibreve to the next smallest note value, the minim. A perfect tempus meant three semibreves made up a single breve; an imperfect tempus meant the breve consisted of just two semis. Likewise, a major prolation meant a semibreve could be subdivided into three minims; a minor prolation meant it could be broken down into two. Now take a breath, that’s all the math you have to worry about for today!

As noted before, mensural notation was largely used for secular vocal music. However, around the 17th century, instrumental music came to dominate the scene. Musicians of all stripes willingly co-opted the staff and notation of the day, but found it quite limiting when it came to conveying information about what instruments other than the voice should do. So it was refined ever further. Over time barlines, stylized clefs, dynamic markings, ties and slurs began to appear.

The story behind musical notation runs pretty deep. All those bars and dots and squiggles might seem simple, but together they can form a complex language to convey some amazing creative ideas. So next time you’re getting twisted with Bach’s counterpoint, theory or slurping up some syrupy ’70s P-Funk, think about the music. Not the sounds you hear, but instead what’s on the sheet that musicians read. Without notation, composers wouldn’t be able to convey the complex ideas required to bring your favourite tunes to life. Even if you can’t read music, you can still thank notation every day for making this possible:


*One last note: We have to note that even though Guido did wonders for music education, it’s risky to credit one person with the invention of this system. Guido’s staff was probably an improvement upon the work of several others who came before him. Lines for neumes weren’t new (although Guido did extend the number of lines to four), and other colouring systems may have been present. He is just one figure we can point to.


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