The Birth of Musical Notation: The Why, When, & How

Music is often referred to as a universal language. And as such, pretty much anyone who can play an instrument and read music can pick up sheet music from anywhere in the world, and from any time in the history of written music, and play it, just as it was intended to be played.

But it wasn’t always like this. In fact, for the vast majority of human civilization, music wasn’t written down at all. We really have no idea what people played throughout most of our history. We will never know the songs they sang or the beats they played. Most of the earliest types of music, much like stories, where passed down through oral traditions, without any notation whatsoever. This caused them to change and evolve over time; notation helps to keep a piece consistent every time it’s played.

So what changed?

This week we’re going to go on a bit of a journey into music’s past, to try to figure out why, when, and how music eventually came to be written down, rather than simply learned and shared by ear!

Why

So, with countless years spent simply passing music and songs down through the generations by ear, why did the human race suddenly start using more precise notations? Well, there’s really no simple answer to that question. That being said, we have some pretty good ideas.

Like a game of telephone played over the course of centuries, the ancient music of our distant past would change and evolve over the countless re-learnings and re-tellings. Musical notation, however, helps keep music consistent over time.

The development of music theory also drove the use of notations. In fact, musical notation clearly started being used at the same time music theory started to be developed, most likely because you can’t keep a record of what each note is if you don’t have names for the notes, or a way to identify the relationship between notes. So, when cultures began developing the concept of scales and keys, they started naming their notes as well.

When

Musical notation has a very long history, taking centuries to arrive at the system that is most commonly used today. The very earliest form of the most basic musical notation was found on a 4,000 year old cuneiform tablet from what is Iraq today (for context, cuneiform is one of the world’s oldest forms of written language, dating back to the 34th century BC). The tablet has only fragmented instructions for performing music, but it tells us that the music was composed in harmonies of thirds, and was written using a scale with eight notes per octave, called a “diatonic scale.”

A few centuries later, from around the 6th century BC to about the 4th century AD, ancient Greek musical notation was in use. We even have several complete compositions and tons of fragments from this time period that have survived to today.

How

Quite a lot of our modern musical notations have been taken from our friends in ancient Greece. Both the Greeks and the Romans used a form of non-graphical notations, using letters of the alphabet as symbols for notes. This is actually where we get the modern notations that use the letters A through G to represent the names of the notes. Naming the notes after these letters is sometimes called “Boethian notation,” named after Boethius, a Roman writer and statesman who lived during the 5th century AD. He is considered to be the first to document the use of letters as the names for notes.

Of course, other forms of note naming have also survived. One of the more popular alternative naming conventions for notes was introduced around the year 1000 by the Benedictine monk, Guido d’Arezzo. Today, the system d’Arezzo helped to create is known as “tonic sol-fa,” and even if you don’t recognize the name, you are familiar with its names for the notes! Tonic sol-fa uses “do, re, mi, fa, sol, la, ti, do,” in place of “C, D, E, F, G, A, B, C” in the major scale.

As time continued to pass, musical notation continued to evolve. The early systems that used letters of the alphabet to represent the notes became the basis for some of the notation still in use today. For example, in the earliest notation systems, B flat was it’s own, unique note. So, a rounded, lower-case “b” was used to represent it. As time passed, that lower-case “b” became “♭,” and is used to denote all flat notes in today’s system. A more square, gothic, lower-case “b” was used for the note “B natural,” which eventually evolved into “♮,” the symbol used for all natural notes. Lastly, the modern sharp symbol comes from the same square, gothic, lower-case “b,” but this time with a line through it, becoming “.”

Musical notation continues to evolve even today, and more modern notation is much more precise than systems we have used in the past. The earliest forms of graphical musical notation were probably just simple marks to tell the musician the approximate pitch, just to remind them of a few details of a piece they had already learned. These would have mostly been used by traveling minstrels and monks.

Over the years the features of musical notations have changed, adding new symbols, methods, and complications. Those symbols and notations that proved themselves to be useful have stuck around. On the other hand, anything that showed itself to be too complicated, cumbersome, or just plain not useful have fallen by the wayside and have mostly been forgotten. On the one hand, that’s great for modern composers and musicians; there’s a lot less confusion to get through. But on the other hand, some old music uses obsolete and obscure symbols and notations, and in many cases it is no longer clear what the composers had in mind when they wrote their pieces.

Modern musical notations can trace most of their roots back to Europe before spreading out to the rest of the world. In fact, today’s most popular musical notation system is one of the most widely recognized international languages of all time!