Musical Notation - History


Musical Notation, system of written symbols that represent musical sounds. The primary requirement of any notation is that it be suited to the music it represents.


Alphabetical notations were used in ancient Greece and elsewhere. Jazz charts may indicate only the harmonic structure, leaving all the rest to the performer. In addition to their western uses, neumes have also been employed in China, Japan, and the Near East as well as for Tibetan chant.

Tablatures are compact notations that use signs, numbers, or letters, usually to notate fingerings rather than pitches. Modern popular guitar tablature is a small grid in which vertical lines represent the strings and horizontal lines represent the frets; black dots indicate where to put the fingers.

Writers discussing music sometimes use the following system to specify pitches: CC-BB = third C through third B below middle C; C-B = second C through second B below middle C (that is, C = C below the bass staff); c-b = C through B below middle C; c1-b1 = middle C through the B above it; c2-b2 = C above middle C through the B above that; c3-b3 = second C above middle C through the B above that (that is, c3 = C above the treble staff).

In the 20th century, composers of "indeterminate" compositions leave many elements deliberately vague and to chance; this is also true of their unconventional notation.


Today's system developed over many centuries. The note shapes are derived from neumes, handwritten signs that were placed over the words of medieval chant. At first neumes gave only a vague indication of melodic directions and patterns. Gradually the shapes became more precise and, about AD1000, staff lines were added: first one, then two, then four and five. By about 1200, the notation was reasonably exact as to pitch, but quite vague regarding duration.

About that time the earliest durational notation appeared. Called modal notation, it specified a constantly repeated rhythmic mode, or pattern. About 1250 four durational note and rest shapes were established, as well as a set of rules for determining whether a given note should subdivide into two or three shorter notes. Additional symbols for smaller durations were soon added. Although this system measured duration, somewhat variably, it did not include metrical stress. Time signatures that regulated duration first appeared in 14th-century France. Each signature represented three levels of subdivision. Eventually one level was discarded. Most modern time signatures represent a basic unit plus one level of subdivision. With the introduction in the mid-15th century of white note heads (that is, unfilled outlines) in addition to the solid-color note heads already in use, the system was very close to modern notation.

During the 17th and 18th centuries the final changes to modern key and metrical time signatures occurred. By the mid-18th century, subsidiary instructions as to tempo, articulation, performing techniques, and expressiveness were commonly added. The use of such symbols greatly accelerated in the 19th century.

In the mid-20th century, critics pointed out that contemporary music was not well served by a system that was based on the seven unevenly spaced pitches of medieval music. The same criticism applied to rhythm subdivisions that were mostly duple and that treated tempo, dynamics, and articulation only vaguely.

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Musical Notation - History.

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