A Staff Report from the Straight Dope Science Advisory Board

Who invented musical notation?

May 20, 2003

Dear Straight Dope:

Who invented the notation that's used on sheet music today and how has that notation changed going back in time to who first created a way to write music down?

Ah, yes. The question that hordes of eight-year-olds forced to learn trumpet have asked themselves: "What the heck is this? Could they possibly have made it more complicated to read music?" I speak from experience here, Stewart.

Western musical notation has been an evolving system dating back at least to Greece and Rome. The Roman writer and statesman Boethius assigned 15 letters to 2 octaves' worth of tones around 500 AD. The fact that Boethius was later executed for treason is completely unrelated, I'm certain.

Even though the developer of the letters-as-pitches system was a Roman, most nations in Europe now use the "tonic sol fa" system made famous in The Sound of Music. Tonic sol fa was introduced by a monk named Guido d'Arezzo around 1000 AD and used the sounds ''Ut Re Mi Fa Sol La Si'' to represent the pitches in an octave. ''Ut'' was later changed in Italy to "Do" (for Dominus) so that God could be the beginning of the musical scale. "Si" was changed in the 1800s to "Te" so that each note would begin with a unique letter.

While everyone is familiar with do-re-mi, the more widely used method of naming notes in the English-speaking world is an updated version of the old Roman system, with the first seven letters of the alphabet, A through G, representing the pitches of an octave. For better or worse this makes possible the mnemonics "Every Good Boy Does Fine" and "All Cows Eat Grass," which help kids memorize the notes on the lines of the treble clef and the spaces of the bass clef, respectively.

Hmm, clefs. The concept of a clef began when the musical staff developed. Staffs once had as few as four lines and as many as six. Standardization of staves at five lines began in the 16th century. Originally the clef markings (the stylized letters C, F, and G) indicated where that note appeared on the staff--in the early days, each composer arranged the staff to suit the piece of music he was writing. The spaces and lines of the staff would indicate differing notes depending on the location of the clef sign. The modern system in which each note has a fixed location on the staff came later. 

The use of special symbols for sharps (one half step higher that the note written) or flats (one half step lower) began very early. The flat sign (the stylized lower-case "b" that I can't find a character for) developed from the symbol for B-flat (which was once considered a separate note on the scale). Later came the symbol for playing B-flat as a natural (non-flatted) note--a gothic lower case "b," which was a square with protruding vertical lines. Extending this gothic "b" symbol's lines in all directions gave us our symbol for sharp: #.

The first system of note duration is generally credited to Franco de Cologne in the 13th century in his work, Ars cantus mensurabilis. In this work de Cologne attempted to codify not only a note's pitch but also the length of time that it was held. A good beginning but somewhat limiting as most notes were either long (full) or short (one third of a long). Probably this would sound strange to those of us used to music having four beats to the measure (as the vast majority of western music does). A surviving part of de Cologne's system is the "triplet"--a rhythmic structure in which a specific duration is broken into three for effect.

Musical notation systems initially showed great variety, but in the 17th and 18th centuries now-familiar forms such as the key signature, note forms, time signatures, etc., began to be standardized. These days it's difficult to find written music that doesn't use this format, but some still exist.  The plainsong format used for Gregorian chant indicates only melody, while guitar music in "tablature" indicates frets, omitting duration. Almost all other western music uses the same notation, which when you think about it is a remarkable feat.

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