Two different systems of letters were used to write down the instrumental and the vocal music of ancient Greece. In his five textbooks on music theory Boethius (c.A.D. 470-A.D. 525) applied the first 15 letters of the alphabet to the notes in use at the end of the Roman period. Notation of Gregorian chant was by means of neumes, which are thought to have been derived from symbols used in the Greek language to indicate pitch inflection. Neumes were certainly in use by the 6th cent., although the earliest extant manuscripts containing them are fragmentary ones from the 8th cent. These neumes indicated only the grouping of sounds in a given melody, evidently to recall to a singer the approximate shape of a melody already learned by ear.
Heighted neumes, arranged above and below a line, made the intervals of a melody more discernible in 10th-century notation, and by the end of the 12th cent. the staff perfected by Guido d'Arezzo was in use. Guido placed letters on certain lines to indicate their pitch, and thereby the pitch of the remaining lines and spaces. The letters evolved into the clef signs used today. Guido also invented a system of naming scale degrees using the initial syllables of the lines of a Latin hymn (ut, re, mi, fa, sol, la). Originally used for teaching sight singing, these or their derivatives are also used in some languages for naming absolute pitches.
A staff of five lines for vocal music was adopted in France and one of six lines in Italy. Instrumental music employed staves of varying numbers of lines until the 16th cent., when the five-line staff became the standard. Signs for chromatic alteration of tones appear almost from the beginning and had assumed their present shapes by the end of the 17th cent. The essential problems in pitch notation, the use of both lines and spaces to indicate successive scale degrees and the use of extra symbols to indicate raising or lowering a tone by a half step, were solved comparatively rapidly.
However, the evolution of the rhythmic notation used today took much longer than that for pitch. Mensural notation, in which each note has a specific time value, became a necessity with the development of polyphony. At first, certain patternings of neumes were used to represent the various rhythmic modes; later, in his Ars cantus mensurabilis (c.1280), Franco of Cologne created a clear indication for each note of its exact rhythmic length and selected certain neumes to represent tones of long and short duration. In his system, the long value was in principle equal to three of the short values.
In the 14th cent. Philippe de Vitry, author of Ars nova, which expands the system of Franco, codified the ready availability of duple divisions of the long and short notes. At the various rhythmic levels of a given piece either a 2:1 or a 3:1 relationship was implied, and a system of signs and colored notes developed for indicating which relationships were in force or were being temporarily altered.
In the 15th cent. numbers with the appearance of fractions indicated that one proportionality of rhythmic values was temporarily being substituted for another. Modern signatures evolved from these numbers. Bar lines, expression signs, and Italian terms to indicate tempo and dynamics came into use in the 17th cent. With the adoption of equal temperament and the major and minor modes, signatures indicating a major key or its relative minor became conventional. They assumed their present form during the baroque period.
The advent of aleatory music has produced notation systems, varying from piece to piece, indicating only approximate pitch, duration, and dynamic relations. Notation for electronic music is still not standardized but generally uses traditional reference symbols (staff and clef signs) in conjunction with specially adapted pitch and rhythm notation.
See W. Apel, The Notation of Polyphonic Music, 900-1600 (5th ed. 1961); C. F. A. Williams, The Story of Notation (1903, repr. 1969); E. Karkoschka, Notation in New Music (1972), G. Read, Music Notation (3d ed. 1972).
Common symbols used in modern musical notation.
Learn more about musical notation with a free trial on Britannica.com.
Ancient Greek musical notation was capable of representing pitch and note-duration, and to a limited extent, harmony. It was in use from at least the 6th century BC until approximately the 4th century AD; several complete compositions and fragments of compositions using this notation survive. The notation consists of symbols placed above text syllables. An example of a complete composition is the Seikilos epitaph, which has been variously dated between the 2nd century BC to the 1st century AD. Three hymns by Mesomedes of Crete exist in manuscript. The Delphic Hymns, dated to the 2nd century BC, also use this notation, but they are not completely preserved. Ancient Greek notation appears to have fallen out of use around the time of the fall of the Roman empire.
Arabic maqam is the system of melodic modes used in traditional Arabic music, which is mainly melodic. The word maqam in Arabic means place, location or rank. The Arabic maqam is a melody type. Each maqam is built on a scale, and carries a tradition that defines its habitual phrases, important notes, melodic development and modulation. Both compositions and improvisations in traditional Arabic music are based on the maqam system. Maqams can be realized with either vocal or instrumental music, and do not include a rhythmic component.
A theory on the origins of the Western solfège musical notation suggests that it may have had Arabic origins. It has been argued that the solfège syllables (do, re, mi, fa, sol, la, ti) may have been derived from the syllables of the Arabic solmization system Durr-i-Mufassal ("Separated Pearls") (dal, ra, mim, fa, sad, lam). This origin theory was first proposed by Meninski in his Thesaurus Linguarum Orientalum (1680) and then by Laborde in his Essai sur la Musique Ancienne et Moderne (1780).
The ancestors of modern symbolic music notation originated in the Roman Catholic Church, as monks developed methods to put plainchant (sacred songs) to paper. The earliest of these ancestral systems, from the 8th century, did not originally utilise a staff, and used neum (or neuma or pneuma), a system of dots and strokes that were placed above the text. Although capable of expressing considerable musical complexity, they could not exactly express pitch or time and served mainly as a reminder to one who already knew the tune, rather than a means by which one who had never heard the tune could sing it exactly at sight.
To address the issue of exact pitch, a staff was introduced consisting originally of a single horizontal line, but this was progressively extended until a system of four parallel, horizontal lines was standardized. The vertical positions of each mark on the staff indicated which pitch or pitches it represented (pitches were derived from a musical mode, or key). Although the four-line staff has remained in use until the present day for plainchant, for other types of music, staffs with differing numbers of lines have been used at various times and places for various instruments. The modern five-line staff was first adopted in France and became almost universal by the 16th century (although the use of staffs with other numbers of lines was still widespread well into the 17th century).
Because the neum system arose from the need to notate songs, exact timing was initially not a particular issue because the music would generally follow the natural rhythms of the Latin language. However, by the 10th century a system of representing up to four note lengths had been developed. These lengths were relative rather than absolute and depended on the duration of the neighbouring notes. It was not until the 14th century that something like the present system of fixed note lengths arose. Starting in the 15th century, vertical bar lines were used to divide the staff into sections. These did not initially divide the music into measures (bars) of equal length (as most music then featured far fewer regular rhythmic patterns than in later periods), but appear to have been introduced as an aid to the eye for "lining up" notes on different staves that were to be played or sung at the same time. The use of regular measures (bars) became commonplace by the end of the 17th century.
The founder of what is now considered the standard music stave was Guido d'Arezzo, an Italian Benedictine monk who lived from 995–1050 His revolutionary method—combining a four-line stave with the first form of notes known as 'neumes'—was the precursor to the five-line stave, which was introduced in the 14th century and is still in use today. Guido D'Arezzo's achievements paved the way for the modern form of written music, music books, and the modern concept of a composer.
Modern music notation originated in European classical music and is now used by musicians of many different genres throughout the world.
The system uses a five-line staff. Pitch is shown by placement of notes on the staff (sometimes modified by accidentals), and duration is shown with different note values and additional symbols such as dots and ties. Notation is read from left to right, which makes setting music for right-to-left scripts difficult.
A staff of written music generally begins with a clef, which indicates the particular range of pitches encompassed by the staff. Notes representing a pitch outside of the scope of the five line staff can be represented using ledger lines, which provide a single note with additional lines and spaces.
In music for ensembles, a "score" shows music for all players together, while "parts" contain only the music played by an individual musician. A score can be constructed (laboriously) from a complete set of parts and vice versa.
In the notation of Indian rāga, a solfege-like system called sargam is used. As in Western solfege, there are names for the seven basic pitches of a major scale (Shadja, Rishabh, Gandhar, Madhyam, Pancham, Dhaivat and Nishad, usually shortened Sa Re Ga ma Pa Dha Ni). The tonic of any scale is named Sa, and the dominant Pa. Sa is fixed in any scale, and Pa is fixed at a fifth above it (a Pythagorean fifth rather than an equal-tempered fifth). These two notes are known as achala swar ('fixed notes'). Each of the other five notes, Re, Ga, ma, Dha and Ni, can take a 'regular' (shuddha) pitch, which is equivalent to its pitch in a standard major scale (thus, shuddha Re, the second degree of the scale, is a whole-step higher than Sa), or an altered pitch, either a half-step above or half-step below the shuddha pitch. Re, Ga, Dha and Ni all have altered partners that are a half-step lower (Komal-"flat") (thus, komal Re is a half-step higher than Sa). Ma has an altered partner that is a half-step higher (teevra-"sharp") (thus, tivra Ma is an augmented fourth above Sa). Re, Ga, ma, Dha and Ni are called vikrut swar ('movable notes'). In the written system of Indian notation devised by Ravi Shankar, the pitches are represented by Western letters. Capital letters are used for the achala swar, and for the higher variety of all the vikrut swar. Lowercase letters are used for the lower variety of the vikrut swar.
Other systems exist for non-twelve-tone equal temperament and non-Western music, such as the Indian svar lippi. New systems that remove handicaps in existing systems are also being developed like Ome Swarlipi
The earliest known examples of text referring to music in China are inscriptions on musical instruments found in the Tomb of Marquis Ye of Zeng (d. 433 B.C.E.). Sets of 41 chimestones and 65 bells bore lengthy inscriptions concerning pitches, scales, and transposition. The bells still sound the pitches that their inscriptions refer to. Although no notated musical compositions were found, the inscriptions indicate that the system was sufficiently advanced to allow for musical notation. Two systems of pitch nomenclature existed, one for relative pitch and one for absolute pitch. For relative pitch, a solmization system was used.
The tablature of the guqin is unique and complex; the older form is composed of written words describing how to play a melody step-by-step using the plain language of the time, i.e. Descriptive Notation (Classical Chinese); the newer form, composed of bits of Chinese characters put together to indicate the method of play is called Prescriptive Notation. Rhythm is only vaguely indicated in terms of phrasing. Tablatures for the qin are collected in what is called qinpu.
The jianpu system of notation (an adaptation of a French Galin-Paris-Cheve system) had gained widespread acceptance by 1900 C.E. In this system, notes of the scale are numbered. For a typical Pentatonic Scale, the numbers 1,2,3,5,6 would be used. Dots above or below the notes would indicate a higher or lower octaves. Time values are indicated by dots and dashes following each number. Key signatures, barlines, and time signatures are also employed. The system also makes use of many symbols from the standard notation, such as bar lines, time signatures, accidentals, tie and slur, and the expression markings. In the present-day jianpu system, only the melody is notated. Harmonic and rhythmic elements are left to the discretion of the performers.
Composers and scholars both Indonesian and foreign have also mapped the slendro and pelog tuning systems of gamelan onto the western staff, with and without various symbols for microtones. The Dutch composer Ton de Leeuw also invented a three line staff for his composition Gending. However, these systems do not enjoy widespread use.
In the second half of the twentieth century, Indonesian musicians and scholars extended cipher notation to other oral traditions, and a diatonic scale cipher notation has become common for notating western-related genres (church hymns, popular songs, and so forth). Unlike the cipher notation for gamelan music, which uses a "fixed Do" (that is, 1 always corresponds to the same pitch, within the natural variability of gamelan tuning), Indonesian diatonic cipher notation is "moveable-Do" notation, so scores must indicate which pitch corresponds to the number 1 (for example, "1=C."
Solfège is a way of assigning syllables to names of the musical scale. In order, they are today: Do, Re, Mi, Fa, Sol, La, Ti, and Do (for the octave). The classic variation is: Do, Re, Mi, Fa, Sol, La, Si, Do. These functional names of the musical notes were introduced by Guido of Arezzo (c.991 – after 1033) using the beginning syllables of the first six musical lines of the Latin hymn Ut queant laxis. The original sequence was Ut, Re, Mi, Fa, Sol, La, where each verse would start a note higher. "Ut" later became "Do". The equivalent syllables used in Indian music are: Sa, Ri, Ga, Ma, Pa, Dha, and Ni, while the 'bilinear music notation' system offers a chromatic method: Li, (Je), Ja, (Bo), Baw, Zu, (Zer or Fer), Fee, (De), Da, (Go), and Gaw. See also: solfège, sargam, Kodály Hand Signs. In China Qi is used instead of Ti (Qi for 七, Chinese 7).
Tonic Sol-fa is a type of notation using the initial letters of solfège.
The term 'graphic notation' refers to the contemporary use of non-traditional symbols and text to convey information about the performance of a piece of music. It is used for experimental music, which in many cases is difficult to transcribe in standard notation. Practitioners include Christian Wolff, Earle Brown, John Cage, Morton Feldman, Krzysztof Penderecki, Cornelius Cardew, and Roger Reynolds. See Notations, edited by John Cage and Alison Knowles, ISBN 0-685-14864-5.
Parsons code is used to encode music so that it can be easily searched. This style is designed to be used by individuals without any musical background.
Braille music is a complete, well developed, and internationally accepted musical notation system that has symbols and notational conventions quite independent of print music notation. It is linear in nature, similar to a printed language and different from the two-dimensional nature of standard printed music notation. To a degree Braille music resembles musical markup languages such as XML for Music or NIFF. See Braille music.
Beside notations developed for human readers and performers, there are also many computer oriented representations of music designed to either be turned into conventional notation, or read directly by the computer.
There are a great many software programs designed to produce musical notation. These are called musical notation software, or sometimes Scorewriters. In addition to this software, there are many file formats used to store musical information that this software and other programs can convert into notation, sound, or into some other usable form. In a sense, these file formats are a "notation" for computers.
The most common musical file format is probably the MIDI file format, which stores pitch and timing information about music (as well as velocity, volume, pitch bend, and modulation) and can be used to control a MIDI instrument which will produce the specified sound.
There are also hybrid formats, such as ABC notation, Lilypond, and MusicXML that are text files that can be read and edited by a capable human, but can also be manipulated by the computer. One notable system is the NEUMES standard, which is being used to form a computerized catalog of Medieval plainchant that can be searched by melody, text, or any encoded aspect of the music. Similarly the Mutopia project maintains a library of scores available in such formats (though they are not searchable by content).
Finally there are notational forms that are not intended to be processed by computer, but are nonetheless commonly used to transmit information via computer, such as text file guitar tablature which has become extremely popular following the growth of the World Wide Web.
A further perspective on musical notation is provided in the "Composer's Note" from Fredrick Pritchard's "Brushed With Blue", Op. 55 "(No. 2, performed by Fredrick Pritchard)", pub. Effel Publications, 2002: