Ancient Musical Notation

What’s Missing in the History of Music Notation?

Cave paintings from 30,000 years ago show musical instruments and dancers, (in India.) That being observed, there is no particular continuity to western music notation. Even Indian music notation, which is said to be more complex than western, arose sometime after the cave painting was made. 

There is a cuneiform tablet from about 1400 BC, made in Nippur in Sumer, that is considered the earliest example of music notation in the west, or anywhere, for that matter. It’s instructional about performing, saying that the music is composed in thirds, (just like twin fiddling today), and uses the diatonic scale. It includes names of the strings on a lyre. The video below purports to translate and play this music notation.

Fast forward 800 years. We are now in Greece where an ancient form of music notation was used, or so the story goes. This form of notation was used until about the 4th century AD when it fell out of favor with the fall of Rome. And there are apparently no Roman examples of this notation. Only Greek. Some skeptics say that these may be forgeries put together in the 1500s as so many “Ancient Greek” documents and coins were at the same time.

More Questionable History–Byzantine

The Byzantine Empire may or may not have been influenced by this Greek system. Wikipedia is seriously hedging its bet on this topic. It may fall under the heading of various systems that indicate relative pitch without rhythm signals, many of which were used in the Middle ages. Definite note values did not show up until the 1300s, and bar lines with measures, finally in the late 1600s. (I question this assertion from Wikipedia. Are you telling me that Stradivarius and the Cremonese violin makers were crafting their incredibly fine violins for musicians that didn’t have bar lines? Maybe it’s just me but I believe Corelli and Vivaldi knew how to use bar lines.)

When it comes to the description of Guido d’Arrezo we get this howler of an error. They credit him with the invention of the musical stave, (staff in the US), and expand this by detailing what solfegio is. Not the same thing. Maybe he did invent the staff. How about showing us a picture of what he came up with. It must have had those blocky square notes that I don’t read. Not that I feel bad about that. I don’t read Chaucer either.

It seems that Catholic monks were motivated to create a reliable system for encoding Gregorian chant. They were behind the regularization of the little square notes. Not only did it make the religious service mostly the same from one place to another, but also speeded up the learning process of mastering a new chant.

Finally, Printed Music Notation

Up to this point there is a fair amount of uncertainty about what happened when and who really made it happen. Here is where this changes. Now we come to the invention of the printing press by Gutenburg. It was a technology that spread very fast throughout Europe and beyond. In 1439 Gutenberg demonstrated the effectiveness of moveable type. By 1500, one thousand printing presses were in operation. A man who was young at the invention saw tremendous technological change in his life time. Sound familiar?

In 1473 the first music was printed using the new invention. Most likely the little square notes we all know and love. Then, 200 years later you have the Baroque era when music looked like it does today. I don’t know who gets credit for the round note, but they did us a favor. Round notes just seem to flow better.

For an addendum, let’s back up a little bit and look at the ancient form of music notation called neumes. This word may related to the Latin word for breath, which works for singing. Or it may be from the Greek word for sign, as in  a sign of music? The earliest neumes were Aramaic. And the Aramaic alphabet was based on the Phoenician, which in turn evolved from Proto-Canaanite. This is an impressive lineage. 

Researching this post has yielded a theory about where the Phoenicians got their name. It doesn’t seem that any group would be called this unless they came close to getting wiped out and somehow pulled it together to be reborn as the ruling venture capitalists of the ancient middle eastern world. So, what almost did them in? The bronze age collapse hit them hard, but they survived. I haven’t seen any definite theory for why the bronze age collapsed, but it seems clear that it did, wiping out many city state civilizations. But, not those plucky Phoenicians! Before they were just humble Proto-Canaanites, although I doubt that’s what they called themselves. Afterwards they owned the known world. Not bad!

Previous Post


Next Post


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

CommentLuv badge