Letters, Dots, & Squiggles: A Brief History of Musical Notations

May 6, 2015

We’ve spent a lot of time on this blog discussing the finer points of how music can benefit your life, both through just passively listening, and through an active education in music. A lot of people have an interest in learning to play an instrument or to sing, but a shockingly large percentage of these people just never learn. There can be a lot of different reasons for why this happens, but one of the biggest and most common reasons I have heard is simple intimidation. Now, the people I am referring to are not necessarily intimidated by performing for an audience, or are worried about all the different buttons, keys, strings, or other “do-hickies” that help an instrument produce tones. No, these people are intimidated by the notes on the page. Reading music can seem like trying to figure out a foreign language to many people, and their interest in pursuing music ends with the first musical notation. This week we’re going to try to break down that intimidation a little by diving into the histories of all those little squiggles on sheet music.

Different forms of musical notations have been conceived by countless different cultures all around the world and across time, but the one most often used today has gone through its own form of rapid evolution, changing from basic notations indicating when a simple song goes lower or higher, to containing all the complexity and detail needed for a full, 100 piece orchestra.

Historians and anthropologists can tell you that music has been a significant part of human life and culture since before we began to record history. We even have ancient bone flutes that have lasted 42,000+ years, though we don’t have the first clue what the music they made sounded like. As we moved through human history each of the great civilizations have left us relics that show that making music was an important part of their daily lives. Even the Greek mathematicians Pythagoras (best known for that triangle thing) studied early music theory, specifically the mathematial attributes of harmony and scales. But even at this point in history, musical notations were extremely basic, describing only things like which lyre string to use, and how the lyre should be tuned. However, the beginnings of the system we use today was not too far off. During the 6th century AD, a Roman Philosopher by the name of Boethius developed a style of musical notation that used letters to represent each note; A to G. This style went on the be known, appropriately, as “Boethian notation.”

It may very well have been Boethius that got us started using letters to represent notes, but Western musical notation didn’t truly find its beginnings until the Church got busy making music throughout Europe, specifically Spain and Italy. It all started with what we call Gregorian Chants. Initially, the notation for these chants was extremely simple, only indicating if each note was higher or lower than the one the preceded it. This problem was eventually solved by introducing a stave of four horizontal lines. Most histories attribute the conception of the four-lined stave to an Italian Benedictine Monk by the name of Guido of Arezzo, who also wrote a treatise on musical notation called “Micrologues.” In “Microlagues” Guido also used the initial letters of hymns to define musical pitches. He started with ut, re, mi, fa, sol, and la. Over the years, and across countries “ut” became “do,” and “ti” was added to what became known as the “sol-fa” notation, something you are probably familiar with today. Eventually, through the 12th and 13th centuries, a fifth line was added to the stave, as well as the invention of notations denoting rhythm, with several styles coming into use around the same time. It was right about here, in the 1200s, that musical notation began to show some real power. Thanks to all the symbols now at musicians’ command it was possible to recreate musical pieces over and over, retaining continuity between performances. Even today we can recreate this 800 year old church music accurately and faithfully.

Of course, the church didn’t have a monopoly on music, and several further developments in musical notations came about outside of the church. Shortly after the use of five horizontal lines for the stave came into more wide use, clefs came into the mix to indicate the range of pitches, and sharps, flats, and key signatures came about to describe the pitch of the entire piece, a section, or even just a single note. With the introduction of the treble (or G-) clef and the bass (or F-) clef, musical notations began being used for instruments as well as choral music.

An important shift in musical notations came in the 15th century with the invention on the printing press. Up until this point all music had been written, and subsequently copied, by hand. But when the printing press came into wide use, it offered composers a bit more freedom to earn an income by publishing their own work. The use of the printing press to mass produce music also brought the added benefit of standardizing musical notations, because there was less room for the plethora of variations that came with hand printed music. Original pieces were still written by hand, of course, but they were then handed off to copyists for first performances, and later to the printing shop, where it was type-set for printing and a wide distribution. This pretty much set the standard for the musical notions most people in the Western world are familiar with today.

Different musical notations have continued to be used, even today. Most of these “alternative” notations are specific to a particular instrument. One example of this comes from the recorder flute you or your child may have played in grade school; pictograms are often used to show which holes should be covered to play a particular note. Probably the most well known example of this, however, is guitar “tablature” or tabs, which use a six lined stave to indicate the guitar strings and frets.

So there you have it, a brief history of those scary little dots and squiggles you see all over sheet music. Hopefully this helps to temper some of that intimidation a bit, and you can see that it’s not quite as complicated as learning a new language. Each and every notation has a single, concise meaning, and once you’ve mastered these few symbols, you’ll be able to read any sheet music put in front of you!