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Friday, April 21, 2017

How to read, write, and understand written music: An Ultra-brief History of Musical Notation

An Ultra-brief History of Musical Notation

Hear, There, Everywhere

When you hear something you like, thank a fish. About five hundred million years ago fish began to develop the ability to sense vibrations, but not with anything we would call an ear. Amphibians improved on the fishy system with sack-like organs containing clumps of neurons devoted only to sensing vibrations, much like the ears frogs have today. Birds improved the design even further.
The ear reached its peak with mammals and the appearance of pinna, the fleshy outer ear which funnels sound to the cochlea, one of the many tiny pieces of the inner ear. The cochlea takes sound vibrations, converts them into nerve impulses and sends them to the brain.

It took over one hundred million generations of critters to evolve an ear capable of hearing the ecstasy of the B Minor Mass, the groove of Enter Sandman, or the blistering Bebop of Charlie Parker.
With this wonderful ability to hear, it’s no surprise that we humans began to organize sounds into patterns of rhythm and pitch. That’s music. A question that will remain unanswered forever is what the first instrument was. Some say drum, some say voice, but we’ll never know for sure. Maybe it was something completely different.

Music Performed

From the very beginning, music was linked with magic and shamanism, and still is. Wherever you find a shaman, you’ll probably find a drum.
Music has magical powers. It can transport you into an altered state, heal sickness, purify the body and mind, and work miracles in nature. In the Old Testament David cures Saul’s madness with a harp, and the walls of Jericho were brought tumbling down by horns.

You may scoff at such primitivism, but do it softly and don’t let anyone hear you. Recent discoveries are showing that such ideas are not so cracked as you might think. Don’t believe me? Okay, here are some examples:
Imagine. It’s night. A cavern begins to fill with creatures which normally keep distance between themselves and the others of their kind. They rarely touch. Tonight, because of sound, they will experience an altered state of being.

Soon there will be ten thousand of them. Then twenty thousand. Thirty. 
More. Tonight they will crush together and dance to the music. On a raised platform, anywhere from three to a dozen people stroke or bang on or breathe into instruments which produce complex rhythms and pitches.
The sound causes us humans to behave in a way that’s different from the everyday norm, especially if we really like the band.

Here’s another scenario.
You’ve had a long hard day and you arrive home exhausted. At home loud and annoying music plays—something you really hate, like your dad’s vinyl Barry Manilow, or your kid’s Megadeth Live! CD—and it grates and grinds on your nerves.
Once it’s turned off, you heave a deep sigh and a peacefulness settles over you. You put on some of your favorite music—say that Barry Manilow record, or maybe that rockin’ Megadeth Live! CD—and the relaxation deepens.

Music therapy has shown positive results in those undergoing cardiac rehabilitation, and drug rehabilitation. Music has also helped sufferers of asthma, depression, high blood pressure, migraines and ulcers. Music can help with the production of melatonin, an important chemical in the body.
The use of music therapy in healing has gained much credibility and its use is increasing.

Or how about this:
You listen to the Mozart piano sonata in D, and when it’s over your spatial reasoning intelligence has jumped up several points. You’re temporarily smarter! Music does affect the brain.
There’s more:
A trained singer breathes deeply, begins a note and holds it. She sings with power and confidence and clarity. The note is high and clear and like a laser beam. A tall empty champagne glass sits on a stool nearby and begins to vibrate with the voice. The voice grows louder. The glass begins to tremble. Then it explodes in a shimmering cascade of shards.

Jane Goodall, the famous chimpanzee expert, relates a story about a chimp who discovered that banging two empty gasoline cans together makes a terribly wonderful racket. In a few days of banging the chimp had become the dominant male of the group. A percussionist’s dream.
There is power in sound.

These are only a very few examples of the strange power of music. There are many, many more which you can learn about by reading Don Campbell’s book, The Mozart Effect or take a gander at

How long has music been around? Nobody really knows, but we all suspect it’s been with us from the beginning.

Use your imagination to think about what the very first musical experience was. You have about as much chance being correct as anyone, and it’s fun to imagine.

Sound and music have been with us from the beginning. And, being the creatures that we are, it was only a matter of time until we developed a written language which could record these rhythms and pitches so that others could make them too.

Just like with language, music existed for a long, long time before it was written down, and some think music existed before spoken language.

Music was taught by rote, which means copying what another has played or sung. No need to read music, just copy the sounds, the fingerings, or whatever. It’s a method that takes a lot of time but works well and many, many people still learn this way.

But with a system of writing, a song could be shared with an audience far away, played by a musician who could read the lines and squiggles created by someone she has never met.

Writing Down the Bones

Our western tradition of written music—what you’re about to learn—has only been around a thousand years or so, not very long at all in the grand scheme of things.

There are older traditions of written music. Ancient Hindus and then the Greeks made use of the letters of their alphabet to write out music; the Persians used numbers and a kind of staff with nine lines between which the numbers were written; the Chinese used special signs for their pentatonic scales.
But it wasn’t until around 500 AD that we see the first glimmer of written western music.
Around this time lived Boethius, a Roman poet and philosopher who wrote a famous Latin treatise on music which was studied throughout the Middle Ages. In it was the first use of Latin letters to represent musical sounds.

Monks in the monasteries of the Catholic Church studied this treatise by Boethius and improved upon his ideas for their own system.

After a few hundred years, in addition to letter names for notes, a system of neumes (pronounced nooms, from the Greek word for sign) were invented. Neumes are signs written above the text of a song which show note length, pitch, and movement from one note to the next.

After a while, neumes began to be written on, above, or below a single line. The line represented a specific pitch. A neume written above the line was higher in pitch than a neume written below the line.

Around 1,000 AD many innovations in written music came to be.

Though it isn’t clear who invented them, Guido di Arezzo is given most of the credit. He was a Benedictine monk who was thrown out of his monastery for his radical innovations in music. It’s believed that he didn’t actually invent the staff, but increased the lines from two to four.

We’re lucky he got kicked out of the monastery because it caused his ideas to be spread more widely. After he had an audience with the Pope who recognized Guido’s skill, his monastery wanted him back.

Guido di Arezzo was definitely responsible for adding more lines to the staff, and he was also thought to have invented the Guidonian Hand, a system for singing together. He would point to specific places on his upraised hand which indicated a specific note. This allowed a large number of monks to sing together. The following example on the right shows the notes from low to high, starting with the thumb.

Up until this time most music was monophonic, which means it had only one part, usually vocal. All of the musical examples which survive from this time come from the church. There were popular secular (nonreligious) musicians around at the time, but they weren’t writing down what they played and so there is almost no record of it.
Prelude: An Ultra-brief History of Musical Notation An example of monophonic music is a type of song called a plain chant.

Some of the first examples of written western music are plain chants.

They sound more like inflection than singing and are still used in Roman Catholic churches today. Eventually all those monks got bored with singing one-line music and began to add other parts. Music was becoming more complex.

Music with more than one part is called polyphonic music. Polyphonic music soon became popular in the monasteries, but was difficult to write out.

Because polyphonic music is more complex than monophonic music, it was necessary to add more lines to show the other voices. This is where Guido d’Arezzo comes in. He expanded the staff to four lines. Soon after that a fifth line was added.

Over the next five hundred years, composers experimented with different systems of writing music. It was written in elaborate shapes and some times with a six-line staff. By about 1500 we arrived at a system which has remained nearly unchanged until today.

The Future

The spirit of experimentation with written music still exists. Modern composers like John Cage or Stephen Reich use notation which is radically different from what you’ll learn in this book.

Music, like any language, evolves over time. Maybe in another thousand years we’ll be reading music based on smells. Who knows? What do you think music will look like and sound like in another thousand years?

Moving On

Now that you have a general idea of the origins of written music, it’s time to get down to some specifics.

In Chapter Two you’ll learn about the staff: how it’s made and what it’s used for in music.

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