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Western Notation: Origins

Updated: Aug 2, 2023

At the Academy we teach a variety of different instruments and have students with many expectations. Each student starts lessons with a dream and we, as teachers, hope to guide that student in ways that will help them achieve their musical goal and have a deeper understanding of the music behind it.

Over the years I have thought about what do we mean by music lessons. For many many students this means reading music and playing their, current, favourite piece.

Music lessons are so much more than this.

They are learning how to

  • Read a story aloud in sound

  • Speak with sound instead of words

  • Tell a story with sound

  • Write story in music

  • Colour the passing of time with sound

  • Sing without words; just by using sound

to name just a few ....

Like a language there are so many things you can do with music. It starts for many, by learning to read music, but it is not the only way. There are many things to learn without reading a note of music.

The notation is a tool to help you play music written by others, or to write your music down so others can play it. Music still exists without notation.

The history of Western notation is interesting and worth some research. I will attempt to summarise here over the coming weeks. It is important, I feel, to remember the music came first. The song, the sound and the ability to create a sound. The notation gave a way to share the sound and to control the sounds, some may say to trap the sounds but let's take a trip back to where the notation started.

Staff notation started in 900 CE - 1000 CE with a series of symbols called neume.

In the above example letter names are provided, a single neume may represent a single pitch, or a series of pitches all sung on the same syllable. Cheironomic neumes indicated changes in pitch and duration within each syllable, but did not attempt to specify the pitches of individual notes, the intervals between pitches within a neume, or the relative starting pitches of different syllables' neumes.

There is evidence that the earliest Western musical notation, in the form of neumes in campo aperto, or without staff-lines, was created at Metz around 800 CE, as a result of Charlemagne's desire for church musicians to retain the style of singing from Rome.



The next installment will add some more to this section.

To follow...



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