The End of Europe's Middle Ages

The Development of Musical Notation

All early music was memorised and musical notation did not exist. By the end of the eighth century, however, certain aids were developed to help memory and ensure that music remained standardised throughout the Roman Church. These aids, called neumes, were small signs, lines, points, hooks and various other symbols placed above the text to provide a reminder of the music which the singer was supposed to know. Although greatly modified to suit local needs, the neumes had two main characteristic notations:

  1. The virga - a line rising obliquely left to right.
  2. The punctum - a descending line that was eventually abbreviated to a point.

In the 10th century, copyists related the neumes to a line representing the medium register of the melody. Lower notes were placed below the line while higher notes were placed above the line at proportionate distances. This was the principle of diastemic notation.

Eventually, additional lines were added and often coloured differently for the notes they represented - red for F, yellow for C. By the end of the twelfth century, the four-line stave was in use. The lines, at intervals of a third, were marked with the letter of the note they represented, making coloured lines superfluous. These letters provided the basis for musical clefs.

Many of these innovations have been attributed to Gui d'Arrezzo who actually organised and popularised them. He can probably be credited with the invention of solmization, a primitive method of solfège that led to the elaboration of the present system.

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The End of Europe's Middle Ages / Applied History Research Group / University of Calgary
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