It’s easy to take for granted this ability to take a piece of music and understand it instantly, but this wasn’t always the case. Let’s explore the birth of modern musical notation and the history of this elegant practice.
Imagine yourself in the halls of Saint Stephen’s Cathedral, the predecessor to Notre-dame in Paris around the 9th or 10th century. You are surrounded by the music of the priests as they sing a style of song called plainsong or chant. You might know it as Gregorian Chant, named for Pope St. Gregory the Great. These chants were monophonic, meaning just a single melodic line sung in unison. There were strict rules about which notes could be sung and which couldn’t, as well as rules regarding what rhythms the singers were allowed to use. This makes sense when you consider that these chants were sung in great halls reverberating off of stone walls.
These plainsong chants were extremely successful and spread from one cathedral and congregation to the next. It left the church and the composers of these chants with an interesting problem. How do you teach someone who is miles and miles away in a different country a song that they’ve never heard? The answer to that question was the beginning of modern musical notation.
This practice first began with symbols called nuemes, little squiggles, pen strokes over the sung text that helped the singer remember the contour or shape of the melody: go up here and go down there. Later, these nuemes evolved into notes written on four-lined staves.
For the first time, a melody could be written down and read by someone else who had never heard it. Music, like language, now had a way to be written down, preserved and shared. But, unlike language, this notation offered a universal way of representing sound in time that could cross barriers and be adopted by almost every culture on the planet.