Scarcely documented, the earliest forms of notation date back to the ancient civilizations of the Egyptian, Greek, Roman and Chinese empires. Remnants presented vague instructions for upwards or downwards movements in pitch. A primitive system found on a tombstone from Asia Minor and some Euripides play scripts revealed fragments of note names and dashes and dots to indicate rhythm. As sophisticated as it was, these methods weren’t widespread and became lost due to oral traditions in music. (Goodall H 2000)
It wasn’t until the Middle Ages around the 7th century that Pope Gregory ordered a codification of chants across Europe. With this movement, a system called neumes developed with written lines and accents above the words of hymns. But neumes had an imperfection; they provided shape for the music without a reference to pitch. The breakthrough came via Guido d’ Arezzo, a musical theorist from the medieval era who proposed a model for writing down music. He clarified pitch by creating the first 4-line stave to go above neumes. In addition, he invented a system for the modern scale known as sol-fa and a technique of hand signals called the Guidonian Hand. Guido paved the way for the birth of the modern composer, an individual who could reside in one place, compose more harmonically complex and elaborately technical works and become permanent artistic creators. (Goodall H 2000)
In the modern era notation changed to suit the needs of the music. Jazz notation developed to aid musicians wanting to quickly read chord charts or lead sheets. Although the use of chordal notation was not new as it can be found in the figured bass lines of the Baroque period, these symbols are “universally used in jazz and popular music” (Benward B & Saker M 2003). Contemporary composers have embraced traditional notations whilst also developing them into artworks, known as graphic notation. Around the 1950s graphic notation was utilised when notating new structures not found in traditional scores such as timbre, tone colour, space, frequencies and text. Anything from use of colour to architecture plans became a form of notation. The composer John Cage was one of the first to employ graphic notation. In the piece Ryoanji, Cage traced over rocks in a stone garden in Japan to create patterns and shapes, this being the basis for the score. Consequently, advances in technology have pushed notation to its limits but its core function has remained the same, to create a set of instructions as a means of organisation.
By Ben Seidman
Goodall, H. 2000, Big Bangs: The Story of Five Discoveries that Changed Musical History, Vintage, Australia
Benward, B & Saker, M. 2003, Music: In Theory and Practice, Seventh Edition, McGraw-Hill
2011, Neumes, Encyclopedia, Encyclopedia Britannica Online, viewed 2nd May 2011,