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Music notation or musical notation is a system of writing for music. Different systems of music notation have been developed in several cultures.
In music for ensembles, a score shows music for all players together, while parts contain only the music played by an individual musician. A score can be constructed (laboriously) from a complete set of parts and vice versa.
Beside notations developed for human readers and performers, there are also many computer oriented representations of music designed to either be turned into conventional notation, or read directly by the computer.
There is some evidence that a kind of musical notation was practiced by the Egyptians from the 3rd millennium BC and by others in Asia since ancient times.  India, like Europe, has a long history of sophisticated musical notation. Musical treatises have appeared throughout Indian history, going all the way back to the Vedas composed from around 1500 BC to 500 BC.  Indian musical notation known as swar lipi has existed in India from the ancient Vedic era up to the modern era. 
Ancient Greek musicians developed the first known system of musical notation. It was practical and sophisticated. It was in use from at least the 6th century BC till approximately the 4th century AD; several complete compositions and fragments of compositions using this notation survive. The notation consists of symbols placed above text syllables. An example of a complete composition is the Seikilos epitaph, which has been variously dated between the 2nd century BC to the 1st century AD. Three complete hymns by Mesomedes of Crete exist in manuscript. The Delphic Hymns, dated to the 2nd century BC, also use this notation, but they are not completely preserved (see photograph). Knowledge of the ancient Greek notation was lost to the West around the time of the fall of the Roman Empire.
The Indian scholar and musical theorist Pingala (c. 3rd century BC), in his Chanda Sutra, used a form of musical notation by using a binary numeral system to represent long and short syllables to classify 16 different meters of four syllables. He also used the meru-prastara (Pascal's triangle) to represent the different combinations and variations of sounds, and used the binomial theorem to detect the quality of the metres. 
Scholar and music theorist Isidore of Seville, writing in the early 7th century, famously remarked that it was impossible to notate music. By the middle of the 9th century, however, a form of notation began to develop in monasteries in Europe for Gregorian chant, using symbols known as neumes; the earliest surviving musical notation of this type is in the Musica disciplina of Aurelian of Réôme, from about 850. There are scattered survivals from the Iberian peninsula before this time of a type of notation known as Visigothic neumes, but its few surviving fragments have not yet been deciphered.
Other types of notation date from the 10th century in China and Japan. In East Asia, and elsewhere in Asia, music was notated with the use of characters for sounds. Rhythmic motifs could also be prescribed in a similar way. In Europe on the other hand, the foundations were laid for a purely symbolic notation of music, which does not seem to have existed anywhere else except India.
The founder of what is now considered the standard music stave was Guido d'Arezzo, an Italian Benedictine monk who lived from 995-1050 A.D. His revolutionary method--combining a 4 line stave with the first form of notes known as 'neumes'--was the precursor to the the five line stave, which was introduced in the 14th century and is still in use today. Guido D'Arezzo's achievements paved the way for the modern form of written music, music books and the modern concept of a composer.
Western Standard notation described
Present day standard music notation is based on a five-line staff. Pitch is shown by placement of notes on the staff (modified by additional symbols called sharps and flats), and duration is shown with different note shapes and additional symbols such as ties.
Elements of the staff
A staff is generally presented with a clef, which indicates the particular range of pitches encompassed by the staff. A treble clef placed at the beginning of a line of music indicates that the lowest line of the staff represents the note E above middle C, while the highest line represents the note F one octave higher. Other common clefs include the bass clef (second G below middle C up to A below middle C), alto clef (F below middle C to G above middle C) and tenor clef (D below middle C to E above middle C). These last two clefs are examples of C clefs, in which the line pointed to by the clef should be interpreted as a middle C. In a similar fashion, the treble clef points to a G and the bass clef points to an F.
In early music, the clef was written as a letter and its location on the staff was chosen by the writer. The treble clef and bass clef used today are stylized versions of the letters G and F, respectively. Their locations are now standardized. Unusual clefs are used for certain requirements, such as tenor parts in choral music.
Following the clef, the key signature on a staff indicates the key of the piece by specifying certain notes to be held flat or sharp throughout the piece, unless otherwise indicated. The key signature is presented in the order of the circle of fifths, with flats B-E-A-D-G-C-F and sharps in the opposite order, F-C-G-D-A-E-B.
Following the key signature is the time signature. Measures mark off sections of the piece of equal duration (with measure lines), and time signatures specify what that duration is. A time signature of 4/4, for example, specifies that each measure will have four quarter notes worth of time per measure, the top numeral functioning as a cardinal number and the bottom numeral functioning as a code for quarter note. The same music could theoretically be marked off in measures of any duration without affecting the sound, but we will generally choose a duration that reflects the prevailing grouping. Thus a time signature of 4/4 also implies (but only implies) groupings of four beats or pulses. A time signature of 2/2 specifies that each measure will last two half notes worth of time and implies groupings of two.
Notes representing a pitch outside of the scope of the five line staff can be represented using leger lines, which provide a single note with additional lines and spaces. Octave (8va) notation is used, particularly for keyboard music, where notes are substantially above or below the staff.
Multiple staves can be grouped together to form a staff system. A system is used where two staves are required to cover the range of the instrument (as with a keyboard instrument), or where multiple related instruments are played (as with three violin parts on a score). A score for ensemble music includes multiple systems, as does most organ music (where the pedals are written as a separate system).
Various directions to the player regarding matters such as tempo and dynamics are added above or below the staff, often in Italian (sometimes abbreviated). For vocal music, lyrics are written.
Here is a sample illustrating some common musical notation.
- Listen to this piece
Development of music notation
- See also: Modal notation and Mensural notation
The earliest known music notation was encoded in cuneiform script in the region of Mesopotamia, with surviving examples dating as far back as the middle of the second millennium B.C.E. Later civilizations, most notably that of Ancient Greece, developed their own forms of notation, which were often written on sheets or scrolls of papyrus.
The ancestors of modern symbolic music notation originated in the Orthodox church, as monks developed methods to put plainchant (sacred songs) to paper. The earliest of these ancestral systems, from the 8th century, did not originally utilise a staff, and used neum (or neuma or pneuma), a system of dots and strokes that were placed above the text. Although capable of expressing considerable musical complexity, they could not exactly express pitch or time and served mainly as a reminder to one who already knew the tune, rather than a means by which one who had never heard the tune could sing it exactly at sight.
To address the issue of exact pitch, a staff was introduced consisting originally of a single horizontal line, but this was progressively extended until a system of four parallel, horizontal lines was standardised on. The vertical positions of each mark on the staff indicated which pitch or pitches it represented (pitches were derived from a musical mode, or key). Although the 4-line staff has remained in use until the present day for plainchant, for other types of music, staffs with differing numbers of lines have been used at various times and places for various instruments. The modern system of a universal standard 5-line staff was first adopted in France, and became widely used by the 16th century (although the use of staffs with other numbers of lines was still widespread well into the 17th century).
Because the neum system arose from the need to notate songs, exact timing was initially not a particular issue as the music would generally follow the natural rhythms of the Latin language. However, by the 10th century a system of representing up to four note lengths had been developed. These lengths were relative rather than absolute, and depended on the duration of the neighboring notes. It was not until the 14th century that something like the present system of fixed note lengths arose. Starting in the 15th century, vertical bar lines were used to divide the staff into sections. These did not initially divide the music into measures of equal length (as most music then featured far fewer regular rhythmic patterns than in later periods), but appear to have been introduced as an aid to the eye for "lining up" notes on different staves that were to be played or sung at the same time. The use of regular measures became commonplace by the end of the 17th century.
It is worth noting that standard notation was originally developed for use with voice. Proponents of other systems claim that standard notation is less than ideally suited to instrumental music.
Symbols used in modern musical notation
In Britain, the note lengths are considered in a different way.
Semibreve: 4, Minim: 2, Crotchet: 1, Quaver: 1/2, Semiquaver: 1/4.
This means, that in a 4/4 bar, there is 1 Semibreve in a bar, or 4 Crotchets, 8 Quavers etc.
See also: Da capo, Dal Segno, Coda, Fermata, Accent.
Terms for note durations in American and British English:
In U.S. parlance, semibreve and minim are used only in discussions of early music; whole note and half note are used in other contexts. The breve is rarely used in baroque and later eras. When it appears, it is written as oo or |O|.
According to Richard Middleton (1990, p.104-6), and also Philip Tagg (1979, p.28-32), musicology and to a degree European-influenced musical practice suffer from a 'notational centricity', "a methodology slanted by the characteristics of notation."
"Musicological methods tend to foreground those musical parameters which can be easily notated...they tend to neglect or have difficulty with parameters which are not easily notated", such as happens in Fred Lerdahl's work. "Notation-centric training induces particular forms of listening, and these then tend to be applied to all sorts of music, appropriately or not."
Notational centricity also encourages "reification: the score comes to be seen as 'the music', or perhaps the music in an ideal form."
Other notation systems
Figured bass notation originated in baroque basso continuo parts. It is also used extensively in accordion notation, and for jazz. For continuo and jazz parts, it implies improvisation by the performer; for accordion, it is used to notate the bass button to be used.
The shape note system is found in some church hymnals, sheet music, and song books, especially in the American south. Instead of the customary elliptical note head, note heads of various shapes are used to show the position of the note on the major scale. Sacred Harp is one of the most popular tune books using shape notes.
Fake books (and the Real Books) utilize standard notation, but with key signatures only on the beginning stave, for the melodic line with letter notation for chord names, chord symbols, written above. Improvisation is implied and this system is used for jazz and popular music. See Berklee College of Music.
The notes of the 12-tone scale can be written by their letter names A-G, possibly with a trailing sharp or flat symbol, such as A♯ or B♭. This is the most common way of specifying a note in speech or in written text.
Letter notation is the most common way of indicating chords for accompaniment, such as guitar chords, for example B♭7. The bass note may be specified after a /, for example C/G is a C major chord with a G bass.
Where a capo is indicated, there is little standardisation. For example, after capot 3, most music sheets will write A to indicate a C chord, that is, they give the chord shape rather than its pitch, but some specify it as C, others give two lines, either the C on top and the A on the bottom or vice versa. A few even use the /, writing C/A or A/C, but this notation is more commonly used for specifying a bass note and will confuse most guitarists.
Note names can also be used for indicating keys and even writing out tunes. In all of these uses notes must be named for their diatonic functionality. For example, in the key of D major, it is not generally correct to specify G♭ as a melodic note, although its pitch may be the same as F♯.
Note names are also used for specifying the natural scale of a transposing instrument such as a clarinet, trumpet or saxophone. The note names used are conventional, for example a clarinet is said to be in B♭ or A♭ (the two most common registers), never in A♯ and G♯, while an alto flute is in G.
Note names can also be qualified to indicate the octave in which they are sounded. There are several schemes for this, the most common being scientific pitch notation. Scientific pitch notation is often used to specify the range of an instrument. Again, the names used are arbitrary or conventional.
Tonic Sol-fa is a type of notation using the initial letters of solfege.
Solfege is a way of assigning syllables to names of the musical scale. In order, they are today: Do, Re, Mi, Fa, Sol, La, Ti, and Do (for the octave). Another common variation is: Do, Re, Mi, Fa, So, La, Si, Do. These functional names of the musical notes were introduced by Guido of Arezzo (c.991 – after 1033) using the beginning syllables of the first six musical lines of the Latin hymn Ut queant laxis. The original sequence was Ut, Re, Mi, Fa, Sol, La. "Ut" later became "Do". See also: solfege, sargam
The numbered musical notation system, better known as jianpu, meaning "simplified notation" in Chinese, is widely used among the Chinese people and probably some other Asian communities. Numbers 1 to 7 represent the seven notes of the diatonic major scale, and number 0 represents the musical rest. Dots above a note indicate octaves higher, and dots below indicate octaves lower. Underlines of a note or a rest shorten it, while dots and dashes after lengthen it. The system also makes use of many symbols from the standard notation, such as bar lines, time signatures, accidentals, tie and slur, and the expression markings.
In many cultures, including Chinese (jianpu or gongche), Indonesian (kepatihan), and Indian (sargam), the "sheet music" consists primarily of the numbers, letters or native characters representing notes in order. Those different systems are collectively known as cipher notations. The numbered notation is an example, so are letter notation and solfege if written in musical sequence.
Braille music is a complete, well developed, and internationally accepted musical notation system that has symbols and notational conventions quite independent of print music notation. It is linear in nature, similar to a printed language and different from the two-dimensional nature of standard printed music notation. To a degree Braille music resembles musical markup languages such as XML for Music or NIFF. See Braille music.
In integer notation, or the integer model of pitch, all pitch classes and intervals between pitch classes are designated using the numbers 0 through 11. It is not used to notate music for performance, but is a common analytical and compositional tool when working with chromatic music, including twelve tone, serial, or otherwise atonal music. Pitch classes can be notated in this way by assigning the number 0 to some note - C natural by convention - and assigning consecutive integers to consecutive semitones; so if 0 is C natural, 1 is C sharp, 2 is D natural and so on up to 11 which is B natural. (See pitch class.) The C above this is not 12, but 0 again (12-12=0). Thus arithmetic modulo 12 is used to represent octave equivalence. One advantage of this system is that it ignores the "spelling" of notes (B sharp, C natural and D double-flat are all 0) according to their diatonic functionality.
There are a few drawbacks with integer notation. First, theorists have traditionally used the same integers to indicate elements of different tuning systems. Thus, the numbers 0, 1, 2, ... 5, are used to notate pitch classes in 6-tone equal temperament. This means that the meaning of a given integer changes with the underlying tuning system: "1" can refer to C♯ in 12-tone equal temperament, but D in 6-tone equal temperament. Second, integer notation does not seem to allow for the notation of microtones, or notes not belonging to the underlying equal division of the octave. For these reasons, some theorists have recently advocated using rational numbers to represent pitches and pitch classes, in a way that is not dependent on any underlying division of the octave. See the articles on pitch and pitch class for more information.
Another drawback with integer notation is that the same numbers are used to represent both pitches and intervals. For example, the number 4 serves both as a label for the pitch class E (if C=0) and as a label for the distance between the pitch classes D and F♯. (In much the same way, the term "10 degrees" can function as a label both for a temperature, and for the distance between two temperatures.) Only one of these labelings is sensitive to the (arbitrary) choice of pitch class 0. For example, if one makes a different choice about which pitch class is labeled 0, then the pitch class E will no longer be labelled "4." However, the distance between D and F♯ will still be assigned the number 4. The late music theorist David Lewin was particularly sensitive to the confusions that this can cause.
Tablature was first used in the Renaissance for lute music. A staff is used, but instead of pitch values, the fret or frets to be fingered are written instead. Rhythm is written separately and durations are relative and indicated by horizontal space between notes. In later periods, lute and guitar music was written with standard notation. Tablature caught interest again in the late 20th century for popular guitar music and other fretted instruments, being easy to transcribe and share over the internet in ASCII format. Websites like OLGA.net have archives of text-based popular music tablature.
In China, the tablature of the guqin is unique and complex; the older form composed of written words describing how to play a melody step-by-step using the plain language of the time; the newer form composed of bits of Chinese characters put together to indicate the method of play. Rhythm is not indicated. Tablatures for the qin are collected in what is called qinpu.
Klavar notation (or "klavarskribo") is a chromatic system of notation geared mainly towards keyboard instruments, which inverts the usual "graph" of music. The pitches are indicated horizontally, with "staff" lines in twos and threes like the keyboard, and the sequence of music is read vertically from top to bottom. A considerable body of repertoire has been transcribed into Klavar notation.
Notation of percussion instruments
Percussion notation conventions are varied because of the wide range of percussion instruments. Percussion instruments are generally grouped into two categories: pitched and non-pitched. The notation of non-pitched percussion instruments is the more problematic and less standardized. Non-pitched percussion notation on a conventional staff once commonly employed the bass clef, but a neutral staff of two parallel vertical lines is usually preferred now. It is usual to label each instrument and technique the first time it is introduced, or to add an explanatory footnote, to clarify this. Below is an example of drum set notation:
Mounted triangle: leger-line high C with "X" replacing notehead. Maraca: high-B with "+" replacing notehead. Mounted tambourine: high-B with "X" through conventional notehead. (Note: all pitch values here, such as "high C", are named as if on the bass staff)
Rolls: three diagonal lines across stem (or above whole note). Open hi-hat: o above high-G X. Closed hi-hat: + above high-G X. Rim click: X in E snare space. Stick shot: diagonal slash through note head. Brush sweep: horizontal line (replacing note head) in E snare space with slur to show brush is not lifted. (With stem this looks rather like a long "T" or a long inverted "T", depending which way the stem is going.)
Anti-accents or "Ghost" notes
- slightly softer than surrounding notes: u (breve above or below--inverted--notehead)
- significantly softer than surrounding notes: ( ) (note head in parentheses)
- much softer than surrounding notes: [ ] (note head in brackets)
The term 'graphic notation' refers to the contemporary use of non-traditional symbols and text to convey information about the performance of a piece of music. It is used for experimental music, which in many cases is difficult to transcribe in standard notation. Practitioners include Christian Wolff, Earle Brown, John Cage, Morton Feldman, Krzysztof Penderecki, Cornelius Cardew, and Roger Reynolds. See Notations, edited by John Cage and Alison Knowles, ISBN 0-685-14864-5.
Parsons code is used to encode music so that it can be easily searched. This style is designed to be used by individuals without any musical background.
Systems not based on the standard 12-tone scale
Other systems exist for non twelve tone equal temperament and non-Western music, such as the Indian svar lippi. Some cultures use their own cipher notations for those their music. In ancient Byzantium and Russia sacred music was notated with special 'hooks and banners' (see znamennoe singing).Sometimes the pitches of music written in just intonation are notated with the frequency ratios, while Ben Johnston has devised a system for representing just intonation with traditional western notation and the addition of accidentals which indicate the cents a pitch is to be lowered or raised.
Alternative music notations using chromatic staves
Over the past three centuries, hundreds of music notation systems have been proposed as alternatives to traditional western music notation. Many of these notations seek to improve upon traditional notation by using a "chromatic staff" in which each of the 12 pitch classes has its own unique place on the staff. Examples are the Ailler-Brennink notation and John Keller's Express Stave. These notations do not require key signatures, or sharp, flat and natural signs. They also represent interval relationships more consistently and accurately than traditional notation. The Music Notation Modernization Association has a website with information on many of these alternative notations.
Musical notation in ethnomusicology
In ethnomusicology different notations have been developed for the notation of the music of various musical cultures. Since the music of non-western cultures (African, American aboriginal and Australian aboriginal, to name but a few) is often based on completely different principles, the standard notation of European music is incapable of conveying such music appropriately. For example, the stirring complexity of polyrhythyms, melody and counterpoint, typical of the extremely varied musics of Africa, tends towards spontaneity rather than the "facsimile" which is a result of score-reading; instead, the practice of music is passed from generation to generation, not through notation, but by example and imitation. Efforts have been made to notate the diversity of African music. No notation system has yet been successful in expressing the complexities of the many musics of Africa; efforts to do so simply result in misinterpretation.
In the notation of Indian raaga, a solfege-like system called sargam is used. As in Western solfege, there are names for the seven basic pitches of a major scale (Shadja, Rishabh, Gandhar, Madhyam, Pancham, Dhaivat and Nishad, usually shortened Sa Ri Ga ma Pa Dha Ni). The tonic of any scale is named Sa, and the dominant Pa. Sa is fixed in any scale, and Pa is fixed at a fifth above it (a Pythagorean fifth rather than an equal-tempered fifth). These two notes are known as achala swar ('fixed notes'). Each of the other five notes, Ri, Ga, ma, Dha and Ni, can take a 'regular' (shuddha) pitch, which is equivalent to its pitch in a standard major scale (thus, shuddha Ri, the second degree of the scale, is a whole-step higher than Sa), or an altered pitch, either a half-step above or half-step below the shuddha pitch. Ri, Ga, Dha and Ni all have altered partners that are a half-step lower (Komal-"flat") (thus, komal ri is a half-step higher than Sa). Ma has an altered partner that is a half-step higher (teevra-"sharp") (thus, tivra Ma is an augmented fourth above Sa). Ri, Ga, ma, Dha and Ni are called vikrut swar ('movable notes'). In the written system of Indian notation devised by Ravi Shankar, the pitches are represented by Western letters. Capital letters are used for the achala swar, and for the higher variety of all the vikrut swar. Lowercase letters are used for the lower variety of the vikrut swar.
The equipentatonic scale in which the octave is divided into five approximately equal intervals,(5-tet) is uniquely characteristic of the Slendro of Java and Bali.)
The Inuit of North American and Siberia often use a 4-note scale Soh, La, Do, Re) e.g. "We Have A Baby Daughter". Most North American aboriginal music makes use of a conventional pentatonic scale, extending even beyond the octave (G, A, C, D, E, G, A)...the "Birch Canoe" of the Algonquins. Meanwhile, the Huron Carol "'Twas In the Moon of Winter Time" makes full use of an Aeolian octave.
Music varies not only from continent from continent, but from tribe to tribe, from region to region. Even within Java, there are various tunings of the Slendro, according to geographic location. In some cultures, "slides" between pitches are more significant than distinct pitches (e.g., the Japanese shakuhachi). It would therefore be impossible to arrive at a 'universal' system of notation.
Computer music notation
There are a great many software programs designed to produce musical notation. These are called musical notation software, or sometimes Scorewriters. In addition to this software, there are many file formats used to store musical information that this software and other programs can convert into notation, sound, or into some other useable form. In a sense, these file formats are a "notation" for computers.
The most common musical file format is probably the MIDI file format, which stores pitch and timing information about music (but little else) and can be used to control a MIDI instrument which will produce the specified sound.
There are also hybrid formats, such as ABC notation, Lilypond, and MusicXML that are text files that can be read and edited by a capable human, but can also be manipulated by the computer. One notable system is the NEUMES standard, which is being used to form a computerized catalog of Medieval plainchant that can be searched for melody, text, or any encoded aspect of the music. Similarly the Mutopia project maintains a library of scores available in such formats (though they are not searchable by content).
Finally there are notational forms that are not intended to be processed by computer, but are nonetheless commonly used to transmit information via computer, such as text file guitar tablature which has become extremely popular following the growth of the world wide web.
- Guido of Arezzo, inventor of modern musical notation
- Znamennoe singing
- List of musical topics
- Music theory
- Time unit box system, a notation system useful for polyrhythms
- Tongan music notation, a subset of standard music notation
- Middleton, Richard (1990/2002). Studying Popular Music. Philadelphia: Open University Press. ISBN 0-335-15275-9.
- Tagg, Philip (1979). Cited in Middleton, Richard (1990/2002). Studying Popular Music. Philadelphia: Open University Press. ISBN 0-335-15275-9.
- Albrecht Schneider: Music, sound, language, writing. Transcription and notation in comparative musicology and music ethnology, in: Zeitschrift für Semiotik, 1987, Volume: 9, Number: 3-4.
- Hall, Rachael (2005). Math for Poets and Drummers. Saint Joseph's University.
- Contains a Guide to Byzantine Music Notation (neumes)
- Tonalsoft Encyclopaedia of Tuning
- On-line activity that counts musical notes!
- Musical notation links
- Glossary of US and British English musical terms
- A collection of interactive lessons and trainers that can be downloaded for offline use
- Extremes in Conventional Musical Notation
- Information on Stanford University Course on music representation. Links page shows examples of different notations
- Abstracts on Musical Notation from Zeitschrift für Semiotik
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