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From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia


Neumes are the basic elements of Western and Eastern systems of musical notation prior to the invention of five-line staff notation. The earliest neumes were inflective marks which indicated the general shape but not necessarily the exact notes or rhythms to be sung. Later developments included the use of heightened neumes which showed the relative pitches between neumes, and the creation of a four-line musical staff that identified particular pitches. Neumes do not generally indicate rhythm, but additional symbols were sometimes juxtaposed with neumes to indicate changes in articulation, duration, or tempo. Neumatic notation was later used in medieval music to indicate certain patterns of rhythm called rhythmic modes, and eventually evolved into modern musical notation. Neumatic notation remains standard in modern editions of plainchant.

A sample of the Kýrie Eléison (Orbis Factor) from the Liber Usualis. Listen to it interpreted.
A sample of the Kýrie Eléison (Orbis Factor) from the Liber Usualis. Listen to it interpreted.

Early history

Although chant was probably sung since the earliest days of the church, for centuries they were only transmitted orally.

The earliest systems involving neumes are of Aramaic origin and were used to notate inflections in the quasi-emmelic recitation of the Christian holy scriptures. As such they resemble functionally a similar system used for the notation of recitation of the Qur'an, the holy book of Islam. This early system was called ekphonetic notation, from the Greek ekphonesis meaning quasi-melodic recitation of text.

Around the 9th century neumes began to become shorthand mnemonic aids for the melodic recitation of chant proper. A prevalent view is that neumatic notation was first developed in the Eastern Roman Empire (see Byzantium and Byzantine music). This seems plausible given the well-documented peak of musical composition and cultural activity in major cities of the empire (now regions of southern Turkey, Syria, Lebanon and Israel) at that time. The corpus of extant Byzantine music in manuscript and printed form is far larger than that of the Gregorian chant, due in part to the fact that neumes fell in disuse in the west after the rise of modern staff notation and with it the new techniques of polyphonic music, while the Eastern tradition of Greek Orthodox church music and the reformed neume notation remains alive until today.

Slavic neume notations ("Znamennoe singing") are on the whole even more difficult to decipher and transcribe than Byzantine or Gregorian neume notations.

Use in Western plainchant

"Iubilate deo universa terra" shows psalm verses in unheightened cheironomic neumes.
"Iubilate deo universa terra" shows psalm verses in unheightened cheironomic neumes.

The earliest Western notation for chant appears in the 9th century. These early staffless neumes, called cheironomic or in campo aperto, appeared as freeform wavy lines above the text. Various scholars see these as deriving from cheironomic hand-gestures, from the ekphonetic notation of Byzantine chant, or from punctuation or accent marks.[1] A single neume could 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, nor the relative starting pitches of different syllables' neumes.

Presumably these were intended only as mnemonics for melodies learned by ear. The earliest extant manuscripts (9th-10th centuries) of such neumes include:

  • the abbey of St. Gall, in modern-day Switzerland
  • Messine neumes (from the monastery of Metz in northeast France)
  • Aquitanian neumes (southern France, also used in Spain)
  • Laon, Chartres, Montpellier
"Gaudeamus omnes," from the Graduale Aboense, was scripted using square notation.
"Gaudeamus omnes," from the Graduale Aboense, was scripted using square notation.

In the early 11th century, Beneventan neumes (from the churches of Benevento in southern Italy) were written at varying distances from the text to indicate the overall shape of the melody; such neumes are called heightened or diastematic neumes, which showed the relative pitches between neumes. Shortly after this, one to four staff lines clarified the exact relationship between pitches, an innovation traditionally ascribed to Guido d'Arezzo. One line was marked as representing a particular pitch, usually C or F. These neumes resembled the same thin, scripty style of the chironomic notation. In 13th-century England, Sarum chant was notated using square noteheads, a practice which subsequently spread throughout Europe; in Germany, a variant called Gothic neumes continued to be used until the 16th century.

By the 13th century, the neumes of Gregorian chant were usually written in square notation on a staff with four lines and three spaces and a clef marker, as in the 14th-15th century Graduale Aboense shown here. In square notation, small groups of ascending notes on a syllable are shown as stacked squares, read from bottom to top, while descending notes are written with diamonds read from left to right. In melismatic chants, in which a syllable may be sung to a large number of notes, a series of smaller such groups of neumes are written in succession, read from left to right. A special symbol called the custos, placed at the end of a system, showed which pitch came next at the start of the following system. Special neumes such as the oriscus, quilisma, and liquescent neumes, indicate particular vocal treatments for these notes. This system of square notation is standard in modern chantbooks.

Solesmes notation

Various manuscripts and printed editions of Gregorian chant, using varying styles of square-note neumes, circulated throughout the Catholic church for centuries. Some editions added rhythmic patterns, or meter, to the chants. In the 19th century the monks of the Benedictine abbey of Solesmes, particularly Dom Joseph Pothier (1835-1923) and Dom André Mocquereau (1849-1930) collected facsimiles of the earliest manuscripts and published them in a book called Paléographie musicale. They also assembled definitive versions of many of the chants, and developed a standardized form of the square-note notation which was adopted by the Catholic church and is still in use in publications such as the Liber usualis (although there are also published editions of this book in modern notation).

As a general rule, the notes of a single neume are never sung to more than one syllable; all three pitches of a three-note neume, for example, must all be sung on the same syllable. (This is not universally accepted; Richard Crocker has argued that in the special case of the early Aquitanian polyphony of the St. Martial school, neumes must have been "broken" between syllables to facilitate the coordination of parts.) However, a single syllable may be sung to so many notes that several neumes in succession are used to notate it. The single-note neumes indicate that only a single note corresponds to that syllable. Chants which primarily use single-note neumes are called syllabic; chants with typically one multi-note neume per note are called neumatic, and those with many neumes per note are called melismatic.

Rhythmic interpretation

The Solesmes monks also determined, based on their research, performance practice for Gregorian chant. Because of the ambiguity of medieval musical notation, the question of rhythm in Gregorian chant is contested by scholars. Some neumes, such as the pressus, do indicate the lengthening of notes. Common modern practice, following the Solesmes interpretation, is to perform Gregorian chant with no beat or regular metric accent, in which time is free, allowing the text to determine the accent and the melodic contour to determine phrasing. By the 13th century, with the widespread use of square notation, it is believed that most chant was sung with each note getting approximately an equal value, although Jerome of Moravia cites exceptions in which certain notes, such as the final notes of a chant, are lengthened.[2] The Solesmes school, represented by Pothier and Mocquereau, supports a rhythm of equal values per note, allowing for lengthening and shortening of note values for musical purposes. A second school of thought, including Wagner, Jammers, and Lipphardt, supports different rhythmic realizations of chant by imposing musical meter on the chant in various ways.[3] Musicologist Gustave Reese said that the second group, called mensuralists, "have an impressive amount of historical evidence on their side," (Music in the Middle Ages, p. 146), but the equal-note Solesmes interpretation has permeated the musical world, apparently due to its ease of learning and resonance with modern musical taste.[4]


Examples of neumes may be seen here: [1],[2], [3].


Neumes are written on a four-line staff on the lines and spaces, like modern music notation. A clef at the beginning of each line indicates the location of C or F on any of the lines, as shown:

Note that chant does not rely on any absolute pitch; the clefs are only to help find the half and whole steps (see hexachord).

Neumes representing single notes

The virga and punctum are sung identically. Scholars disagree on whether the bipunctum indicates a note twice as long, or whether the same note should be re-articulated as the name repercussive implies.

Neumes representing two notes

When two notes are one above the other, as in the podatus, the lower note is always sung first.

Three-note neumes

The fact that the first two notes of the porrectus are connected as a diagonal rather than as individual notes seems to be a scribe's shortcut.

Compound neumes

Several neumes in a row can be juxtaposed for a single syllable, but the following usages have specific names. These are only a few examples.

Other basic markings

Interpretive marks

These markings, although present in almost all early manuscripts, are subject to great dispute.

Other interpretations of the quilisma:

  • Shake or trill -- Prof. William Mahrt of Stanford University supports this one
  • Quarter-tone or accidental. The support for this interpretation lies in some early digraphic manuscripts which combine chironomic neumes with letter-names. In places where other manuscripts have quilismas these digraphs often have a strange symbol in place of a letter, suggesting to some scholars the use of a pitch outside the solmization system represented by the letter names. The trigon is a neume peculiar to St. Gall which may also have a microtonal meaning.

There are also litterae significativae in many manuscripts, usually interpreted to indicate variations in tempo, e.g. c = celeriter (fast), t = tenete (hold) (an early form of the tenuto), a = auge (lengthen, as in a tie). The Solesmes editions omit all such letters.

Other functions of Western neumes

Neumes were used for notating other kinds of melody than plainchant, including troubadour and trouvère melodies, monophonic versus and conductus, and the individual lines of polyphonic songs. In some traditions, such as the Notre Dame school of polyphony, certain patterns of neumes were used to represent particular rhythmic patterns called rhythmic modes.

Other types of neumes

  • Ekphonetic neumes annotating the melodic recitation of (Christian) holy scriptures.
  • Neumes of byzantine music - in several stages, old byzantine, middle byzantine, late byzantine and post-byzantine, and neo-byzantine (reformed).
  • Neumes of slavic chant (slavic neumes).
  • Mozarabic or hispanic neumes (Spain), also called Visigothic script. These neumes have not been deciphered, but the Mozarabic liturgy varies somewhat from the Roman rite.
  • Daseian notation - an early form of byzantine music notation.
  • Buddhist chant uses a type of neume.


  1. ^ Levy, Kenneth : "Plainchant", Grove Music Online, ed. L. Macy (Accessed January 20 2006), (subscription access)
  2. ^ Hiley, David, "Chant," Performance Practice: Music before 1600 p. 44. "The performance of chant in equal note lengths from the 13th century onwards is well supported by contemporary statements."
  3. ^ Apel, Willi, Gregorian Chant p. 127.
  4. ^ William P. Mahrt, "Chant," A Performer's Guide to Medieval Music p. 18.


  • Graduale triplex (1979). Tournai: Desclée& Socii. ISBN 2-85274-094-X, a special edition of the Graduale Romanum with chant notation in three forms, one above the other, for easy comparison: Laon, St. Gall, and square note
  • Liber usualis (1953). Tournai: Desclée& Socii.
  • Paléographie musicale, ISBN 2-85274-219-5, facsimiles of early adiastamatic chant manuscripts
  • Apel, Willi (1990). Gregorian Chant. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press. ISBN 0-253-20601-4.
  • Constantin Floros, "Universale Neumenkunde" (Universal Theory of Neumes); three-volume covering all major styles and schools of neumatic musical notation in three major divisions: Byzantine, Gregorian and Slavic.* Hiley, David (1990). Chant. In Performance Practice: Music before 1600, Howard Mayer Brown and Stanley Sadie, eds., pp. 37-54. New York: W.W. Norton & Co. ISBN 0-393-02807-0
  • Hiley, David (1995). Western Plainchant: A Handbook. Clarendon Press. ISBN 0-19-816572-2.
  • Mahrt, William P. (2000). Chant. In A Performer's Guide to Medieval Music, Ross Duffin, ed., pp. 1-22. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press. ISBN 0-253-33752-6
  • McKinnon, James, ed. (1990). Antiquity and the Middle Ages. Prentice Hall. ISBN 0-13-036153-4.
  • Wagner, Peter. (1911) Einführung in die Gregorianischen Melodien. Ein Handbuch der Choralwissenschaft. Leipzig: Breitkopf & Härtel.
  • Wilson, David (1990). Music of the Middle Ages. Schirmer Books. ISBN 0-02-872951-X.

External links

  • David Hiley and Janka Szendrei: "Notation", Grove Music Online, ed. L. Macy (Accessed June 12 2006), (subscription access)
  • Font package for writing post-Byzantine neumes
  • Kenneth Levy: "Plainchant", Grove Music Online, ed. L. Macy (Accessed January 20 2006), (subscription access)
  • Comparative table of cheironomic and square neumes
  • Samples of early notation, showing the same chant in many different notations
  • Catholic Encyclopedia entry for Neume (spelled neum)
  • Sample of Mozarabic chant
  • Abbey of Solesmes
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