What do we really know about the music that we write? Do we write any kind of music or is there a filter? Can any kind of music be written?
Let´s start with a simple question: why did someone ever thought of writing down music in the first place? Well, very easy: because they couldn´t record it.
What now seems so natural to us, to be able to record and play music at will, is just an innovation that took place not so long ago. Before that, if music wasn´t remembered, it could be lost! Hence the need to be able to write it down.
Meet the Great Great Great Grandmother of MIDI
So how does one write down a melody in the first place?
Well, how would you do it? Let´s say that there is this beautiful song that you have in your mind and you´re away from any recorder (no, you can´t use your phone either) and all you have to try and remember it is a pencil and a piece of paper.
I guess you would write the lyrics first, and then, on top of each word you would need some symbols as to remind you where to go up, where to go down, where to stop, where to breathe. Now, how would you draw these symbols?
A first instinctive attempt could be a line going up and down responding to the vertical movement of the melody and stopping when the music stops. Making sense so far?
Congratulations! You just invented the neumatic notation (the first widely spread music notation in Europe). Pneuma comes from Greek “breath” and every symbol is a neuma, which is defined like “the amount of notes you can sing in a single breath”.
The longer the line drawn, the longer the sound is held. The higher the line goes, the higher the note, and the other way around.
You get the basic idea- what if you want to write down some nuances to your melody? how about adding accents, little commas here and there to underline a sudden stop or that unexpected change?
Did your drawing look anything like this?
I see. Rather don´t answer, but to people from X century it would also seem quite complicated to read your 364 MIDI track arrangement!
Ok, so now that we have our beautiful song properly written down and we know it will be there for us to sing it tomorrow morning we can go relax with the other X century people to the local canteen. Life is good.
A couple of local canteens and songs later, you begin to get the hold of your music writing. The more you use it, the more specific in the writing you want to be because the more you can read, the less you need to sing by heart, and you can free more brain CPU for singing more elaborate stuff and introducing more innovations. So, what would be the next improvement?
If you look closer, you´ll realise we´re indicating when the melody goes up and down…but not how much! Is it three semitones and a half? Two semitones? There is no way to determine it because the symbols are not integrated into a grid that accurately mesures the distance between them (what it´s called non-diastematic notation, literally “notation with no distance”). So, let´s draw some horizontal lines and bring some order to the chaos!
How about this?
Does this begin to look slightly familiar to modern music notation?
Add some more centuries of refining, some more local canteens (monastic refectories to be more precise) and a couple of local writing traditions blending here and there (my improvement in rhythm notation for your improvement in key writing) and by ends of Baroque we would find something that any music student could read nowadays.
And you thought royalty free loops were a modern invention…
Well, no. The same concept was used in centonizaton back in the day! Centonization was the way of composing where you would use pre-made music fragments (sounds familiar now?) to integrate into a bigger work as if it was patchwork. Once they had a nice group of sounds that were sounding nice and were notated already, why not reusing and combining them? They would recycle previous music. Just so you know, originality wasn´t considered an asset in music until Romanticism!
I’m not in the mode for singing….
So, if writing down the songs is so time and energy consuming, we might want to sift a bit which ones are worth remembering and which ones aren´t. So, what shall be the criterion of selection here?
The criterion was ethic and not esthetic.
All the way up to Pythagoras it was believed that music could deeply affect the “ethos” (character) of men and therefore it could be used for good or bad purposes. If exposed to the right music, a man could become strong of character and a good citizen; on the other hand, if exposed to the wrong kind of music, he could become weak and melancholic. The purpose behind this selection was basically creating good Greek citizens, this meaning among other things alert soldiers, rigurous thinkers and submissive peasants.
Initially, the main Greek scales were the tetrachords, a descending sucession of four notes. Why four notes, and why descending? Well, because music was imitating the human voice! There is a very evident musicality in all spoken languages (usually it´s more evident if we hear a foreign language since we don´t notice anymore the musical nuances we do in our own native language). In human voice, the most natural interval is the descending fourth (average interval for asserting something, rather than ascending, which would sound like a question – more on why we use ascending scales nowadays later).
These tetrachords were used in three main music genres (back in the day “genre” meant “mode” rather than a particular music style): diatonic, chromatic and enharmonic. The diatonic genre was based in tones, and therefore easily explainable with mathematics. Mathematics were rationally explainable, hence they were good. So they kept this genre. The chromatic genre added some semitones…which were good for adding some embelishments here and there. Not too many, or it would sound too oriental – and the Greeks were seeking a strong differenciation from their eastern neighbours, that was very evident in the sound of their national music, in the way that was starting to sound more “western”. The enharmonic genre was used mainly by aulos (a kind of flute) performers and in their eyes was dodgy because a) it was using quarters of tone b) couldn´t be easily explained with elegant mathematics (doesn´t show simple ratios) and was thought to have harmful effects on men: would drive them to drink and relax and not be productive for the City (the kind of music you would use in a party but not the one you´d use in the office, so to speak). So, bye bye enharmonic genre, we will not take the time to try to write you down! Hence folklore music didn´t have a written tradition.
This is what has made Western music sound so different from the rest of world music: from Pythagoras, passing through Plato, the Christianism, all music has been written using only two modes: major and minor -and when around Romanticism they began using more chromatic scales it was called something modern!
Therefore, we can only write major and minor, this is, semitones and tones. It´s a vicious circle: we only write what we play, and we end up playing only what we can write! This has affected the whole evolution of harmony, as we mentioned in earlier article about the origins of the orchestra, because only by refining what notes could be played it is possible to coordinate large instrumental ensembles.
So where does our current scale come from?
Aha! Guido D´Arezzo is to blame!
Guido (circa 995 -1050) was the abbot in Ferrara Abbey and was in charge of both selecting the gregorian chant repertoire for the services and teaching it to new students. Here he did two major achievements that would affect Western music ever after: he dismissed most of the chant repertoire that had chromatic/ enharmonic components, keeping only the more diatonic one, and invented a very effective way of reading music that would perfectly fit this tone-based repertoire.
Instead of making students randomly learn the chants by heart as it had been happening until then, he chose a particular hymn to Saint John in which every next sentence of the text sung was beginning with a correlative ascending note, and chose the syllable starting that sentence to represent the tone being sung. So, the students would associate that precise syllable to a new tone, ever ascending. That was the origin of our modern music scale:
Ut queant laxis
As you can see, for last semitone SI, Guido put together the initials of Sancte Ioannes, and later on in History the first syllable “UT” became Do because ending in a vowel was easier for singing. Why Do and not Du? Because of being the short of Dominum (Lord) – remember most writing tradition achievements were managed by the Church.
So were they singing all the time? Are you sure there wasn´t any instrumental music?
Of course there were instruments playing, and even chromatic and enharmonic folklore played…but not by professionals, and it wasn´t considered good and pure enough to be written down. There was this kind of music, but would just not get written down. Strange as it may sound now, we have to bear in mind when trying to understand how things happened that however normal it may seem to us to read and write nowadays, this is quite a recent achievement in History, and back in the day, only an elite would be literate. And this elite would very carefully choose what and how to write. Paper was precious, parchments were precious, ink was precious and education for knowing how to use them was even more precious. Hence, not every single tune woud be written down in the same way that not every single subject was written about: there were no notebooks or shopping lists either!
Music (whether we musicians like it or not) was only worth being written when supporting a text, since written word was pretty much sacred. It was the message and not the hedonic enjoyment of music what was important, so it wasn´t until Renaissance (first tablatures) that someone considered important to write down music for instruments (of course, instruments were played, but no one considered they were important enough to write down their parts). So, only vocal music would be written!
So, to sum it up…some more facts to bear in mind
Although we´ve barely scratched the surface here, music notation has been as complex and diverse as the mere evolution of writing.
The Epitaph of Seikilos is widely accepted as the oldest music notation fragment kept, and word has it it was discovered in the house of an old lady that used it as a base for a flowerpot! (really??- yes). You can hear it online if you want, it´s not officially agreed when it was written but for sure was before II century BC!
Another insteresting fact: Western music notation is not the only one that exists!
Feel like knowing more?
MARTÍN MORENO, Antonio. “Fundamentos de la teoría musical”, from Los Grandes Temas de la Música. Pamplona: Salvat, 1984, pages. 4-32.
BURKHOLDER, J. Peter; GROUT, Donald y PALISCA, Claude V. A History of Western Music. London and New York, W. W. Norton Company.