urely, music has existed for as long as Homo sapiens, for
(like the birds) man is a singing creature. The desire to record music in writing, too, is very ancient but (by definition) only since
historical times. In the ancient world the motivation for notating music was likely to preserve a good melody of a song, as insurance
against its loss by failure of memory.
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In this role, music notation served as an aide-mémoire for
someone who (with a bit of prompting) could remember how the melody ought to sound. Music notation was not -- until the
Renaissance -- expected to be scientifically accurate, i.e., that the melody could be reconstructed solely from the notation.
Actually it is questionable whether a writer of music expected that the song should be performed in exactly the same way each
time it was sung. The idea that one could correctly sing a melody just by sight-singing the notation (and never having heard the
melody before) seems to be a relatively recent idea.
I would add that music notation also had a mystical function.
Ancient Egyptian tombs and burial chambers of many other cultures too, included implements, food, pictures, and writing that
would in some way help the deceased person in the next life. Religious inscriptions on the walls of a tomb could bring good fortune
to the spirit of the tomb's inhabitant. Likewise for the living, documents containing sacred texts, pictures, and music can be embued
with mystical qualities. Sacred books can be thought of as embodiments of prayer, belief, and spiritual doctrine. As such, they are
what the Catholic Church calls sacramentals (sacramentals are physical objects where the spirit realm touches
the physical domain). One of my tenets is that books of chant served a mystical function in the Middle Ages: apart from any practical
use they might have had, the books themselves were considered to be holy objects.
A church or monastery that possessed such books owned objects of
spiritual power. (Compare the cave paintings at Lascaux, France, shown at
left, ca. 13,000 b.c.e.,
suggestive of the mystical power that graphic representation has for humans.) The presence of these books could increase the
holiness of a place and confer spiritual merit upon those who were near them, touched them, or looked upon them. I would add that,
in some cultures, a person's knowledge of writing might have been considered to be a mystical art -- a type of shamanism,
-- not just a credential of education.
To actualize the desire to write down music, a technique needed to
be invented. Several methods were tried over the millennia. Today we take for granted the naturalness and efficacy of the modern
music-notational system (called common practice notation), where sound is divided (or quantized) into discrete
pitches that sound for various lengths along a timeline of regular beats. Common practice notation is now in use throughout the
world. This method of writing music (a sort of Cartesian view of sound) was not, however, an obvious concept for the
Medieval chant notation–the subject of our
study–differs from modern notation in significant ways. These dissimilarities comprise both the obvious visual differences
(that is, graphological differences) and more subtle, conceptual differences (or, semantic
differences). Despite the inexactness of medieval notation compared to modern notation as a method of quantization, it is
important to bear in mind that both systems have their strengths and weaknesses. Common practice notation is not necessarily
better; we shall see that medieval notation is able to capture subtlties of semantics that are practically impossible to capture in
The oldest examples of music notation from Western Europe were
written as annotations to sung texts. (Typically the chant text was written on the manuscript sheet first, then the music notation was
added, perhaps by a different scribe.) Scholars who specialize in early medieval manuscripts date the earliest, surviving Western
European examples to the 9th century of the current era (c.e.).
The idea of music writing as text annotation remained the dominant form of music notation until fairly late in the Middle Ages.
The concept of using vertical placement of musical marks to
indicate pitch was a novelty of medieval music writing in the West. We take this concept for granted in common practice notation,
because it seems so natural and useful, but it was a significant breakthrough at the time it was invented. The notion of using
distinct symbols to indicate the duration of notes, too, was also novel; as the Middle Ages progressed into the Renaissance,
this idea of measured time took firmer hold.
In some ways, the semantics of medieval notation were more
expressive than what we have available to us today; it was possible to notate subtleties of vocal rendering that were richer than
what is possible to represent in modern notation. Knowledge of the correct interpretation of many of these subtleties of medieval
notation was, however, lost with the decline of the oral tradition in Western chant. Today, reconstructing this lost meaning is an
active area of research among medieval musicologists.