Hand-written musical notation by
J. S. Bach:
beginning of the Prelude from the Suite for Lute in G minor BWV 995
(transcription of Cello Suite No. 5, BWV 1011) BR Bruxelles II. 4805.
or musical notation is any system which represents aurally perceived
through the use of written
The earliest form of musical notation can be found in a
tablet that was created at
in about 2000 B.C. The tablet represents fragmentary instructions for
performing music, that the music was composed in harmonies of thirds, and
that it was written using a
A tablet from about 1250 B.C. shows a more developed form of notation.
Although the interpretation of the notation system is still controversial,
it is clear that the notation indicates the names of strings on a
the tuning of which is described in other tablets.
Although they were fragmentary, these tablets represent the earliest
found anywhere in the world.
Photograph of the original stone at Delphi containing the second of the two
hymns to Apollo. The music notation is the line of occasional symbols
above the main, uninterrupted line of Greek lettering.
musical notation was capable of representing
and note-duration, and to a limited extent,
It was in use from at least the 6th century BC until 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
which has been variously dated between the 2nd century BC to the 1st century
AD. Three hymns by
exist in manuscript. The
dated to the 2nd century BC, also use this notation, but they are not
completely preserved. Ancient Greek notation appears to have fallen out of
use around the time of the
Decline of the Roman Empire.
(801–873 AD) was the first great theoretician of
He proposed adding a fifth string to the
and discussed the cosmological connotations of music. He surpassed the
achievement of the
in using the alphabetical annotation for one eighth. He published fifteen
but only five have survived.
(872–950), the influential
polymath, wrote a notable book on
Kitab al-Musiqa al-Kabir
(The Great Book of Music). His pure
Arabian tone system
is still used in Arabic music.
is the system of
used in traditional Arabic music, which is mainly
The word maqam in Arabic means place, location or rank. The Arabic
maqam is a
Each maqam is built on a
and carries a tradition that defines its habitual phrases, important
melodic development and
in traditional Arabic music are based on the maqam system. Maqams
can be realized with either
music, and do not include a
In 1252, Safi al-Din developed a unique form of musical notation, where
were represented by
representation. A similar geometric representation would not appear in the
until 1987, when Kjell Gustafson published a method to represent a rhythm as
a two-dimensional graph.
A theory on the origins of the Western
musical notation suggests that it may have had Arabic origins. It has been
argued that the solfège syllables (do, re, mi, fa, sol, la, ti) may
have been derived from the syllables of the Arabic
system Durr-i-Mufassal ("Separated Pearls") (dal, ra, mim, fa,
sad, lam). This origin theory was first proposed by Francis Meninski in
his Thesaurus Linguarum Orientalum (1680) and then by
Jean-Baptiste Thillais Delaborde
in his Essai sur la Musique Ancienne et Moderne (1780).
Scholar and music theorist
Isidore of Seville,
writing in the early 7th century, remarked that it was impossible to notate
By the middle of the 9th century, however, a form of notation began to
develop in monasteries in Europe for
using symbols known as
the earliest surviving musical notation of this type is in the Musica
Aurelian of Réôme,
from about 850. There are scattered survivals from the
before this time, of a type of notation known as
but its few surviving fragments have not yet been deciphered.
The ancestors of modern symbolic music notation originated in the
Roman Catholic Church,
developed methods to put
(sacred songs) to parchment. 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.
Early Music Notation
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 standardized. The
vertical positions of each mark on the staff indicated which pitch or
pitches it represented (pitches were derived from a
Although the four-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 five-line staff was first adopted in
and became almost universal by the 16th century (although the use of staffs
with other numbers of lines was still widespread well into the 17th
Because the neum system arose from the need to notate
exact timing was initially not a particular issue because the music would
generally follow the natural rhythms of the
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 neighbouring 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 (bars) 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 (bars) became commonplace by the end of the 17th
The founder of what is now considered the standard music stave was
Guido d'Arezzo, an Italian Benedictine monk who lived from 995–1050.
His revolutionary method—combining a four-line stave with the first form of
notes known as 'neumes'—was the precursor to 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
An example of modern musical notation: Prelude, Op. 28, No. 7, by
Modern music notation originated in
European classical music
and is now used by musicians of many different genres throughout the world.
The system uses a five-line
Pitch is shown by placement of
on the staff (sometimes modified by
and duration is shown with different
and additional symbols such as
Notation is read from left to right, which makes setting music for
right-to-left scripts difficult.
A staff of written music generally begins with a
which indicates the particular range of pitches encompassed by the staff.
Notes representing a pitch outside of the scope of the five line staff can
be represented using
which provide a single note with additional lines and spaces.
Following the clef, the
on a staff indicates the
of the piece by specifying certain notes to be flat or sharp throughout the
piece, unless otherwise indicated.
Following the key signature is the
divide the piece into groups of
and the time signatures specify those groupings.
Directions to the player regarding matters such as
are added above or below the staff. For vocal music, lyrics are written. For
short pauses (breaths),
(looks like ') are added.
In music for
shows music for all players together, while "parts" contain only the music
played by an individual musician. A score can be constructed from a complete
set of parts and vice versa. The process can be laborious but computer
software offers a more convenient and flexible method.
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.
notation originated in
parts. It is also used extensively in
notation. The bass notes of the music are conventionally notated, along
with numbers and other signs which determine the chords to be played. It
does not, however, specify the exact pitches of the harmony, leaving
that for the performer to improvise.
A lead sheet
specifies only the melody, lyrics and harmony, using one staff with
placed above and lyrics below. It is used to capture the essential
elements of a
without specifying how the song should be arranged or performed.
A chord chart
or "chart" contains little or no melodic information at all but provides
detailed harmonic and rhythmic information, using slash notation and
rhythmic notation. This is the most common kind of written music used by
or other forms of
and is intended primarily for the
Simpler chord charts for songs may contain only the chord changes,
placed above the lyrics where they occur. Such charts depend on prior
knowledge of the melody, and are used as reminders in performance or
system is found in some church hymnals,
and song books, especially in the
Southern United States.
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.
is one of the most popular tune books using shape notes.
Notation in various countries
Indian music, early 20th century
The Indian scholar and musical theorist
in his Chanda Sutra, used marks indicating long and short syllables
to indicate meters in Sanskrit poetry.
In the notation of Indian
a solfege-like system called
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 Re 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
fifth rather than an
fifth). These two notes are known as achala swar ('fixed notes'). Each of
the other five notes, Re, Ga, ma, Dha and Ni, can take a 'regular' (shuddha)
pitch, which is equivalent to its pitch in a standard major scale (thus,
shuddha Re, 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. Re, Ga, Dha and Ni all have altered partners that are a half-step
lower (Komal-"flat") (thus, komal Re 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). Re, 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
Other systems exist for non-twelve-tone
and non-Western music, such as the Indian
New systems that remove handicaps in existing systems are also being
sacred music was notated with special 'hooks and banners'.
The earliest known examples of text referring to music in China are
inscriptions on musical instruments found in the Tomb of
Ye of Zeng (d. 433 B.C.). Sets of 41 chimestones and 65 bells bore lengthy
inscriptions concerning pitches, scales, and transposition. The bells still
sound the pitches that their inscriptions refer to. Although no notated
musical compositions were found, the inscriptions indicate that the system
was sufficiently advanced to allow for musical notation. Two systems of
pitch nomenclature existed, one for relative pitch and one for absolute
pitch. For relative pitch, a
system was used.
The tablature of the
is unique and complex; the older form is composed of written words
describing how to play a melody step-by-step using the plain language of the
time, i.e. Descriptive Notation (Classical
the newer form, composed of bits of Chinese characters put together to
indicate the method of play is called Prescriptive Notation. Rhythm is only
vaguely indicated in terms of phrasing. Tablatures for the qin are collected
in what is called
system of notation (probably an adaptation of a French
system) had gained widespread acceptance by 1900. In this system, notes of
the scale are numbered. For a typical
the numbers 1,2,3,5,6 would be used as notes and 0 as rests. Dots above or
below a numeral indicate the octave of the note it represents. Key
signatures, barlines, and time signatures are also employed. Many symbols
from Western standard notation, such as bar lines, time signatures,
accidentals, tie and slur, and the expression markings are also used. The
number of dashes following a numeral represents the number of crotchets (4th
notes) by which the note extends. The number of underlines is analogous to
the number of flags or beams on notes or rests in standard notation. In the
present-day jianpu system, the melody is notated alone or with chords.
Harmonic and rhythmic elements are left to the discretion of the performers.
Shakuhachi musical notation
Japanese music is highly diversified, and therefore requires various systems
of notation. In Japanese
music, for example, glissandos and timbres are often more significant than
distinct pitches, whereas
notation focuses on discrete strokes.
Music of Indonesia
Notation plays a relatively minor role in the oral traditions of
several systems were devised beginning at the end of the 19th century,
initially for archival purposes. Today the most widespread are cipher
notations ("not angka" in the broadest sense) in which the pitches are
represented with some subset of the numbers 1 to 7, with 1 corresponding to
either highest note of a particular octave, as in
or lowest, as in the
Notes in the ranges outside the central octave are represented with one or
more dots above or below the each number. For the most part, these cipher
notations are mainly used to notate the skeletal melody (the
and vocal parts (gerongan),
although transcriptions of the elaborating instrument variations are
sometimes used for analysis and teaching. Drum parts are notated with a
system of symbols largely based on letters representing the vocables used to
learn and remember drumming patterns; these symbols are typically laid out
in a grid underneath the skeletal melody for a specific or generic piece.
The symbols used for drum notation (as well as the vocables represented) are
highly variable from place to place and performer to performer. In addition
to these current systems, two older notations used a kind of staff: the
script could capture the flexible rhythms of the
with a squiggle on a horizontal staff, while in
a ladder-like vertical staff allowed notation of the balungan by dots and
also included important drum strokes. In Bali, there are a few books
Gamelan gender wayang
pieces, employing alphabetical notation in the old Balinese script.
Composers and scholars both Indonesian and foreign have also mapped the
systems of gamelan onto the western staff, with and without various symbols
The Dutch composer
Ton de Leeuw
also invented a three line staff for his composition Gending. However, these
systems do not enjoy widespread use.
In the second half of the twentieth century, Indonesian musicians and
scholars extended cipher notation to other oral traditions, and a
cipher notation has become common for notating western-related genres
(church hymns, popular songs, and so forth). Unlike the cipher notation for
gamelan music, which uses a "fixed Do" (that is, 1 always corresponds to the
same pitch, within the natural variability of gamelan tuning), Indonesian
diatonic cipher notation is "moveable-Do" notation, so scores must indicate
which pitch corresponds to the number 1 (for example, "1=C").
Other systems and practices
In many cultures, including
"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 Solfège if written in musical sequence.
Solfège is a way of assigning syllables to names of the musical scale. In
order, they are today: Do Re Mi Fa Sol La Ti Do' (for the octave).
The classic variation is: Do Re Mi Fa Sol 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, where each verse would
start a note higher. "Ut" later became "Do". The equivalent syllables used
in Indian music are: Sa Ri Ga Ma Pa Dha Ni, while the 'bilinear music
notation' system offers a chromatic method: Li (Je) Ja (Bo) Baw Zu (Zer
or Fer) Fee (De) Da (Go) and Gaw. See also:
Kodály Hand Signs.
In China Xi is used instead of Ti.
is a type of notation using the initial letters of solfège.
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♯
This is the most common way of specifying a note in English speech or
In Northern Europe, a similar letter system ranging from A to H is used, and
instead of the sharp and flat symbols, the syllables "is" (for sharp) or "es"
(for flat) are used; e.g. the note a semitone above C is either Cis or Des.
H stands for the English B, while Northern European B stands for English B♭.
Tablature was first used in the
for organ music and later in the
In most lute tablatures, a staff is used, but instead of pitch values, the
lines of the staff represent the strings of the instrument. The
to be fingered are written on each line, indicated by letters or numbers.
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
music and other fretted instruments, being easy to transcribe and share over
the internet in
(currently off-line pending legal disputes) have archives of text-based
popular music tablature.
Klavar notation (or "klavarskribo") is a chromatic system of notation geared
mainly towards keyboard instruments, which transposes 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. Klavar notation eliminates the need of accidentals and
key signatures, and its advocates claim that this facilitates music-reading.
12-note non-equal temperament
Sometimes the pitches of music written in
are notated with the frequency ratios, while
has devised a system for representing just intonation with traditional
western notation and the addition of
which indicate the
a pitch is to be lowered or raised.
Chromatic staff notations
Over the past three centuries, hundreds of music notation systems have been
proposed as alternatives to traditional western music notation. Many of
these systems 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,
system, Tom Reed's Twinline notation, John Keller's Express Stave,
and José A. Sotorrio's Bilinear Music Notation. These notation
systems do not require the use of standard key signatures, accidentals, or
clef signs. They also represent interval relationships more consistently and
accurately than traditional notation.
The Music Notation Project
(formerly known as the Music Notation Modernization Association) has a
website with information on many of these notation systems.
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
which in many cases is difficult to transcribe in standard notation.
See Notations, edited by John Cage and Alison Knowles,
Simplified Music Notation
Simplified Music Notation
is an alternative form of musical notation designed to make
easier. It is based on
classical staff notation,
are incorporated into the shape of the
are written at the
at which they are actually played, but preceded by
called 'History Signs' to show that they have been
The notation was designed to help people who struggle with
including those who suffer from
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.
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
XML for Music
model of pitch, all
between pitch classes are designated using the numbers 0 through 11. It is
not used to notate music for performance, but is a common
tool when working with chromatic music, including
Turntablist transcription methodology
Music notation on computer
Many computer programs have been developed for creating music notation
(called scorewriters or music notation software). Music may
also be stored in various digital file formats for purposes other than
graphic notation output.
Perspectives of musical notation in composition and musical performance
(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.
Notation-centric training induces particular forms of listening, and
these then tend to be applied to all sorts of music, appropriately or
not. Musicological methods tend to foreground those musical parameters which
can be easily notated...they tend to neglect or have difficulty with widened
parameters which are not easily notated. Examples include the unique vocal
Because of the limitations of conventional musical notation, many
present-day composers of various genres prefer to compose music which is
either not notated, or notated only through the computer language of digital
A further perspective on musical notation is provided in the "Composer's
Note" from Fredrick Pritchard's "Brushed With Blue", Op. 55, pub. Effel
"The written language of music is at once indispensable yet hopelessly
inadequate in conveying every detail of a musical concept. While musical
scores are static, music itself is a living art, and as such requires the
freedom to change, not only from bar to bar but from day to day and from
year to year, the elements of experience and spontaneity unleashing the
various potentials of a given work. The composer therefore entrusts the
performer as co-creator of his art."
US patent 6987220
on a new color based musical notation scheme
In some countries, new musical notations can be
In the United States, for example, about 90 patents have been issued on new
notation systems. The earliest patent,
U.S. Patent 1,383
was published in 1839.
Apel, Willi (1961). The Notation of Polyphonic Music, 900-1600,
5th edition, revised and with commentary. Publications of the Mediaeval
Academy of America, no. 38. Cambridge, Mass.: Mediaeval Academy of
Kilmer, Anne Draffkorn (1965). "The Strings of Musical Instruments:
Their Names, Numbers, and Significance", in Studies in Honor of Benno
Landsberger on His Seventy-fifth Birthday, April 21, 1965,
Assyriological Studies 16, edited by Hans G. Güterbock and Thorkild
Jacobsen, 261–68. Chicago, University of Chicago Press.
Kilmer, Anne Draffkorn, and Miguel Civil (1986). "Old Babylonian Musical
Instructions Relating to Hymnody". Journal of Cuneiform Studies
38, no. 1:94–98.
Middleton, Richard (1990/2002). Studying Popular Music.
Philadelphia: Open University Press.
Schneider, Albrecht (1987). "Music, Sound, Language, Writing.
Transcription and Notation in Comparative Musicology and Music
Ethnology". Zeitschrift für Semiotik 9, nos. 3–4:.
Sotorrio, José A (1997). Bilinear Music Notation –A New Notation
System for the Modern Musician. Spectral Music,
Tagg, Philip (1979). Cited in Middleton, Richard (1990/2002).
Studying Popular Music. Philadelphia: Open University Press.
West, M. L. (1994). "The Babylonian Musical Notation and the Hurrian
Melodic Texts". Music & Letters 75, no. 2. (May): 161–179
Williams, Charles Francis Abdy (1903). "The Story of Notation." New
York: Charles Scribner's Sons.
Music Notation and Terminology
by Karl Wilson Gehrkens
Contains a Guide to Byzantine Music Notation (neumes)