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welcome to Music notation

The Muse Of Music welcomes you to this exploration of the subject of music notation. Here, The Muse of Music is chiefly concerned with musical notation systems used in modern Western music. However, this interest is not meant to (nor will it) exclude other traditions or periods from consideration. (See an explanation of what is meant by Western music: click here.)

music Notation—what is it?

Notation is a set of graphic symbols for a specialized use, other than ordinary writing. As an act, process, or method, notation is noting, marking, or setting down by means of a special system of signs or symbols.

Music notation is a set of graphic symbols for representing music. Music notation is set of signs or symbols and the rules for applying them that are used in a musical notation system. As an act, process, or method, music notation is the noting, marking, or setting down of symbols that represent music.

A symphony orchestra on stage. Notice the scores set on music stands in front of the conductor and musicians. Some scores are shared by two players.

Music notation systems—what are they?

Any specific notation system is a particular system of graphic symbols for a specialized use other than ordinary writing.

A specific notation is a particular record or annotation—a particular musical utterance, sound, or passage of music. Specific notations are set down using the symbols and rules for applying symbols that are specified by a particular musical notation system.

A music notation system is a system of symbols for representing music so that it can be played, read, or recorded in a more or less uniform fashion by a relatively large number of people, who are thereby enabled to communicate musically with one another in an intelligible manner.

Music notation systems are one of the most important elements in music; they are as important to music as writing systems are to speech or to the written word; they serve a similar function. Without music notation systems, music could be composed or played only in the most primitive manner, if at all. It is likely that the communication of music and the musical arts would have remained the same as they were in the far-distant human past, more-or-less unrepeatable, crude experiences restricted to the precincts of a single tribe, cave, or family.

There are all sorts of music notation systems. Most have existed for as long as music has been recorded.

Many different musical notation systems have been devised by many different cultures at different times and places. many cultures have inherited the musical notation systems of other cultures.

Any given Musical notation system is a specialized system for reading or writing music that consists of graphic symbols and words or phrases that describe music, one that is specific to a particular culture or musical tradition. It is a written, printed, or other visual representation of music within its own tradition. As a memory aid it helps shape a composition to a level of sophistication that would not be possible with only an oral tradition, and as communication it helps preserve music for later performance and analysis.

Symbols in a musical notation system might include musical notes, staves, bars, clefs, tempo markings, or sharp or flat symbols. Words or phrases that describe music might include directions to musicians or comments about the music. With such a system, it is possible for a person to annotate, record, write, or read music.

The following parallels between music notation and written or spoken words are entirely appropriate because each is a language in its own right:

In essence, a musical notation system is a system for writing music.

A glossary is a list of terms in a special subject, field, or area of usage, with accompanying definitions; it is a list that explains or defines difficult or unusual words and expressions. A musical notation system is a glossary of musical symbols and terms.

A musically literate person is one who can read or write music that is written in the language of a musical notation system. Using a music notation system, a musically literate person can write music and later retrieve it by reading it, vocalizing it, or playing it with the aid of a musical instrument.

Sentences in a written or spoken language can express abstract facts, ideas, or emotions; printed words are symbols that record speech. In the same way, musical notations can express abstract facts, ideas, or emotions; they are printed symbols or words that a musician can translate into musical sounds.

Written words can record facts, ideas, emotions, and sounds that can be retrieved later. In the same way, musical notations can record musical facts, ideas, emotions, and sounds that can be retrieved later.

The annotations that record a specific piece of music are chosen from the symbols and words that comprise a specific musical notation system. When they are written in document form, such a document is called a musical score, or just a score. A musical score is analogous to a book. It is a book of music.

composers, musicians, and notation systems

In literature, a composer is an author. In music, a composer is a person who writes music.

A composer usually records the music he conceives by placing notations on a score. Notations on a score are intended to describe provide what the music is to sound like. They specify how music should sound.

There are three constituencies for whom composers usually prepare scores: musically literate readers who intend to perform the music recorded there, others who only intend to "hear" the music in their mind's ear, and others who intend to read the score while they listen to the music as it is played. Since a composer expects his composition to be played, he normally supplies all the information a performer will need to play the music recorded there.

A composer writes his directions for playing music in the language of a specific musical notation system. He describes the music by using terms in the notation system. These terms allow him to specify such aspects of his composition as style, tempo, notes to be played, their order, the key, and meaning or interpretation.

Just as a book written in words is a device for communication between an author and a language-literate reader, a score is a device for communication between a composer and a musically literate reader. To communicate, both parties—composer and reader—must "speak" the same language.

Thus, the notation system a composer chooses for his score is normally aimed at an audience of readers who are literate in that specific notation system. Since most composers want their music to be played and heard, they normally choose a notation system that is familiar to performers who are popular with the audiences they want to reach.

history and variety

As with any written language, to be viable the symbols, words, and other notations in a score must be standard; otherwise, no one but the person who set them down could read them. Notation systems that are truly standard are rare; notation systems that are de facto standards are much more common. Some musical notation systems have been formally designed and standardized by scholars or accepted, accredited standardizing bodies, but most musical notation systems are de facto standards that, like Topsy, just grew; they became standard after an extended maturation period by virtue of custom or tradition.

Music notation traces its roots as far back as a cuneiform tablet that was created at Nippur in Mesopotamia in about 2000 BCE that represents fragmentary instructions for performing music. The music it notes was composed in harmonies of thirds and was written using a diatonic scale. Another tablet dating from circa 1250 BCE shows a more developed form of notation that indicates the names of strings on a lyre. Other tablets describe the tuning of the lyre. These tablets contain the earliest recorded melodies found thus far.

There is some evidence that music notation was practiced by the Egyptians from the 3rd millennium BC and by others in the Middle East in antiquity. The earliest musical notation system on record is written on a recovered fragment of a particular cuneiform tablet that was created at Nippur, an ancient Sumerian and Babylonian city in Iraq, about 4000 years ago. The tablet contains instructions for musicians how to perform music. It goes so far as to specify that music be composed in harmonies of thirds in the diatonic scale. Another tablet from about 1250 BCE reveals a more developed form of notation that specifies the names of strings on a lyre. Tuning for the lyre is inscribed on other tablets. Collectively, these tablets contain the earliest recorded melodies found anywhere in the world.

As early as the 6th century BCE, Ancient Greek notation incorporated pitch, note duration, and harmony; ancient Byzantium and Russia notated sacred music with so-called hooks and banners; Arab notation of the 9th century CE incorporates a tone system which is still in use; and early European notation in the 9th century CE, a notation deployed in monasteries that could record plainchant, also known as plainsong or Gregorian chant. Gregorian chant used notational symbols known as neumes, which much later evolved into notes on the musical staff. Numerous other notation systems have developed over the centuries in different parts of the globe.

The great 9th century Arab music theorist Al-Kindi proposed adding a fifth string to the 'ud and discussed the cosmological connotations of music. For this treatise he used an alphabetical annotation to express one eighth time or eighth notes.

The scholar and music theorist Isidore of Seville, writing in the early 7th century, remarked that it was impossible to notate music. But by the middle of the 9th century, a form of notation began to develop in monasteries in Europe called plainchant, also called Gregorian chant, which used symbols known as neumes.

In the 10th century in China and Japan, notational systems developed that were distinctly different from those of European plainchant. In the Far East, and later in India and elsewhere in Asia, music was notated with the use of characters for sounds. Rhythmic motifs were prescribed in a similar way. Outside Europe, the teaching and learning of music remained essentially oral for a long time because no need was felt to have a permanent record of music.


western musical notation

In a musical context, Western refers to and designates the western part of the world, as distinguished from the East or Orient. Another name for this part of the world is the Occident. Western music designates the music produced by countries, cultures, performers, or composers with aesthetic roots in the Occident.

  • Explore modern musical notation of the Western tradition; visit the page called Welcome To Western Music Notation: click here.

the score in western music

A specific musical score is a written record of a single piece of music. With few exceptions it contains all the music notes and directions a musician needs to play the piece of music it represents. When the musician plays, she translates the written symbols on the score—symbols that represent the recorded music—into actions she needs to take to play her instrument.

In effect, a musical score is the music.

  • Explore the musical score in Western music at the feature called The Score In Western Music: click here.

more About scores with missing notes and directions

While you're visiting The Score In Western Music, you ma want to explore the reasons why a jazz or classical music composer might write a score and deliberately omit some of the notes and directions that a musician needs to play. Read the section called More About Scores With Missing Notes And Directions.


music terminology

As with sports, so with music: You can't read the score card without learning the words. Musical terminology is an important part of any music notation system. The Muse invites you to explore the following pages at Electricka's web site.

  • Explore music terminology at The Muse Of Music's page called Music Terminology: click here.

the glossary of musical terms

The Muse Of Music is pleased to offer you an extensive automated glossary of musical terms designed to assist anyone interested in looking up the meaning of a musical term, whether a professional, amateur, or non-professional. It takes the form of a searchable and sortable table containing hundreds of musical words, signs, symbols, and their definitions.

The Glossary is divided into two sections:

Section 1A page called About the Glossary Of Musical Terms that explains the Glossary and how to use it. If you are accessing the Glossary for the first time, The Muse recommends that you visit this page first: click here.

Section 2The Glossary Of Musical Terms itself in the form of an automated table. If you are familiar with the Glossary and have used it before, you are ready to look up a word now: click here.


ETAF Recommends

Start here with the basics. Explore music theory and Western music notation with one of these books. Noad's book comes with a tutorial and demonstrations on DVD.

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