The Origin of Notation


In the my last blog post, I talked about the details of Gregorian chant. In this one, I’ll discuss the reason historians know all those details.

The reason, of course, is notation. A remarkable innovation that allowed the transmission of musical sound via ink and paper. Before effective notation was developed, however, the traditions of Gregorian chant had to be transmitted orally.

The chant melodies and practices were taught, learned, retaught, and relearned—from monk to monk—for hundreds of years before effective notation was developed.

They’d sing some chant melodies repeatedly to drive them home into memory; and, they’d sing other chant melodies using formulas. This memory-and-formula approach, with the monks relying on stock phrases and on familiar tropes, often produced individual variation.

However, once the decision had been made to standardize the liturgy, individual variation was no longer acceptable.

Conditions for Invention

An alliance between Roman popes and Frankish Kings had produced conditions conducive to higher learning, cultural growth, and economic stability. This episode of human flourishing, known as the Carolingian Renaissance (800-1150 CE), took place in what today is modern Germany, France, and Italy.

By the ninth century, the Roman liturgy had been decreed the official rite of Christendom. In this vast expanse of land, the Roman liturgy had to compete with a concatenation of local liturgies—principally, the Gallican rite.

The Gallican liturgy evolved in the north and in parallel to the Roman liturgy in the south. Indeed, before notation evolved, the two chant repertoires intermixed, to some extent—mainly through the oral traditions of migrating Christians.  

Monks from the south wanted their local Roman dialect, and monks from the north wanted their local Galician dialect. The impasse provided some of the selection pressure that lead to the emergence of musical notation.

A History Of 1 001The evidence suggests that most of the early efforts to notate this music took place in Frankish lands (modern day France). Notation evolved here because it resided at the heart of the intersection between the Roman and the Galician dialects of the Middle Ages.

The Frankish kings—such as Pepin III and his son, Charlemagne—wanted to uphold their end of the bargain with the popes and impress reforms on the churches in their lands.

The Frankish kingdom, therefore, was under the most pressure to suppress the Gallican rite and to adopt the Roman liturgy. As a byproduct of these pressures, the Frankish monks were the ones who invented musical notation. There is no written reference to this event. Notation seems to have emerged organically and without much notice from the non-musical world.


Despite the written record being mum, historians have calculated from the musical artifacts themselves that the neumes began to be used in Frankish lands beginning sometime about the year 850.

The word neume comes from the greek word pneuma (meaning breath) and was used to describe a specific kind of melodic phrase that could be sung on one breath. Through the years, however, the word neume, and its plural neumes, began to be used to describe the markings that denote this sort of single-breath musical phrase.

The neumatic notation system differed from the ancient Greek notation system (the one that used letter names to demarcate pitches) in that it outlined melodic contour and direction instead of indicating note names.

Melodic contour is the shape traced by the high and low notes of a melody. (I like to imagine neumes as something like a roller-coaster track.) The diagram below illustrates the concept of melodic contour. (These are not neumes.)

2014 fuller et al musician effect frontiers ver4

Despite their usefulness to the monks of the Carolingian renaissance, neumes are a bit less useful to historians. They do not indicate specific pitch, half-step/whole-step relationship, or intervals. Neumes are—essentially—pictograms for musicians, meant only to stimulate memory.

Limitations aside, monks began to fill their liturgical books with these curved markings.

Liturgical Books

Let’s pause for a moment and discuss the sorts of liturgical books on offer in the Middle Ages.

There were graduals, which contained the chants for the mass, there were antiphoners which contained the chants for the office, and there were various other texts such as prosers, which contained prosula, and tropers, which contained tropes.

In addition to these texts, there also existed a sort of appendix of chant melody known as a tonary. The tonaries indexed the chants by the mode (scale) that they were to be sung with.

Oldest Notated Examples

Below are neumes written above the Latin text of a liturgical song. It’s known as the Cantatorium of St. Gall. The manuscript, which is stored in a Swedish library, contains the chant Viderunt omnes. It’s one of the oldest complete neumatic manuscripts. Musicologists suggest it was written between 922 and 925 CE.


Perhaps even older than the St. Gall manuscript is achantfound in a gradual dating from about the year 900.  Containing another version of the Viderunt omnes, the gradual was stored in the library of Chartres, France until destroyed during World War II. Fortunately, a copy of the manuscript had been made.

Here’s a copy of that copy I copied from The History of Western Music (Burkholder, Grout, and Palisca):

The History Of 2 002

The Chartres Gradualand the Cantatorium of St. Gall could only have been used as memory aids, for there is no pitch information illustrated by the neumes, only directional information.

Another early example of neumatic notation, and one that was quite a bit more accurate musically than the previous examples, came from the town of Dijon, Burgundy.

It was here in Dijon that an abbot named William Volpiano (962-1031 CE) directed reforms in his monastery that included musical reforms and the production of a book of notated chant.

The book, printed in Volpiano’s scriptoria (a workshop where the monk’s produced liturgical texts by hand), featured neumes, and—interestingly—Greek style alphabetical notation. Volpiano based his Greek style notation on the writings of medieval scholar Boethius.


Boethius was one of the precious few educated writers from the Middle Ages that preserved some of the Greek learning and culture. Boethius’s treatise was very popular and much imitated amongst scholars of this time period.

It was because of this hybrid notation approach—both nuemes and letter names—that the Tonary of Saint Benigne was more musically accurate than the music found in the Gradual of Chartres or the Cantatorium of St. Gall.  

The tonary, probably created sometime in the 990s, possessed complete notational examples of all sorts of chant styles—including various psalms, antiphons, and tropes for both the mass and the office.

Here is a page from the St. Benigne tonary. Notice that it has alphabetical indicators as well as neumes written in above the text:


Theoretical Treatises

Perhaps even more useful than graduals and antiphoners for sizing up chant character are the theoretical treatises published during the Middle Ages.

One such treatise, Musica enchiriadis (anonymous, late ninth century) used Greek letter notation and directional neumes in its musical examples. Many aspects of the Gregorian plainsong were unpacked in this book as was aspects of polyphony—the musical texture featuring more than one simultaneous melody.

Polyphony was an emergent trend in church music but wouldn’t come to the fore until about the year 1200 CE. In a later blog post, I’ll discuss in depth the emergence of polyphonic chant.

Musica enchiriadis also possessed an unusual form of musical notation known as Daisen notation. With Daisen notation, specific intervals of the scale, such as the half-step and the whole-step, were illustrated. Half steps and whole steps are the smallest and the second smallest intervals possible in Western music.

In addition to the intervallic detail provided by the Daisen notation, Musica enchiriadis also had Greek letter name notation and it had directional neumes. The tactic, then, for enchiriadis was to achieve musical accuracy through a sort of convergence of notational conventions.  

Here is a page from Musica enchiriadis:

images (1)

Notational Improvements

Neumatic notation underwent several transitions and innovations throughout the centuries.

Heighted neumes represent the first improvement made to the system. With these kinds of neumes, the markings were placed at varying heights above the chant text corresponding to the varying highs and lows of the melody. Neumes of this sort are known as Diastematic.

Here again is the Viderunt omnes from the gradual, this one notated with heighted neumes:

Heighted Neumes 3

The ultimate improvement, however, came in the form of the staff. With this innovation, neumes are arranged above or below one, or several, lines scrawled across the parchment paper. The lines denoted specific pitches. The neumes, then, were arrayed above the line or below the line by even increments. Discrete note representation was thus achieved.

The inventor of this innovation—what would later come to be known as a staff—was Guido of Arezzo.

In the early eleventh century Guido of Arezzo (992 until sometime after 1033), an Italian monk and expert of Gregorian chant, wrote the musical treatise Micrologus sometime between 1025 and 1028.  Micrologus contained, among other things, a primer on the use of the staff. Guido’s staff consisted of a simple two line system whereby a yellow line meant the note C and a red line meant the note F. The neumes were then placed above or below these lines, providing pitch accuracy.

This was the birth of the C and the F clefs. Clefs are markings placed at the beginning of a line of music that indicate what note that line represents. Below is a sample of manuscript dating from Guido’s time, notice the C clef:

Guido era notation

Guido did not stop with the invention of the staff, though. He was also responsible for devising solmization. Solmization is a method for sight singing whereby specific notes are assigned to specific syllables. (Today we use the syllables do, re, mi, fa, sol, la, and ti to sing the scale).

Guido came upon this solmization idea by realizing that the first-through-sixth phrases of the chant Ut queant laxis outlined the first six notes of one of the church modes.

The first syllable of each phrase of Ut queant laxis, Guido surmised, could be used as a mnemonic to identify mode.

Check out Ut queant laxis below written in modern notation:


Okay, now imagine we take those six notes and stack them on top of each other, affixing the higher set of six upon the lower’s fourth-note pich. If we did, our stack of notes would get three higher each time. And if we performed this maneuver seven times, we’d end up with a pitch set containing the entire note range of the Gregorian chant repertoire. That is, all the notes of all the chants would be accounted for.

Followers of Guido of Arezzo devised this ordering; the set of pitches thus created was known as the system of hexachords. The whole pitch collection is known as the gamut.

The Sytem of Hexachords 2

The followers performed this range innovation as a pedagogical device for the task of mutation. Mutation was the act of singing from one chant right into another chant of differing mode. Using the system of hexachords allowed for easy mutation between modes.

Still another innovation devised by Guido of Arezzo is the Guidonian Hand. The Guidonian Hand was a memory aid that assigned solemnization syllables to the creases and folds upon the palm of one’s hand.

An experienced monk, then, could teach inexperienced monks how to mutate between chants by pointing to a part of the hand corresponding to the first syllable in the next chant melody.

Watch the video below of a modern-day musicologist Professor William Mahrt demonstrating the use of the Guidonian hand:

Modern Scholarship

We have the Solesmes monks of the late nineteenth century to thank for our current understanding of neumatic notation. The monks of the Solesmes Abbey in Sarthe, France collected, organized, recopied, and updated the neumatic script for the whole repertoire of the Roman liturgy.


work was made the church standard by the Pope Pius X in 1903. The efforts of the Solesmes monks resulted in a revival of Gregorian chant’s popularity and a renewed interest in the study of this music.

Here, once again, is the Viderunt omnes chant. This time it’s written in updated, Solesmes monk notation. Notice that the neume shapes are squared off and arrayed upon a four line staff containing a clef—in the following example it’s a C clef.

Viderunt omnes 3.2


Notation came a long way in the years between 850 and 1050 but only in the realm of notating pitch. Notating rhythm would take yet another 300 years to evolve. The emergence of notated rhythm is covered in a later lecture. 

Works Cited

Taruskin, Richard. The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press, 2005.  

Grout, D., Burkholder, J., and Palisca, C. A History of Western Music. Norton, 2014.  

Abraham, Gerald. The Concise Oxford History of Music. Oxford University Press, 1979.

Wilson, David F. Music of the Middle Ages: Style and Structure. Schirmer Books, 1990.

Randel, Don M. The Harvard Concise Dictionary of Music and Musicians. Cambridge, Mass. Belknap Press, 1999.

5 thoughts on “The Origin of Notation

Add yours

    1. Thanks for reading, and thanks for pointing out the misspelling. I’m not sure where I got it—maybe from Richard Taruskin. I just checked Burkholder, et al., and you’re right. It’s solmization.

  1. I was listening to learn about the beginning of notion because I am reading Louise Penny’s book- ‘The Beautiful Mystery’. There is a murder of the choir director in the monastery of Saint-Gilbert-Entre-les Louis, in the wilderness of Quebec. There was discord in the harmony!

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