The Season Premiere: Theoretically Speaking: S4:E1 – Who Invented Musical Notation? 


Welcome to Season 4!

Throughout the previous season, we’ve looked at various genres of recorded music.

That covers about the last 140 years, which isn’t much. And we’ve only scratched the surface – so let’s go back a little farther.

The oldest instrument we have is a 35,000 year old bone flute.

It can still be played, gingerly, but we haven’t any clues as to what melodies were played on it.

The oldest song we have written down is the Hurrian Hymn from 1600 BCE.

It’s a tablet found in current day Syria that describes where to put your fingers on a lyre. The Chinese system of tablature does the same thing, however neither tells you how long or loud to play each note or even how the instrument is tuned. We can make educated guesses, but they’re only guesses.

We don’t really have a good idea what music sounded like in Ancient Rome or Greece. Again, we can guess but not only do we not have tapes or MP3s, we don’t even have any sheet music from those times. It hadn’t been invented yet.

So that raises the questions of who standardized musical notation and when? 

A millennium and a half ago, most people were illiterate. Only the rich and privileged could read and write. For the masses, music was an oral tradition.

Songs were passed down from generation to generation, probably evolving along the way.

New songs might be created, but if they weren’t instantly memorized, they were lost forever.

Nowadays, every songwriter has a phone app to record ideas as they come.

Churches and monasteries were centers of education. Monks could read and write, and there was a vague method of writing music. These weren’t the folk songs of the peasants. The monks’ music was strictly liturgical. 

These religious songs were mostly learned by repetition. When you’re spending your entire life cloistered away, you have all the time needed to learn these songs slowly, by rote. 

“OK. Take 6,234: Once more, from the top…”

There was, however, a method for writing songs down.

Marks called neumes were added over the lyrics to indicate whether the melody went up or down. And that’s pretty much it. They don’t specify how many notes up or down the melody goes. They don’t even say which note to start on. There’s no indication of tempo, rhythm, or how long each note lasts.

For all we know, this tune could be hella funky.

In Da Monastery,” by 50 Lira.
A cloistered classic.

If you already knew a song, neumes worked well as reminders of how it went. If you didn’t know the song, neumes were more or less worthless.

Neumes were so vague that it’s possible the same song could be sung in different keys, at different speeds, and with completely different melodies, and still adhere to what was on the written page. This means that, even though we have copies of songs written down, the neumes don’t give us enough information to know what they sounded like.

Someone saw this as a problem and invented a better way.

The innovation was a single, horizontal, red line. It indicated a center pitch. Marks above the line meant a higher note should be sung, and marks below the line meant a lower note. This is better than neumes, but still not precise.

History isn’t sure who came up with the red line.

But it may have been Guido d’Arezzo.

Nearly everything we know about Guido d’Arezzo comes from his three scholarly works about music and two letters he wrote to colleagues. We’ve figured out that he was born in 991 or 992 CE, but we’re not sure where. It’s possible he was actually from Arezzo, in north central Italy, though some say he was from Pomposa. 

Other people say he was from France and studied near Paris. People who say this tend to be French.

Guido had become known as an excellent singing instructor and around 1020 was recruited by Bishop Tedald of Arezzo Cathedral to set up a choir school there.

Whether he created the red line or not, he saw its usefulness and improved upon it -with a yellow line.

The red line, he declared, should always represent the note F.

The yellow line above the red line represents C.

He eventually added two black lines for clarity, and then the colors went away leaving us with a four line staff.

This staff became the universal notation throughout the West.

A fifth line was added in the 14th Century, due to new instruments being invented around the start of the Renaissance, but Guido’s staff and note placement is the first instance of what we recognize as sheet music.

His students at Arezzo were the first people in the world to sing from sheet music. He had created the world’s first notation that musicians could play without previously hearing the piece. It is to music what recipes are to cooking, or what blueprints are to construction.

This example is a modern recreation that shows not just the four line staff, but also another of Guido’s innovations. It’s the hymn “Ut Queant Laxis.”

He used it to teach the relationship between notes of the Hexachord using the solmisation syllables “Ut Re Mi Fa Sol La.”

The Hexachord is a sort of precursor of the major scale and solmization is giving each note a unique syllable.

“Ut” was later changed to “Do,” as in “Do Re Mi,” because its round sound is easier to sing than “Ut.”

Liesl, in particular, was relieved.

Still, it’s the same concept. The song is a mnemonic device meant to help students learn the major scale.

The note “Si” was changed to “Ti” in the 19th Century so that each syllable would start with a unique letter. It’s the seventh note of the scale and it became more important over time. We still like the seventh as a leading tone back to the tonic. “Ti, a drink with jam and bread that will lead us back to Do.”

Notice that the first syllable of each phrase, shown in red above, is on the next higher note. “Ut” is on G, the “Re” in “resonáre” is on A, “Mi” in “mira” is on B, and so on.

It’s not as upbeat as Julie Andrews singing about Do, a deer, a female deer, but it got the point across in its day.

Fight me.

Guido developed this tune to teach relative pitches. The interval between, say, Ut and Mi will always be the same and he wanted his students to be able to make the jump from one to the other without thinking about it too much. The interval from Ut (or Do) to Mi is a major third, and they’re the same number of notes apart regardless of what key you’re in.

Guido’s goal was to teach his students how to sing Gregorian chants in one year rather than ten.

He felt that time spent memorizing songs was time that could have been spent on other religious studies. That’s a great goal, and he succeeded.

But the more important outcome is music could be written and shared independent of performances.

Musicians learned to sight read, which is playing what’s on the page even if you never heard it before.

Standardized musical notation created a new role in the art of music.

There could now be composers. Someone in Florence could write a piece and send the notation to performers in Milan, with no words ever exchanged between the parties.

We’re visual creatures. When music could suddenly be written and read, when it became visual, innovation happened. Almost immediately, music went from monophonic, meaning there was only one note at a time, to polyphonic. Two voices could sing the same words but on different notes. Two instruments could play different melodies. And they sounded good together.

The composer’s ability to use monophony, two part harmony, and more part harmony, at will, allowed for the creation of breathtaking music never before possible. Suddenly, meaning within a century of Guido’s invention, the composers’ names became part of each piece’s title. 

Like we now know that Taylor Swift songs are nothing like what Snoop Dogg writes, musicians and audiences of 800 years ago knew what different composers brought to their work.

The composers, the good ones anyway, were rockstars.

While three and four part harmony existed as early as the 13th Century, it took two hundred years for a third harmony part to become commonplace, but only 150 years after that for the fourth.

When you consider the millennia that had passed prior to Guido’s creation of notation, it’s a blink of an eye.

And innovation only got faster. There are six separate genres under the classical music umbrella.

  • The first, Medieval music, lasted 1000 years and includes Guido’s life and contributions.
  • Then came the Renaissance, which lasted the 200 years from 1400 to 1600.
  • Baroque lasted for 150, the Classical and Romantic periods were under 100 years each…
  • …and then came all the subgenres of 20th Century orchestral music.

Like any technology, these musical innovations happened more and more rapidly.

None of them are possible without standard notation.

Stories persist that Guido’s advances caused interpersonal issues with the music and religious establishment. Traditionalists may have felt threatened by his uppity ideas. Maybe some thought that sight reading made the musicians mere technicians who would miss the deeper meaning of the hymns.

There’s not much in the way of documentary evidence that he had to, as one story goes, move from Pomposa to Arezzo to get away from the controversy. Human nature is a funny thing, though, and these stories are certainly plausible. We, however, have no way of knowing.

All we know is that without standard notation, there would be no counterpoint or multi-part harmony, therefore no fugues, therefore no Bach. There would be no large ensembles, therefore no Beethoven or Benny Goodman. There would be no complex time changes, therefore no Stravinsky or Soundgarden.

Yet we hardly know anything about the man.

There are statues of Guido in Arezzo and Florence.

There should be more.

Suggested Listening: Full YouTube Playlist

Missa pro defunctis: Libera me, Domine
9th Century

Ut Queant Laxis
Guido d’Arezzo
Early 11th Century

Circumdederunt me
Orlando di Lasso

Do Re Mi
Rodgers & Hammerstein

Let the author know that you liked their article with a “Green Thumb” upvote!


Thank You For Your Vote!

Sorry You have Already Voted!

Bill Bois

Bill Bois - bassist, pie fan, aging gentleman punk, keeper of the TNOCS spreadsheet:

Notify of
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Phylum of Alexandria
Famed Member
April 14, 2023 7:31 am

A man placed under arezzo because of his art. Maybe it’s good he left, else his music would have been way too pomposa.

Great write up Bill. Can’t wait for the historical deep dive to come.

Famed Member
April 14, 2023 9:39 am

VDog – unrelated to your article today, but I read this last night and thought of you having a new hotness bass for your collection…. 😁

Famed Member
Online Now
April 14, 2023 12:43 pm

This is good stuff, Bill. I never really thought of the fact that without written music, multi-part songs and harmonies wouldn’t have come to pass. I love it.

Noble Member
Online Now
April 14, 2023 1:34 pm

The neumes remind me of the “trop” or te’amim used to guide the melody of Torah reading. It looks like predecessors of the current system have existed since the early days CE, but the current system started coming into use right around the same time as d’Arezzo developed his system.

Famed Member
April 14, 2023 1:39 pm

“A millennium and a half ago, most people were illiterate”

Yeah, that’s probably not true. It’s the conventional tradition but more recent work suggests that the overwhelming majority of people were able to read and write at a basic level well before the birth of Christ.

Famed Member
April 15, 2023 9:25 am
Reply to  Virgindog

Try Literacy in Ancient Everyday Life by Anne Kolb or if you want to go further back there’s Daily Life in Ancient Rome by Florence DuPont.

Famed Member
April 14, 2023 2:09 pm

VDog has done it again – taken a topic I’ve never questioned and just accepted and given it a lively backstory with a fascinating history, forcing me to realize this is something I NEED to know about!

Thank you Bill, fantastic season premiere! 🙂

Famed Member
April 14, 2023 4:25 pm

No doubt 50 Lira’s flow on ‘In the Monestary’ is ridiculously exacting and multi-layered in its vocals… 🙃

Pauly Steyreen
Famed Member
April 14, 2023 6:38 pm

Bill, this was awesome! Eye-opening and informative. I would have thought the written langauge of music dated back to Roman times. But we as a species have only been music literate for maybe a millennium tops. Mind blown!

Famed Member
April 15, 2023 9:16 am

By contrast, there are three statues of David in Florence. If Guido looked more like David, maybe he’d have better representation … 😉

Seriously, thanks for this great look at the underpinnings of written music. So much to unpack — I liked your comparison to cooks and recipes, as my husband and I have this running conversation. He’s an artist in the kitchen; recipes are jumping-off points for him to create. I’m a scientist; I do best with desserts, where if you follow each step as written, you’ll have something delicious and often amazing. Improvisation in the kitchen is not my forte, but it is his. Having read your previous series, I get the sense that you’re somewhere in between as a musician — capable of the improv but appreciating the written originals as the starting place.

Famed Member
April 15, 2023 9:47 pm

Charmaine Carr played Liesl in the film version of The Sound of Music. She passed away in 2016.

Pink Martini, a band from Portland Oregon, recorded an album with The Von Trapps called Dream a Little Dream(2014). Carr does a guest vocal on “Edelweiss”. She would have been 71.

Spotify is problematic. But it improves your music IQ. The chances of me knowing this song existed without streaming is probably zero.

“The Lonely Goatherd” is underrated.

February 9, 2024 12:02 am

letss gooo I just happened to come across this write-up great stuff man I wish you nothing but success

just learning music myself;
more like f-ing around but here we go. I hope to some day make an impact

February 9, 2024 12:07 am

I wonder if Guido ever took some shrooms

Last edited 4 months ago by someguy
Would love your thoughts, please comment.x