HistoryIt has been suggested that the earliest form of musical notation can be found in a cuneiform tablet that was created at Nippur in about 2000 B.C. Apparently the tablet represents fragmentary instructions for performing music, that the music was composed in harmonies of thirds, and that it was written using a diatonic scale. 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 lyre, the tuning of which is described in other tablets. Although they were fragmentary, these tablets represent the earliest recorded melodies found anywhere in the world.
- Further information: Modal notation and Mensural notation
The ancestors of modern symbolic music notation originated in the Roman Catholic Church, as monks developed methods to put plainchant (sacred songs) to paper. 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.
Because the neum system arose from the need to notate songs, exact timing was initially not a particular issue because the music would generally follow the natural rhythms of the Latin 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 century.
The founder of what is now considered the standard music stave was Guido d'Arezzo, an Italian Benedictine monk who lived from 995–1050 A.D. His revolutionary method—combining a 4 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 composer.
- See also: Modern musical symbols and Sheet music
The system uses a five-line staff. Pitch is shown by placement of notes on the staff (sometimes modified by accidentals), and duration is shown with different note values and additional symbols such as dots and ties. 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 clef, 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 ledger lines, which provide a single note with additional lines and spaces.
Following the clef, the key signature on a staff indicates the key of the piece by specifying certain notes to be flat or sharp throughout the piece, unless otherwise indicated.
Following the key signature is the time signature. Measures (bars) divide the piece into regular groupings of beats , and the time signatures specifies those groupings.
Directions to the player regarding matters such as tempo and dynamics are added above or below the staff. For vocal music, lyrics are written.
In music for ensembles, a "score" shows music for all players together, while "parts" contain only the music played by an individual musician. A score can be constructed (laboriously) from a complete set of parts and vice versa.
- Percussion notation 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.
- Figured bass notation originated in baroque basso continuo parts. It is also used extensively in accordion 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 chord symbols placed above and lyrics below. It is used to capture the essential elements of a popular song 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 professional session musicians playing jazz or other forms of popular music and is intended primarily for the rhythm section (usually containing piano, guitar, bass and drums).
- The shape note system is found in some church hymnals, sheet music, and song books, especially in the American south. 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. Sacred Harp is one of the most popular tune books using shape notes.
Notation in various countries
India200 B.C.), in his Chanda Sutra, used marks indicating long and short syllables to indicate meters in Sanskrit poetry.
In the notation of Indian rāga, a solfege-like system called sargam 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 Pythagorean fifth rather than an equal-tempered 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 vikrut swar.
Other systems exist for non-twelve-tone equal temperament and non-Western music, such as the Indian svar lippi.
RussiaIn ancient Byzantium and Russia, sacred music was notated with special 'hooks and banners' (see znamennoe singing).
ChinaMarquis Ye of Zeng (d. 433 B.C.E.). 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 solmization system was used. 
The tablature of the guqin 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 Chinese); 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 qinpu.
The jianpu system of notation (an adaptation of a French Galin-Paris-Cheve system) had gained widespread acceptance by 1900 C.E. In this system, notes of the scale are numbered. For a typical Pentatonic Scale, the numbers 1,2,3,5,6 would be used. Dots above or below the notes would indicate a higher or lower octaves. Time values are indicated by dots and dashes following each number. Key signatures, barlines, and time signatures are also employed. The system also makes use of many symbols from the standard notation, such as bar lines, time signatures, accidentals, tie and slur, and the expression markings. In the present-day jianpu system, only the melody is notated. Harmonic and rhythmic elements are left to the discretion of the performers.
JapanJapanese music is highly diversified, and therefore requires various systems of notation. In Japanese shakuhachi music, for example, glissandos and timbres are often more significant than distinct pitches (see Shakuhachi musical notation), whereas as taiko notation focuses on discrete strokes.
Composers and scholars both Indonesian and foreign have also mapped the slendro and pelog tuning systems of gamelan onto the western staff, with and without various symbols for microtones. 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 diatonic scale 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
Cipher notationIn many cultures, including Chinese (jianpu or gongche), Indonesian (kepatihan), and Indian (sargam), the "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 solfege (sicsic) if written in musical sequence.
Tonic Sol-fa is a type of notation using the initial letters of solfège.
12-note non-equal temperamentSometimes the pitches of music written in just intonation are notated with the frequency ratios, while Ben Johnston has devised a system for representing just intonation with traditional western notation and the addition of accidentals which indicate the cents a pitch is to be lowered or raised.
Chromatic stavesOver 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, 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.
Integer notationIn integer notation, or the integer model of pitch, all pitch classes and intervals between pitch classes are designated using the numbers 0 through 11. It is not used to notate music for performance, but is a common analytical and compositional tool when working with chromatic music, including twelve tone, serial, or otherwise atonal music.
Computer musical notation
There are a great many software programs designed to produce musical notation. These are called musical notation software, or sometimes Scorewriters. In addition to this software, there are many file formats used to store musical information that this software and other programs can convert into notation, sound, or into some other usable form. In a sense, these file formats are a "notation" for computers.
The most common musical file format is probably the MIDI file format, which stores pitch and timing information about music (as well as velocity, volume, pitch bend, and modulation) and can be used to control a MIDI instrument which will produce the specified sound.
There are also hybrid formats, such as ABC notation, Lilypond, and MusicXML that are text files that can be read and edited by a capable human, but can also be manipulated by the computer. One notable system is the NEUMES standard, which is being used to form a computerized catalog of Medieval plainchant that can be searched by melody, text, or any encoded aspect of the music. Similarly the Mutopia project maintains a library of scores available in such formats (though they are not searchable by content).
Finally there are notational forms that are not intended to be processed by computer, but are nonetheless commonly used to transmit information via computer, such as text file guitar tablature which has become extremely popular following the growth of the world wide web.
- See also: List of scorewriters
Perspectives of musical notation in composition and musical performanceAccording to Richard Middleton (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 style of Joni Mitchell and the String Quartets of Elliott Sharp. 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 recording.
A further perspective on musical notation is provided in the "Composer's Note" from "Brushed with Blue", Op. 55, by Fredrick Pritchard (pub. Effel Publications, 2002):
- "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."
- Modern musical symbols
- Guido of Arezzo, inventor of modern musical notation
- Znamennoe singing
- Time unit box system, a notation system useful for polyrhythms
- Tongan music notation, a subset of standard music notation
- Eye movement in music reading
- Music OCR
- Kilmer 1986
- Kilmer 1965
- West 1994
- West 1994
- Middleton, Richard (1990/2002). Studying Popular Music. Philadelphia: Open University Press. ISBN 0-335-15275-9.
- Tagg, Philip (1979). Cited in Middleton, Richard (1990/2002). Studying Popular Music. Philadelphia: Open University Press. ISBN 0-335-15275-9.
- Albrecht Schneider: Music, sound, language, writing. Transcription and notation in comparative musicology and music ethnology, in: Zeitschrift für Semiotik, 1987, Volume: 9, Number: 3-4.
- Sotorrio, José A (1997). Bilinear Music Notation –A New Notation System for the Modern Musician, Spectral Music, ISBN 978-0-9548498-2-5.
- Kilmer, Anne Draffkorn (1965). The Strings of Musical Instruments: their Names, Numbers, and Significance, Studies in Honor of Benno Landsberger = Assyriological Studies, xvi, 261-8
- Kilmer, Anne Draffkorn (1986). Journal of Cuneiform Studies, xxxviii, 94-98
- West, M. L., The Babylonian Musical Notation and the Hurrian Melodic Texts, Music & Letters, Vol. 75, No. 2. (May, 1994), pp. 161-179
- Hall, Rachael (2005). Math for Poets and Drummers. Saint Joseph's University.
- Stone, Kurt (1980). Music Notation in the Twentieth Century: A Practical Guidebook. W. W. Norton & Company
- Read, Gardner (1987). Source Book of Proposed Music Notation Reforms. Greenwood Press.
- Read, Gardner (1978). Modern Rhythmic Notation. Victor Gollance Ltd.
- Contains a Guide to Byzantine Music Notation (neumes)
- On-line activity that counts musical notes!
- Glossary of U.S. and British English musical terms
- A collection of interactive lessons and trainers that can be ed for offline use
- Extremes of Conventional Musical Notation
- Information on Stanford University Course on music representation. Links page shows examples of different notations
- Abstracts on Musical Notation from Zeitschrift für Semiotik
- Collection of lessons covering Rhythmic Musical Notation for drummers
- Potato print - examples of musical symbols from the 16th and 17th century
- The Music Notation Project - alternative music notation systems that use chromatic staves
- Ensemble Kerylos, who has reconstructed ancient instruments and plays Ancient Greek melodies.