Posted in For Project 5 Examples

Example 1 Research, Part 3a: Early neumatic notation

“Before notation was employed to codify chant melodies, and provide an aid to learning and preservation, the music was performed from memory” (Hiley, 1993: 370), or the way musicians like to say – ‘by ear’. Thus, with plainchants, we are not dealing with “… a repertory transmitted in writing, but one remembered and later codified differently in different places.” Even after notation began to be used, most performing was continued from memory. Notation was there only to remind the singer of details of phrasing, rhythm, dynamic, together with some refinements of performance. In this regard, the early notated manuscripts weren’t ‘performing scores’ in the modern sense, but on contrary, were used to refresh the memory, for recordatio – as was known in the Latin West.


Fig. 1. Examples of neumes

The notation of the Western plainchant traditions is based on the Carolingian neumes (Fig. 1) which emerged in the 9th century. The main difference between the neumatic notation and the notation utilized today is that, neumes weren’t so much about designating the signs for single tones, but rather for the groups of two, three or more tones in various combinations of upward and downward motion. As Hiley writes, the term itself was often used in the early Middle Ages to mean a melodic phrase, while the usual word for a written musical symbol was nota. Thus, he goes even further as to state that: “A neuma could be as short as one note or as long as 101 notes.” (Hiley, 1993: 341) For example, around 1030, Guido draws an interesting analogy between the construction of metrical verse and that of a melody:

“The individual letters of verse (litterae) are comparable to the individual sounds of music (phthongi or soni). As syllables (syllabae) are composed of letters, so musical syllables (syllabae) are composed of one or more sounds. Syllables are made up into parts or feet (panes or pedes); one or more musical syllables make up neumes or parts (neumae or partes). The bringing together of feet makes a verse (versus), which is equivalent to a section (distinctio) of a musical composition, composed of several neumes.” (346)

In any respect, there was a primarily melodic significance in the plainchants with the lack of indication for rhythmic values, which in later music is as basic as that of pitch. This is not in the sense that different note-values were non-existent at the time, but rather that the rhythm was understood in a different way.

The neumatic notation is the only system that has direct relevance to the history of Western music, unlike other notational systems, such as phonetic notation (Fig. 2a) of Greek, that is based on alphabet, or ecphonetic notation (Fig. 2b), that didn’t represent the continuous melody of free design, but instead intonation formulas that occur sporadically, usually at the beginning and end of a phrase. The latter occur in Syrian, Jewish, Byzantine and other manuscripts, where the notation may even lack the musical significance, though ta’amim or trope (Fig. 2c) still in use in Jewish music, derives from it.


Fig. 2a. Transcription of Greek alphabetic musical notation


Fig. 2b. Greek text with ekphonetic notation


Fig. 2c. Ta’amim with transcription

The earliest type of neumes is called adiastematic, meaning the neumes that run parallel to the text and do not denote the pitch, but are instead abstract symbols showing the particular melodic movement. Even the relative pitch can be determined only in the sense of the most basic of relative movements – upward and downward, in other words, we have their most elementary relationships. Among the early systems that developed, we have the Palaeofrankish, French and German of the 9th century, and extending the time-limit to the middle of the 10th century, we have Breton, Laon, Aquitanian and other. Taruskin points out that although the introduction of neumes seems today as a momentous event in the musical history, it seems to have received little notice at the time. In fact, there is no literary reference to document their invention and in the beginning, only isolated chants or small groups of pieces were notated. For that reason, there is a debate on how neumes originated, but in most cases, the notation is assumed to be parasitic on some earlier sign-system.

Prosodic accent-signs were suggested, which focus on the correct tone of a written significative sound. (Spitzner, 1831:1) They were used by the Greeks from early times, but especially from the third century BC, when Greek gradually became an international language throughout the Near East, and non-natives needed guides on how to correctly pronounce the written texts. For the interest of the chant tradition, the Alexandrian ‘ten prosodic signs’, such as acute, grave, cimcumflex and other, are often cited. However, one of the reason why the theory about the prosodic accent-signs leading to neumes is dismissed, is that the historians of Latin language agree that late Latin, spoken during the time considered as the origin of the neumes, was spoken without these pitch accents. There may even be evidence against pitch accent in the early Latin that the Romans spoke. In any case, it has been difficult to detect any continuous use of prosodic accents in Western literary manuscripts up to, and including, the time when music was first notated in the ninth century. In other words, prosodic signs are very rare in Latin sources. Although many Latin grammarians include brief accounts of prosodic signs, this is actually heavily indebted to Greek models, so that the Latin grammatical treatises were really just imitating their Greek predecessors.

Next, we have the early medieval punctuation systems as catalyst for the new musical notation. Either the signs could have been taken over literally, with modifications of shape or significance, or the general principle of marking syntactic units with a sign might also have been of importance. Chant singers made wide use of well-known melodies which could be adapted to many different texts. Punctuation might therefore guide the application of standard melodic phrases to units of text. Treitler started from the fact that the notation in early chant-books does not record pitches, and must therefore have a different function, one of guiding the articulation and delivery of the text. The signs used to build up a music notation should therefore not be sought among prosodic accents, which were concerned with pitch, but among punctuation signs, which concern the articulation of the texts into its syntactic units. And among other things he has drawn attention to the similarity of the forms of question mark found in late eighth-century manuscripts and forms of the quilisma in the next century. Both indicate a rising vocal gesture.

Another theory comes from ecphonetic notation, which I have already mentioned. This notation was used in the Eastern traditions for the special type of punctuation in the intonation of liturgical texts, lessons in particular. The degree to which they were developed from prosodic accents is debatable, but the signs do not merely mark off the text in syntactic units, but they carry a range of pitch signification well beyond that of the punctuation signs. There is, of course, little doubt that Byzantine ekphonetic and Byzantine neumatic notation are related to each other, for some of the signs are identical. But even in this chant tradition, one cannot speak of a steady development from accents to ekphonetic notation to neumatic notation, despite the signs held in common, rather it is safer to speak of three different systems which shared some ideas and graphic shapes.
On the other hand, the role of ekphonetic notations in the West is somewhat obscure. Ekphonetic signs of many different types may indeed be found in Western books, but they seem to be no earlier than neumes, nor to adhere to any unified tradition. And even here, no one manuscript seems to use more than eight or nine signs, so that it is something like an extended punctuation system. Hence, Hiley concludes: “There seems little evidence, therefore, to suggest that Western neumatic notation might have used ekphonetic signs as a springboard for the development of its system.” (369)

But what about the Byzantine neumatic notation? To quote Hiley, “The Greek names of many neumes, the similarity of some shapes, even if they signified something different, have exercised a considerable fascination.” (369) However, “the evidence is shaky” (369) and “the Western adoption or imitation of Byzantine chant notation is very unlikely to have occurred.” 

Another theory is that neumes developed from cheironomy, where melodic patterns or motifs indicated by a system of finger and hand movements. These gestures were intended to refresh the memory of those who had previously learned the melodies by ear, being a musical notation written on the air. The idea originated with Mocquereau, but there is no evidence that Western chant notation was linked to any method of this sort. Even literary references to cantors conducting with hand movements are extremely sparse.

Finally, we have eclectic theories that composite two or three of the ones above, so that for example, Dom Cardine combines elements of accent, punctuation and cheironomy as the origins of neumes. However, neumes might have been a new, separate invention. (Taruskin) This new creation, was created with the novel, distinct aim to represent the “melodic turns on parchment”. (Treitler, 146) Levy asserts that it was first made up of “dots, strokes and twists” with the idea to outline some of the positions of “pitches” , in what he calls, the graphic method (Paleofrankish neumes), and later, in a gestural method (French, German and other neumes), with the accent on the “intervallic flow” of the melodic turns, in order to produce charts that were more vivid as memory aids. Note that the terms are meant in the sense of adiastematic notation, where notes and intervals aren’t named, and not in the modern sense. Hence, the term pitch here denotes a specific note/tone, while the term interval represents the melodic movement.

However, I do think that all the previously mentioned systems, which were at the disposal in the Carolingian period, with the conversion of Frankish church music from Gallican to Roman, might have inspired the development of a newfangled notation of the West. I agree with Hiley, in that “the accents of classical prosody and punctuation signs, with a faint possibility that Byzantine ekphonetic signs or the beginnings of Byzantine musical notation might have existed to spur the imagination of the Franks.” (370) For that reason, the neumes might have been some sort of reaction or response to the old systems that inspired the creation of a new one, with a distinct, musical purpose at hand.

To conclude, there are still numerous debates about the origin of neumes. Up to this point, I’ve been writing about the early neume notation, which outlined the melody, but included no pitch designation. Adiastematic notation were adapted to represent the standard idioms and formulas of the earliest practice of chant. Yet the old musical types were increasingly being challenged by newer, non-formulaic, compositions. For these reasons, the arrival of pitch or staff notation was inevitable. Read my next blog post about that.

List of illustrations:

Fig. 1. Examples of neumes

Fig. 2a. Transcription of Greek alphabetic musical notation

Fig. 2b. Greek text with ekphonetic notation

Fig. 2c. Ta’amim with transcription


Hiley, David (1993) Western Plainchant: A Handbook. Oxford: Clarendon Press

Taruskin, Richard (2006) Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century: The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford: Oxford University Press

Spitzner, Franz (1831) Elements of Greek Prosody. London: Whittaker, Treacher, & Company

Treitler, Leo (2003) With Voice and Pen: Coming to Know Medieval Song and how it was Made, Volume 2. Oxford: Oxford University Press


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