Notes, lyrics and symbols: a brief overview of musical notation


It is often said that writing is one of humanity’s great inventions. A transcendental invention, without a doubt, that has definitely influenced the evolution of the human being. Writing serves to preserve ideas and thoughts that we consider valuable and helps us to structure and organize our mind.

In the field of music, musical notation plays a role very similar to that of writing: it has served -and serves- to make the language of music evolve and allows the works of composers to be preserved over time. In this post, I invite you to take a brief look at some aspects of musical notation.

Notation and its context

The first attempts at musical notation are more than two thousand years old – archaeological remains have been found with musical characters from the Sumerian period (approx. 2600 B.C.) – but, as we shall see below, our modern notation system is just over four hundred years old.

In order to realize the importance of the development of musical notation, we must know that before its invention music could only be transmitted orally; this was an enormous limitation when memorizing a large number of melodies and made it difficult for music from one region to be known elsewhere. Musical notation, therefore, has not only served to evolve the complexity and richness of musical thought but has also helped to transmit and disseminate the music of composers beyond their context, time and tradition.

Next, I will review the three types of musical notation most used today. As you can see, musical notation is not always associated with classical music. Systems have also been developed to meet the needs of modern music, jazz or beginners’ pedagogical methods.

Modern Western notation, the most complete

Modern musical notation, which is taught in music schools and conservatories, was born in the middle of the 9th century A.D. with the Gregorian chant. In its beginnings, the symbols used were very rudimentary and received the name of neumes. It would not be until the seventeenth century when the musical notation would reach its final form, practically the same as the one we have today. This type of notation is the most complete and effective way to represent complex musical ideas.

The modern score contains all the necessary elements for the correct interpretation of music:

The staff: it is the set of five lines and four spaces on which the musical notes are written.
The key: is the symbol placed at the beginning of the staff that indicates the name of the notes and the place they occupy in the register.
Musical notes: indicate the height (high or low) according to their position on the staff (up or down) and the duration of them (eighth note, black, white, etc..).

The tempo indicates the speed at which the music should be played.
The armor indicates the tonality of the piece.
The compás: is expressed by the two numbers placed at the beginning of the score.
The articulation indicates the way in which the instrument must be played in order to highlight musical ideas (linked, loose, more marked sounds, etc.).
Dynamics: indicates the amount of sound (volume) to be produced at each moment: P means piano (i.e. soft), F, forte, PP, pianísimo, very soft, etc…

The American cipher, ideal for improvising

The American cipher, also known as English or Anglo-Saxon cipher, is a system of letters in which each letter of the alphabet (from A to G) corresponds to a musical note. In this way we have that: the letter A is equivalent to the note A; B=Si, C=Do, D=Re, E=Mi, F=Fa, G=Sol.

But, in addition, we can find scores in which the letters are accompanied by numbers (F6, D-7, G-7, C7, etc …). In this case, what the American cipher represents are not individual sounds but complete chords. This type of notation is used to express the harmony of a song in abbreviated form. Therefore, it is common to see it in scores of modern music.

The problem with American encryption is that it does not reflect either the exact rhythm or the arrangement of the chord notes. But this, which could be an inconvenience from the point of view of traditional writing, becomes an advantage when you want the performer to be able to improvise, as is the case with Jazz music.


The tablature, for those who do not know how to read music

The tablature is a notation that graphically represents the positions and placement of the fingers on the instrument. It is widely used by beginners and is typical of the guitar. As with the American coding, this notation does not reflect the rhythm of the music so it is.

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