Standard Music Notation – Early And Modern Music Notation History

Read about standard music notation used by musicians to understand and write music. The article is intended to provide basic information about origin, usage and importance of standard music notation.

Music Notation Definition

Music notation is defined as a system for visually representing elements of music with symbols, dynamics and articulations that can be interpreted by musicians to read or write musical compositions.

I believe, math is not music, but music is math!

Understanding the music notation is nothing less than knowing mathematical principles. Mathematicians can use various numerals, signs, symbols and formulas to solve mathematical problems.

Similarly, musicians also use various symbols and signs each portraying specific instruction for the reading the music.


Early Music Notations

Music notation system has evolved as a result of human evolution. It is believed that world’s first musicians were flutist, based on a fact that oldest known music instrument found were flutes. These flutes were made of bird bones and mammoth ivory dated 42,000 to 43,000 years ago.

Music notation based on Cuneiform Script

Our ancestors were smart enough to devise notation methods to document their musical ideas. The earliest musical notations are believed to be based on ancient cuneiform script developed by Sumerians of Mesopotamia c. 3500-3000 BCE. This script was used to devise many other languages too.

Archaeologists have discovered historic artworks engraved with music symbols, lyrics and pictures depicting stories from the past.

The Hurrian Hymn No. 6 is known to be the oldest melody inscribed on cuneiform clay tablets excavated from northern Syria dated approximately 1400 BC.

Ancient Greek Notation

Seikilos Epitaph is the oldest known music composition found on a stele that has survived in its entirety with lyrics and music composition in Ancient Greek notation

Hence, different cultures and ethnicity have influenced development of numerous music notation systems in different countries. For example, Indian musicians use their very own musical notation system called “Swarlipi”.

As a result of development of various scripts and improvements in musical symbol representations, the musical notations got widely influenced by different geographic regions their culture and ethnicity of musicians.

In early days, composers used to write music with manually that left room for distinct variations in writing style, symbol shapes and sizes.

Hence, addressing a particular musical concept or symbol was subjected to confusions. In order to standardize the process of documenting music, music theorists developed standard music notation system that was widely accepted by western music fraternity.

What is standard music notation?

Standard music notation is widely accepted modern music notation system used to visually represent music through the use of written, printed or digital technology.

Standard music notation is commonly referred to as modern “staff notation”.

Invention of Modern Music Notation

The modern music notation is believed to be invented by Italian musician Guido D’Arezzo during medieval era (approx. 10th Century BC). He made many improvements in music notation system by including time signatures and inventing Solfege system. This invention ultimately replaced the Neumatic music notation used previously.

The modern music notation includes usage of numerous symbols for depicting clefs, notes, rests, accidentals, key signatures, time signatures etc.

Tablature Notation

The staff notation was considered too complex to document stringed instruments like lute during Renaissance period. In order to ease the process of reading music and accommodating numerous strings; music theorists invented Tablature.

Tab notations became popular in 20th century especially for sharing melodies of guitar and easing the process of transcribing.

The number of lines of the staff is equal to the number of strings that the musical instrument has. This makes it easy to identify strings and frets. It can be used by beginners and hobbyist to get started with lessons.

What is difference between tablature notation and standard notation?

The major difference between tabs and sheet music is that tabs cannot effectively express time signature, dynamics and articulations.

You can find the notes on tab however identifying the melody may not be possible. Hence, the only way to figure out melody is listen to the piece before you read. However, that’s not practical if you want to learn a music piece which you have never heard before.

With standard notations or sheet music the entire musical piece can be played even if you haven’t heard the music earlier.

Why is it important to learn standard notation?

Firstly, learning sheet music is part of the curriculum of western music examinations. If you are inclined towards giving western music examinations, you should be able to understand how to read sheet music.

Classical music is here since long time and many composers have documented their compositions using sheet music. Although several tabulated version of these pieces are available, you may never know the dynamics and soul of the piece.

Learning lessons using tabs won’t be an issue however things will get complex once you start with melodies involving complex time duration and note duration.

Secondly, if you intend to pursue classical music as a profession and aim at performing with group or classical orchestra, you need to learn to read sheet music. Sometimes, you may require to read the sheet music during performance.

Lastly, it does give you an edge and confidence to read and write western music in an appropriate way. Just imagine, selling your own music compositions through sheet music on digital platforms.

Possibilities are unlimited!

Above all, if listening to music is your hobby and you are neither a musician nor you intend to learn music; then learning standard music notation might increase your music quotient and make you a better listener and music appreciator.

Thanks for reading the article in the series 100 Day Music Blogging Challenge.

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Published by Bharat

Hi, I'm Bharat. An artist, blogger, musician and digital marketing professional dedicated to sharing musing and stories about music, art and mindful resonance! Follow me @bharatpc