Music notation or musical notation is any system used to visually represent aurally perceived music through the use of written symbols, including ancient or modern musical symbols. Although many ancient cultures used symbols to represent melodies, none of them is nearly as comprehensive as written language, limiting the knowledge of ancient music to a few fragments. Comprehensive music notation began to be developed in Europe in the Middle Ages and has been adapted to many kinds of music worldwide.
Ancient Near East
The earliest form of musical notation can be found in a cuneiform tablet that was created at Nippur, in Sumer (today's Iraq), in about 2000 BC. 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 BC 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 are fragmentary, these tablets represent the earliest notated melodies found anywhere in the world.
Ancient Greek musical notation was in use from at least the 6th century BC until approximately the 4th century AD; several complete compositions and fragments of compositions using this notation survive. The notation consists of symbols placed above text syllables. An example of a complete composition is the Seikilos epitaph, which has been variously dated between the 2nd century BC to the 1st century AD. Three hymns by Mesomedes of Crete exist in manuscript. The Delphic Hymns, dated to the 2nd century BC, also use this notation, but they are not completely preserved. Ancient Greek notation appears to have fallen out of use around the time of the Decline of the Roman Empire.
Byzantine music is vocal religious music, based on the monodic modal singing of Ancient Greece and the pre-Islamic Near East. The notation developed for it is similar in principle to subsequent Western notation, in that it is ordered left to right, and separated into measures. The main difference is that notation symbols are differential rather than absolute, i.e. they indicate pitch change (rise or fall), and the musician has to deduce correctly, from the score and the note they are singing presently, which note comes next. The pitch symbols themselves resemble brush strokes and are colloquially called gántzoi ("hooks") in Modern Greek. Notes themselves are represented in written form only between measures, as an optional reminder, along with modal and tempo directions if needed. Additional signs are used to indicate embellishments and microtones (pitch changes smaller than a semitone), both essential in Byzantine chant.
The seven standard note names in Byzantine "solfege" are: pá, vú, ghá, dhē, ké, zō, nē, corresponding to Western re, mi, fa, sol, la, si, do. Byzantine music uses the eight natural, non-tempered scales called Ēkhoi, "sounds", exclusively, and therefore the absolute pitch of each note may slightly vary each time, depending on the particular Ēkhos used. Byzantine notation is still used in many Orthodox Churches. Some cantors can also use standard Western notation while adding non-notatable embellishment material from memory and "sliding" into the natural scales from experience.
Persian and Arab worlds
In 1252, Safi al-Din al-Urmawi developed a form of musical notation, where rhythms were represented by geometric representation. Many subsequent scholars of rhythm have sought to develop graphical geometrical notations. For example, a similar geometric system was published in 1987 by Kjell Gustafson, whose method represents a rhythm as a two-dimensional graph.
Scholar and music theorist Isidore of Seville, writing in the early 7th century, considered that "unless sounds are held by the memory of man, they perish, because they cannot be written down." By the middle of the 9th century, however, a form of neumatic notation began to develop in monasteries in Europe as a mnemonic device for Gregorian chant, using symbols known as neumes; the earliest surviving musical notation of this type is in the Musica disciplina of Aurelian of Réôme, from about 850. There are scattered survivals from the Iberian Peninsula before this time, of a type of notation known as Visigothic neumes, but its few surviving fragments have not yet been deciphered. The problem with this notation was that it only showed melodic contours and consequently the music could not be read by someone who did not know the music already.
To address the issue of exact pitch, a staff was introduced consisting originally of a single horizontal line, but this was progressively extended until a system of four parallel, horizontal lines was standardized. This is traditionally attributed to Guido of Arezzo, who set out his thoughts on the changes in his first musical treatise, Micrologus. The vertical positions of each mark on the staff indicated which pitch or pitches it represented. (Pitches were derived from a musical mode.) Although the four-line staff has remained in use until the present day for plainchant, for other types of music, staffs with differing numbers of lines have been used at various times and places for various instruments. The modern five-line staff was first adopted in France and became almost universal by the 16th century (although the use of staves with other numbers of lines was still widespread well into the 17th century).
Notation had developed far enough to notate melody, but there was still no system for notating rhythm. A mid-13th-century treatise, De Mensurabili Musica, explains a set of six rhythmic modes that were in use at the time, although it is not clear how they were formed. These rhythmic modes were all in triple time and rather limited rhythm in chant to 6 different repeating patterns. This was a flaw seen by German music theorist Franco of Cologne and summarised as part of his treatise Ars cantus mensurabilis (the art of measured chant, or Mensural notation). He suggested that individual notes could have their own rhythms represented by the shape of the note. Not until the 14th century did something like the present system of fixed note lengths arise. The use of regular measures (bars) became commonplace by the end of the 17th century.