Notational systems: the chart of neumes

Music notation was hardly a novelty when the first neumes appeared in music manuscripts around the beginning of the 9th century. Previous notations, however, were of use for theoretical and didactical matters and worked in a different way, especially suited to their purpose.

The most influential didactical notation in music history was certainly the letter notation devised by the late antique philosopher Boethius in his volume De Institutione Musica. Boethius’ notation uses the consecutive letters of the Latin alphabet from ‘A’ to ‘P’ to mark the tones of the Greek system he seeks to transmit in his treatise. The Boethian letter notation was used throughout the Middle Ages to introduce students to the antique system. Still today, we use Boethius’ notation in a modified form that originated in the 11th century and uses the letters ‘A’ to ‘G’, repeating at every octave.

Obviously, neumes do something different than encoding a theoretical tone system to alphabetical letters. This difference is still visible to us today if we compare a melody notated in standard staff notation with its ‘equivalent’ notated using note names, say ‘E A G# A’. Our staff notation, as well as the neumatic notation, makes use of our metaphorical understanding of high and low tones, representing tones at their respective height on the staff. In Carolingian times, this metaphor was still a novelty and the neumes were indeed the first notational symbols for music which made use of this new conception. Another form of music notation contemporary with the neumes actually combined the idea of the Boethian letter notation with the newly formed ideas of high and low. This so-called dasia notation, used mostly in theoretical treatises of the Carolingian period, employed modifications of the Greek dasia sign (see image 1) to mark tones in a given system but placed syllables of words to be sung to these tones on a grid of ‘strings’ ordered from low to high which reminds us of our modern notation.

dasia signImage 1: The Greek dasia sign

Dasia Notation From Musica enchiriadisImage 2: Example of polyphonic music in dasia notation. On the left side you see signs in an orange frame: They are derived from the Greek dasia sign. © Bamberg, Staatsbibliothek, Misc. Var.1, fol. 57r

But how did the neumes then represent high and low tones? Let’s have a close look at the table of neumes depicted below.

Different regional varieties of the most common neumes Table of neumes (Click to expand)

It is important to note from the start that many neume varieties (but not all of them) contain no information about exact pitches or intervals, but merely about lower and higher notes in a musical context. These neumes are called adiastematic neumes, whereas those varieties that actually show us intervals and pitches are labelled diastematic. The simplest neumes were the punctum (Latin for point, dot) and the virga (rod). Both denote single, discrete pitches, punctum standing for a relatively low, and virga for a relatively high tone. Pes (foot, step) is a two-note neume denoting a step up, while clivis (hill) indicates a step down. Our table continues with all possible melodic movements of up to three tones and names the neumes. Quilisma is the only so-called ornamental neume we included in our table as it occurs quite frequently. While the exact meaning of the sign is unclear, there is reason to believe that it stands for a special, tremulous quality of the voice. The names of the neumes we use today are mostly shown in neume tables which start to appear in the 12th century, so they came into use several hundred years after the first neumatic notations had emerged.

As you can see in our table, we can hardly speak of ‘the’ neumes. Although we chose to show only a small selection of the regional varieties of only the most frequent neumes, you can already discover a lot of differences. Sometimes we find different signs for the same melodic movement even within the same neumatic ‘dialect’. This already gives us an idea of how much differentiation was possible in neumatic notations.

In this context, please also note how certain regional varieties sometimes use their own symbols for neumes signifying several tones and sometimes simply write combinations of punctum neumes. For example, the neumes of St Gall never divide pes, clivis, torculus, and porrectus into discrete steps, while several French neume varieties regularly do so (Messine, Breton, Aquitanian). St Gall neumes therefore represent high and low in a rather symbolic manner, while others seem to indicate directly on the parchment how the melody moves – similar to our modern notation. Some varieties, like the Aquitanian or the Beneventan neumes are in fact placed on the parchment in a relatively exact way, so that intervals can be recognised – these are diastematic neumes.

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This article is from the free online course:

From Ink to Sound: Decoding Musical Manuscripts

University of Basel