Lines and staff

Neumes can be subdivided into adiastematic neumes (non indicating exact pitches) and diastematic neumes (indicating exact pitches). If the adiastematic neumes on one hand cannot visualise a melody with its intervals and pitches, they outline on the other hand different aspects of musical interpretation (Step 2.7), as for instance the voice articulation and the rhythmic feature (due to the addition of episem and with help of the litterae significativae) or the particular vocal sound (as in the case of liquescent neumes).

With the introduction of diastematic neumes, starting from the second quarter of the 10th century, the visualization of intervals and pitches enabled the singer to learn a melody direct by reading it from the manuscript. During the first decades of the 11th century Guido of Arezzo will talk about this evolution in the history of notation as an important invention.

In French manuscripts with Aquitanian neumes from the 10th and 11th century (see table in Step 2.4) the notational signs are represented by discrete points that are arranged in the space over the text. These neumes are displayed around an axis that permits a quite precise orientation in the pitch range. This line might be drawn with ink, but sometimes it was just a dry-pointed line scratched into the parchment (as you can clearly see in the digitalised source linked here. With the help of lines, which indicated the central note of a melody, for example its final note (the so-called finalis), one could draw conclusions regarding the interval-structure of the entire melody.

In order to improve the recognition of pitches and to facilitate the identification of the semi-tones the two coloured lines were used in Italian manuscripts from the 11th century: a red one to indicate the F and a yellow one to indicate the C as both notes are above a semi-tone.

Roman manuscript from the eleventh century with two colored linesImage 1: Roman manuscript (1071) with neumes on lines. The red F-lines are clearly visible. The yellow C-lines are faded because of age. You find them at the bottom of the manuscript between the last F-line and the red A of “Alleluia”: Search for the two little C’s on the left border. © Cologny, Fondation Martin Bodmer, Cod. Bodmer 74, fol. 86v (

In addition to that, Latin letters were placed as clef in order to determinate the pitch. It was Guido of Arezzo (c. 991–1033), who claimed that he invented this system. By adding to the F and the C a third line in between and a fourth one above, the lines are stacked in an intervallic distance that permitted to enrol a fully diastematic notation.

Have a look at an example here.

While the neumes were still in use, some French scribes began to thicken the signs where they are supposed to touch the line. From this thickening finally emerged the note heads in a square form. ‘To notate in this way, with thick horizontal and hair-thin vertical strokes, required a different pen-hold from that used for writing literary texts. These new requirements and techniques led to the separation of cursive notation (for private musical jottings) from formal book notation (for official use).’ (David Hiley and Janka Szendrei. Art. ‘Notation’, in: New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, vol. 18, London: Macmillian, 2001, 110.).

Manuscript with square notation. Image 2: Manuscript with French square notation. This notation is still used in Gregorian chant today. © Fribourg, Couvent des Cordeliers, MS. 9, fol. 11 r (

The French square notation of the 12th century was the starting point for the evolution of the later forms of medieval and early modern notations. The square notation consists in the following neumatic signs which are notated on the four-line staff:

Table of square notations Table of square notations (Click to expand)

The sign repertoire consists of single notes (as the puntcum, virga) and bound notes (as all the others). It is important to learn in which direction they have to be read: The pes has a left-facing head and is meant to be an upwards interval. The porrectus consists of a diagonal thick line and a left-facing head: it means a three note group consisting in a down- and upwards movement. The climacus, finally, consists of a virga and two puncta (which take the form of small rhombs) and represents three descending notes. In French square notation the direction of the script is vertical ascending and diagonal descending.


Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale, Lat. 1240 (10th century)

Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale, Lat. 776; Lat. 903 and Lat. 1139 (11th century)

Cologny, Fondation Martin Bodmer, Cod. Bodmer 74 (11th century)

Modena, Duomo, Archivio Capitolare, O.I.13 (11th – 12th centuries),_archivio_capitolare,_graduale_ms.O.I.13,_fine_XI_inizio_XII_sec..JPG

Share this article:

This article is from the free online course:

From Ink to Sound: Decoding Musical Manuscripts

University of Basel