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Visual Perception of Music Notation: On Line and Off Line Recognition Essay

The music notation has experienced varying changes as it has undergone inventions one after the other in many times. The re-inventions have all taken place through a rapid acceleration process of evolution in the same. The changes have occurred over time from the basic indication of song line moving higher or lower. The complexity has grown to an extent that music notation is currently able to have a detailed specification in the music for 100 strong chorus and symphony orchestra. The document evaluates the music notation evolution from the middle ages to the present day where there is the use of computers.


The music notation history can be traced to the early middle age where music did not have a notational system. The tunes would be transmitted through oral tradition and were monophonic. The form of notation was only used to assist the singers who knew the melodies already. Rome attempted to centralize the liturgies and need to transmit chants ideas over great distances. To fix the problem, signs called neumes were developed and written over the chants. The neumes origin was from the Roman and Greek grammatical signs which showed the important points of declamation through recording the fall and rise of voice. The basic signs of the grammarians were the acutus which showed a raise of voice and the gravis, which indicated lowering. The signs evolved to form the basic symbols of the neumatic notation, virga, which showed high note and the punctum which showed a lower note. This notation was widely accepted during the ninth century as the primary method in music notation. The punctum and virga remained popular but the ligatures emerged as the new neumes. They combined two original signs (Blauvelt, 122).

The limitations in the original notation were that they did not indicate the pitch, the starting note or the rhythm. This led to the next invention in music notation which was the heighted neumes. With the new notation, the neumes would be put at different heights and in relation with each other. This way, the neumes acquired the ability to indicate the size of given interval and also the direction. Later, the use of one or two lines was invented. Each line represented a given note that was placed on music and the neumes would then relate back to them. The lines, indicating middle C and F, were slowly accepted and would be drawn with different colors, red for F and green for C. The drawing of the two lines marked the start of musical staff (George, 98).

Early development in Western music notation originated from the churches in Europe including Italy and Spain. The musical notations were choral based music with the notes indicated above the syllable or word being sung. This music was labeled as Gregorian chant after Gregory the Great the pope. The Gregorian chant was followed by the use of the four stave lines, mainly attributed to a monk, Guido of Arezzo. With the four lines, any singer was able to learn unknown pieces and also do it within a short time. Further developments in the search for good notations and music representation led to the modern day musical notation. The initial four lines were increased to five which is still used up to today. Among the additions to the notation on top of the five lines in the stave were clefs. They were added to represent the range of pitches indicated on the stave (Rudolph et al., 120).

Other developments on the notation were the flats and sharps and key signatures which used in specifying pitches in sections of music or in the individual notes. The two mostly used clefs that were added are the G-clef and the F-clef. A pair consisting of bass clefs and treble clefs was utilized to notate the keyboard music. With these changes, musical notation could now be used for not only choral music but instrumental music. The early keyboard music was done using a virginal, a keyboard instrument with many of the virginal music being handwritten (Blauvelt, 113).

Another remarkable change and important evolution with the notation was discovery of printing press. The printing press allowed for the printing of books, news and information and applying this concept in music, music publishing began. The result was that music works became widely known. In and around Europe, composers enjoyed an independence degree from wealthy patrons who would pay for their services in publishing music for them. Music printing also helped to standardize the notation symbols as there was little room to have inevitable variations which had occurred with hand-written music (Blauvelt, 87).

There has also been the evolution as to the different methods in representing music. This is common especially with the instruments. Little pictograms are used to indicate in recorders and wind instruments which holes on the particular instrument should be covered in order to produce a certain note. The percussion instruments give no definite pitched notes. The notation for such percussion will thus use a single line or varying number of lines to show when notes are struck. The guitar is also another instrument which uses alternative form of notation for its music. The simplest is an arrangement of chord names which show the chords to be strummed. The guitar tablature utilities numbers on a starve of six lines to show at which certain strings should stop. The evolution in music notation has not stopped with modern styles being unusual to the extent of needing new music forms to define them. Nowadays, there are some music pieces that do not require any notation but are in form of instructions that the given musician should follow (George, 134).

The 20th and 21st century has witnessed more change in the music notation. With the increased use of computers, there has been the need to incorporate the same in music just as with the printing press. With the computers, there has emerged special software that is music oriented. In the same way word processors allow for texts to be entered, then edited and subsequently printed, some music notation software now have the provision for entering music notations, editing and then printing. Such examples of the software that make this possible include Sibelius and Finale which are utilized on mfiles. Music type setting is currently done using computers. With the notation software, it is easier to accomplish music related tasks such as transpose music between varying instruments, extract parts of orchestral scores and change piece’s keys. Also, software allows music be played using the various sampled instruments and thus provide good indication of how or what the music would sound like if played with the real instruments (George, 89-92).


With music being part of humanity, the evolution in the music notation is welcome as it means that people will continue to enjoy and receive better music. The fact that there are constant innovations with the music notation from the period when there were no notations, to the neumes,to the use of five line starve and the current use of notation software, the foreseeable future for notation is secure.


Blauvelt, Ralph J. From Notation to Music. United States?: Lulu, 2007. Print.

George, Susan E. Visual Perception of Music Notation: On Line and Off Line Recognition. United States: I R M PRESS BOOKS, 2004. Print.

Rudolph, Thomas E, and Vincent A. Leonard. Finale: An Easy Guide to Music Notation. Boston: Berklee Press, 2005. Print.

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