Music has existed since the dawn of civilization. The first strands of music were passed along by oral tradition (singing or playing out loud for others) but pretty soon people figured out that creating a way to write down sounds could help music survive and be communicated, especially if the original musician forgot the melody or was no longer around to teach it.
Notation is any system created to visually represent sounds. People from all over the globe and from different time periods have created different systems of notation. (The earliest example of notation that archeologists have found comes from 1400 BC in what is now Northern Syria.)
Here are a few other examples of early notation:
Ancient Greek musical notation from about 2nd century BC
Chinese musical notation from 1423
Modern classical musicians use a notation system that has its origins in the European church music of the 9th and 10th centuries. Monks chanted (sang) by reading the words with little squiggles written above. The squiggles reminded the monks that the melody went up or down in pitch, but they were just reminders: the monks were taught each chant by listening to others. Then a man named Guido d’Arrezo invented a more detailed form of notation that showed precise pitches on a staff of four lines; the shapes of the notes indicated their duration. This system continued to evolve into what is now our standard musical notation — there are words and symbols to specify just about everything that could possibly come up, including pitch, dynamics, articulation, and tempo.
Here are a few examples of these symbols.
This is a score (sheet music that shows all of the instruments playing) of one page of a violin concerto by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Look at all the directions the composer writes down for the musicians.
You can hear Richard Tognetti and the ACO play the music on this page in the Spotify recording below. This is the second movement of Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 5 in A Major. (YouTube recording)
Composers continue to imagine new sounds and create unique forms of notation. Graphic notation is a way of composing that uses primarily pictures and visual images. Look at these examples of music written using graphic composition. In each case, the composer creates a set of rules that explain what the symbols mean, and how they translate into sound.
This is a graphic composition created by Alex Chorley, a then 12-year old student from Sydney. These are the rules he created for his composition:
Pitch rises as you move from the centre of the circle to the outside.
Time passes in a circle, like a clock.
Blue triangles: triangle (rain)
Red circles: xylophone (rain)
Yellow ovals: cymbal hit (lightning)
Green rectangles: thunder can (thunder)
Spirals: timpani drum roll (thunder)
Brown ‘dip’: swanee whistle (tree falling)
Black ‘hills’: voice whistle (wind)
Face and ‘tsssss’: voice scream and hiss (person getting struck by lightning and burning)