Thursday, April 16, 2015


Yesterday was to have been the letter “M” for Glenn Miller Orchestra, however, that did not happen. In as brief, succinct and non-emotional way as possible, I will just say this: I am dealing with an end-of-life issue (not my own) of a close family member, and we had a minor medical emergency yesterday. I owe it to some very, very wonderful people; my readers, along with the people of the Tampa Bay Symphony to forge ahead, as we have some very, very wonderful treats in store later in the month. Rather than drop out of the Challenge all together, I am moving Mr. Glenn Miller and his Orchestra to the letter “O”. Consider this letter “N” as a note of apology, but also a discussion of the musical note.

Modern Notation

There are scads of artistic relics from ancient times that depict images of music-making and it is clear that music was a normal part of life for the ancient Greeks, Egyptians, Romans and other people. Pythagoras studied certain aspects of music theory, particularly, the mathematical nature of harmony and musical scales. He knew for example, that the pitch of a vibrating string was related to its length, and that simple ratios of length gave rise to harmonious notes (e.g., if you halve the string, it sounds an octave higher). These early Societies used various forms of musical notation, such as indications about using particular strings on the lyre and how the lyres were to be tuned.                                            

Illuminated manuscript, plainsong, or Gregorian Chant

However, our knowledge is incomplete and the first real song, complete with lyrics comes to us from the Ancient Greeks, on a single piece of music called Seikelos Epitaph. It is carved on a piece of stone in Turkey and probably dates from the 1st century AD. During the Byzantine Empire, Constantinople developed the equivalent of the western “sol-fa” scale and a form of notations based on pitches being higher and lower than the previous one. The alternative to “sol-fa” method is the system used today with notes interpreted by the letters A-G. (I remember, as a kid, with my first violin, before my very first lesson, being very excited, looking for the “H” note. I still sometimes wonder where that went.) This means of representing notes seems to have had its origins in “Boethian notation” developed by a Roman philosopher named Boethius in 6th century AD.

To me, this looks like a buncha melismatic scat, but I don't think Ella Fitzgerald was rockin' it in the late middle-ages.

Early development of Western musical notation developed through the churches, as most of the music was choral, and in general, church people were the only people literate enough at the time to read music. Plainchant, plainsong, or Gregorian Chant, named after Pope Gregory the Great who was pope from 590 to 604 AD. The tunes “Dies Irae” and “Pange Lingua” were big hits during this time. The notation was still primitive however, showing just a note head above a lyric, and it moved up or down, according to change in pitch.

Beethoven kept notebooks for his sketches; this is an early draft of his Sixth, or "Pastorale" Symphony

Outside in the secular world, music was being passed down through an oral tradition and not many people could read and write music. Several developments made this a thing of the past. The organization of musical notation, using staves, four at first, then five, later on, and the addition of treble and bass clefs, allowed for organizing notes in a coherent pattern. The printing press with moveable type allowed for printing on a mass scale, and books, news, music and information became more readily available and during the Elizabethan era, the standardization of musical notation began. Elizabeth I granted Thomas Tallis and William Byrd (his pupil) a monopoly to print and publish their music and this resulted in their works becoming widely known. Elsewhere in Europe the development of printed music helped to give composers a degree of independence from their patrons since they could earn an income publishing their own music.

The opening to the threnody, "To the Victims of Hiroshima", by Krzysztof Penderecki. Note the absence of standardized pitches, bar lines, and the grouping of the instruments. Penderecki uses time measurements in seconds (13" and 11" and so on through out the piece), and his instructions are not always explicit, but are often left up to the interpreter. It should be noted that Penderecki is one of the greats of 20th century music composition and as disturbing as this piece is, it is worth a listen.

There's not much more to say about musical notation, except that it does occasionally change per the composer's instructions for a single piece of music, such as Krzysztof Penderecki's Threnody “To The Victims of Hiroshima”, which I've heard, but never played. 
Post a Comment