The history of sheet music and music notation

01.03.2022 Ben Maloney Sheet music

Whether or not you’re a trained musician, you’ll no doubt recognise those iconic symbols. The lines, the notes, the clefs, sharps, and all the rest.

But where did they come from? What do they mean? How did they come to articulate an unspoken language understood by millions of people around the world today?

All those questions will be answered in the story we’re telling here: the history of notated music.
 

What is notated music?


First and foremost, music is a sonic phenomenon. We all hear and listen to it. And those of us that play it, play it so that it can ultimately be heard. 

But music can also be written and read using notation. Notation effectively communicates a set of instructions, detailing what is to be played and heard in individual pieces of music.

Those instructions are interpreted via a complex system of symbols. Over centuries, that system has developed so that the most specific directions can be dictated from composer to performer, or from bandleader to session musician, for the purpose of performing a piece of music.

From the clef and time signature to the dynamics and accidentals, the parameters of music – pitch, rhythm, articulation, harmony – are indicated by a diversity of these symbols. Without them, music-making as we know it simply wouldn’t exist.
 

Before music notation


Music has existed for untold thousands of years across the diverse and countless cultures of the world. But unfortunately, we’re not really certain what it all used to sound like. 

Why? In short, because it was never written down. Prehistoric instruments that have been discovered give us some clues, but most of this part of the story remains a mystery.

Compared to music, old as time, sheet music is the new kid on the block. Yet it would ultimately do exactly what hadn’t been done before. It would capture ideas, providing clear instructions on how music was supposed to take shape, and what it was to sound like.
 

Early forms of notated music in history


Various types of music notation were developed thousands of years ago in ancient Mesopotamia, Greece and Byzantium. These were the great Mediterranean civilisations of antiquity, and each one was gripped by the fashionable new craze for writing things down.

Sadly, there is a lack of music theory that explains these early forms of notation, meaning that we’re unsure how to interpret them absolutely. Even ancient Greek music remains largely an enigma to us, despite the Hellenes writing a great deal about music in texts on drama and philosophy. 

In short, although the ancients would have known how to read their own forms of notated music, the instructions they left behind weren’t clear enough for their descendants to understand.

The earliest notation system that we can comprehensively make sense of today didn’t emerge until the Middle Ages. 
 

Neumatic notation in the 9th century


Neumes account for a major step forward in the history of sheet music, and of western music in general. They’re the stepping stone between earlier systems of writing and modern staff notation.

European church musicians developed neumes to write down religious chants that until then had only been transmitted through oral tradition. The earliest examples of neumatic notation date from the 9th century.

They look kind of like the lines and notes we’re familiar with. It’s a similar system: there are staves whose lines indicate fixed pitches, and the neumes themselves, read from left to right, mark the pitches to be sung, and when.

In fact, modern music notation basically grew out of this system of writing music. Neumatic notation is the precursor of sheet music as we now know it, and this is why we understand it so thoroughly today.
 

The invention of modern notation in the 11th century


If you want to know who invented modern notation, and where and when they did it, the short answer is: Guido d’Arezzo in Italy in the 11th century. Guido was a kind of medieval musicologist, whose work would serve to develop modern notation to a greater extent than anyone else’s. 

Over the decades and centuries, his innovations were consolidated by Catholic musicians and scribes, whose work spread throughout the churches of Christian Europe. Mensural notation was a significant landmark in this period, which saw innovations such as the clear determination of note value.

Over time, other cultures would also develop alternative systems to write music, but nowadays staff notation is the most prevalent and recognisable form across the world.

Just as classical music grew out of the church, so too did modern staff notation. As time went on, this aspect of musical practice became increasingly widespread and secularised.
 

The history of music printing in the 15th century


This is where sheet music comes in. As a concept, ‘sheet music’ isn’t that different from ‘notation’. It basically refers to notated music that is specifically written or printed on paper. As we’ve seen, music had already been written for some time, but printing would bring about another revolution in the story.

In the wake of the development of printing with movable type in Europe in the 15th century, came the age of printed sheet music. And as the accessibility and ease of printing advanced, so the growth of sheet music was facilitated. It quickly became easier to write, read, perform and obtain music.

Classical music gradually went from being an activity reserved for the clergy and the aristocracy, to one led by the expanding middle class of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Where once the power players were monks and clerics like Guido, eventually they became full-time, bourgeois composers like Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven. But the composers were doing the writing, not the printing.
 

The rise of music publishing


Music publishers came to make up the infrastructure of an increasingly interconnected, continental musical community. These institutions were and still are responsible for printing, distributing and managing composers’ music and their copyright.

Breitkopf & Härtel is one such publisher that played a historic role. Founded in Leipzig in 1719, it is the oldest publishing house in the world, and has published compositions by Brahms, Chopin, and countless other legends in the story of classical music.

In the 19th century, the sheet music publishing industry was thriving in Europe as well as the United States. It was supplying the musicians of this international community with vast quantities of material, sending full scores and parts to the world's leading orchestras, and songbooks to the parlours of amateur singer-pianists. 
 

Sheet music in the 20th century


Technological breakthroughs, runaway globalisation, and social change on a massive scale - the upheavals of the 20th century were always going to make a profound impact on the industry. And sheet music was often right at the heart of these extraordinary musical changes.

Sheet music would help to sustain the growth of a range of new genres. It launched Scott Joplin’s ragtime works to fame in the early 20th century, capturing jazz standards on lead sheets, or laying the foundations of modern popular music at Tin Pan Alley’s New York publishing factory.

And of course the classical tradition that brought staff notation into being in the first place has continued to be loyally served by sheet music, too. It’s something that spans the entire music-making landscape.

Developments in technology also brought about change, with inkjet, laser and thermal printing transforming how graphics were put on paper. It's all come a long way since the invention of the printing press half a millennium ago. Some of these methods don’t even use ink - Guido would have struggled to take it all in.
 

Music notation and sheet music today


Today, notation is a system understood and used by millions of musicians worldwide, but it’s important to remember that it isn’t the only one that's ever been developed or remains in use today. 

Various forms of notation have developed at one time or another, from guitar tablature and chord charts through to Tibetan musical notation.

Looking to the future, the buzzword is digital. Notation softwares like Sibelius and Dorico have already changed how sheet music is created, and services like nkoda continue to innovate how it’s accessed and shared. To learn more, we've compared the best sheet music apps on the market today

As for the sheet music industry itself, global revenues are estimated at $240 million annually. It’s a booming business, and that shows no sign of changing, despite the change in where people buy sheet music. As long as there are musicians around, inspired to create, play and listen, the story of sheet music will go on, long into the future.

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