Writing, Memory, and Music: The Birth of Notation

From Capturing Music: The Story of Notation by Thomas Forrest Kelly (W. W. Norton & Company, 2014) //

The air around us is filled with sounds. Some are annoying, some are pleasing, and some provide us with information we need. Noise, music, language—what they have in common is that they happen in real time. The moment we hear them is the moment in which they exist, and as soon as we have heard them, they are gone into what we call the past.

The idea of the existence of the past is tricky, and I’m no philosopher. But a sound I heard a moment ago may still be resonating somewhere, or being heard by someone else, and so the past, in a sense, may exist somewhere. Like the ripples in a pond, it’s possible that sounds made in Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris a thousand years ago still have the tiniest residual effect on the motion of air in that building. Maybe the breaths of ancient singers are still, imperceptibly, resonating somewhere.

To our senses the perpetual present is all we have, and yet when we hear something, it can only make sense in terms of other things. Those other things are things we’ve heard in the past. If we hear a word, we have to remember what it means. If we hear a voice, our memory tells us that we know that person. The only way to hear a melody is to remember the first note (or the first musical gesture, as an early-medieval singer might have said) while listening to the second, and the first two while listening to the third, and so on until the end, or until memory or patience runs out.

We now have lots of ways of preserving the sounds that we hear. Magical devices give us access to sounds made far away (radios, telephones) and sounds that were made in the past (ranging from grooves on discs to digital files). This is amazing—or it would be amazing if we were not so used to it—because what it does is allow the past to speak. We can hear recordings of John Philip Sousa’s band, recordings of Johannes Brahms talking, recordings of people long dead.

The story of recording and electric reproductions is a brief one when you consider how long mankind has been around. The earliest recorded sound seems to be from 1860. Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville invented a device called the phonoautograph, whose details he presented to the French Academy of Sciences in 1857. The basic idea is a horn, a membrane, and a stylus that makes marks on a hand-cranked cylinder. A recognizable version of the folk song “Au claire de la lune” has only recently been recovered from Scott’s recording.

For most of human history, recording was a very different matter. The oldest recording device, and the newest, is the memory; without it, nothing would be possible. Our memory is amazing in that it connects us with the past, it interprets our present, and it helps us predict the future. What it doesn’t do is perform those functions for anybody else. External recording devices are what we need if we have something to express or to communicate.

An ancient technique for recording is painting and drawing—the representation of something that is not the thing itself, so that if the buffalo wanders off, we still have the picture of it to recall that animal back into the present. And of course the thing that has been around for five thousand years or so, called writing, has allowed us, in a way, to record sound. What I write down represents the sounds I speak, and what you read reproduces those same sounds—quite literally, since for most of human history, until well into the Middle Ages, it never occurred to anybody to read silently. You can, however, reproduce those sounds at a different time and place and in your voice, not mine. We don’t often think of writing as a device for recording sound, but the difference in sound between two readers is probably no greater than the difference between one of the early mechanical recordings and the sound it represents—they are recognizably different, and recognizably the same.

We speak of “reading” music as though it were the same thing as language. The two have a lot in common: they consist of a series of sounds in time, they seek to communicate something, and they can be said to have a message. But they are also very different: the “message” of language is very specific, while that of music is not. The message you get from a piece of music may be quite different from the message I get, even though we agree that it is in a sense the “same.”

Writing music down can be quite complicated. With a given sound, we might want to notate a number of things: How high is it? How loud? How long? What sound quality or instrumental sound does it have? Interestingly, our modern system of notation chooses to privilege some of these (how high and how long), which are built in to how we write the notes, and literally marginalize others (how loud, what sound quality), which are indicated in letters and symbols around the edges.

Our musical notation is highly useful for what it does, but also interesting is what it doesn’t do. The choices that were made in the course of its development are the result of a long human history. Musical notation doesn’t have to be the way it is; if you tried to develop a means of writing down sounds, you would probably never come up with the system that we now use. It’s not that the system is inefficient (although for some purposes it is); it’s just that it developed over time with specific music in mind. As music changed, the musical notation changed too, but not by completely reinventing itself. Instead certain aspects of the existing system were developed or given new significance as people wanted to record additional aspects of music.

Musical notation as we use it today is essentially a product of the Middle Ages, a time when a lot of things that continue to be important had their beginnings. The Middle Ages were not the middle of anything as far as music was concerned, they were the beginning, and the technical marvels that our medieval predecessors developed allowed them to record for us the sounds of their times. We still use their system, and it allows us to record sound for the future even today, a millennium later.

Did you ever wonder why the black keys are irregularly spaced on the piano? Or why we sing do, re, mi, fa for notes? It all goes back to technical achievements of the Middle Ages.

For Discussion

1. If you were to develop a system to notate sound, what would be the aspects that would be most important to you? Would the purpose of the notation be for you to be reminded of the sounds, or to recreate them, or some other purpose entirely?

2. When you remember a song or other musical work that is especially meaningful to you, do you visualize the sounds, and if so, how? What other sensations (both visual and non-visual) do you associate with that meaningful music?

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