Monday, March 13, 2017

What's a neume?

Welcome to Medieval Music History month in Clef Notes. We’re stepping way back in time to look at some of the earliest forms of music. Last time, we talked about how music history follows Christian church history, since music was so important to the early church services. In order to unify a divided church and divided lands, church and political leaders sought to standardize the chant used within a church service. One way to help ensure people from different regions were singing the same thing was to come up with a system of notation. Up until this point, most music traditions were transmitted orally, which wasn’t always accurate. Key features often got lost in translation!

During the 9th century, we see the earliest examples of notation. At this point, neumes were used to represent contour of a chant only. There was no pitch designation, and typically no rhythm indicated. What’s a neume, you ask? A neume is a sign used to write down chant notation (similar to a note head today, but not quite!) During the 10th and 11th centuries, neumes were arranged relative to one another in order to suggest pitch. During the 11th century, a monk named Guido of Arezzo suggested using lines and spaces to help indicate pitch. He used a line in red ink to show F and a line in yellow ink to show C. The staff we know today evolved from this early form of notation.

You may have heard of a scale. But what about a church mode? Join me next time to learn more!

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