How come music notation so widely established?

Written language - every nation and territory seems to have evolved its own distinct language, with endless dialects and variations. Yet musical notation is highly consistent throughout the Western industrialised world. I would have thought that, in terms of social and cultural evolution, there was much stronger evolutionary pressure for people to be able to share written communication than to be able to share a common format of musical notation. So how come it got to be so consistently adopted?

Music notation is not exactly a language. It is more of a cipher system. So, since everyone can be trained to understand it without learning a second language, and since it works so well at what it does, there has been no reason to devise an alternative.

Since it is the only system in general use, it is the only system universally taught.

The musical notation we know abot today started with a monk ca. 1400. As they were doing Gregorian plainchant, there were no bars to indicate beats. Later on, others added the various sharps, bars and so on.

Scales are not universal. Western uses seven whole notes in a 5-scale. Some cultures use nine and others use 5 note scales.

When electronic music came about, the 5-scale music notation was deemed inadequate for synthensizing, so the music came to be expressed in packets of waves, with other data entered that factors in the sound effects we know and love. That is why your music program has that notation as default.

Some avant-garde musicians at times didn’t use the scales for notation. Look at some of John Cage’s work for example.

The monk mentioned by capacitor is Guido D’Arezzo, who developed the basis of our current notation in the eleventh century. It makes sense that most western cultures use the same music notation, since that notation was developed and spread by the Catholic church, which dominated western Europe at the time.

I’ll dig around for my old music history book to double check, but I think Gilligan has pegged it. However, the Church originally spread the Gregorian chant notation (any other engineers here learn to read that stuff in college?). This notation had been substantially modified by the mid-16th Century–scans of this intermediate stage can be seen at If you’re familiar with D’Arezzo’s notation, you can see where this came from; it should also be fairly clear how this developed into the modern notation.

I suspect the uniformity is at least partially a matter of reputation–the idea that if you wanted to be great, you had to study at such-and-such place. Thus, while Italy was the major center for musical study, people went there to study, write, and perform music. Then they took what they learned home with them, and their reputations caused people to follow their methods (hence the common use of the Italian language in notation). A similar phenomenon would surround Austria somewhat later.

The modern notational staff was based off of Gregorian chant notation. Gregorian Chant notation points to where C or F are and only has four lines rather than the 5 of a modern day staff.

If you don’t count Gregorian Chant or non-western music, there are four different types of clefs that modern instrumentalists use. They are the bass cleff, the tenor clef, the alto clef, and the treble clef. The tenor clef is used in some bassoon music and the alto clef is used as the primary clef for the viola. They both show where middle C is in relationship to the staff. The bass clef outlines where F is and the treble clef outlines where G is, incidently. Also, several musical instruments play at different intervals than they are written. It is just one of the quirks of standardized fingerings and ease of reading.

Thanks to the Catholic Church we have a musical notation that was spread all over the world. Eventually, through the printing press we have it all standardized for western music for the most part.

Also, there are plenty of other forms of written music. Tabalature (both for eastern and western instruments) and Lute Tabalature are different from eachother and the typical western notation that you see. Also, several other eastern countries have a specific form of written music per instrument. The tablah (Indian, dot not feather, drum) has notation that looks like a bunch of dots.

Most non-western music has a lot of improvisation also so it is not really practical to write out anything other than a brief sketch of what the piece would look like anyway. They leave most of the interpretation up to the performer.

See my reply from for more musical information.


Gilligan: Guido D’Arezzo was not really known for writing on the staff. He used a hand diagram for notes and was primarily a choirmaster/vocal teacher. He may have taught staff theory at one time but left it for his own theory of the fingers and joints portraying notes.

Capacitor: Gregorian chant and the notation used to write it started way before the 1400s. It was written down by Pope Gregory the first which makes it around 590-604 which were the dates he was pope. The fifth line that was added down from the Gregorian chants had no originator but it happened closer to 1200-1350 than 1400. It became standardized in the 1400s with the invention of the printing press and other mass publication efforts.


It’s been too many years since I studied this stuff, Sqrl, so I looked at’s articles on the subject. The articles Guido and musical notation give him a lot of credit for furthering staff development, while not actually inventing it, and say there is no evidence that he had any connection with the “Guidonian hand.” However, the article on the history of staff development doesn’t mention him. I tried to give the article links here, but it didn’t work; I think because of commas in the addresses.

I do remember hearing that. He was given credit for the Guidonean Hand by my Grout History of music book. :slight_smile: I don’t remember how much he had developed the staff. I actually don’t ever remember hearing them together. Music books are notoriously bad about those types of things since there is so much music history they have to edit out things that they feel are not as important as other things. Some examples would be Bach’s partwriting exercises from when he was schooling to be a composer. You will have a tough time to find anything that was an assignment for a class on almost any composer, Ravel’s Bolero being the most notable exception (with a few others). Bolero was an orchestration exercise. That is why it is so boring. (It is two themes played thousands of times over and over again in different registers with different instruments. Talk about minimalism. Ravel is even one of my favourite composers and I don’t like that piece. I know some of you will cry “heretic” at me now. I will have to live with it.)


I belive the OP may have used an inaccurate metaphor. (No fault assigned – all metaphors break down at some point.)

While there are indeed thousands of languages, there are a much smaller number of alphabets. All of Western Europe uses the Roman alphabet (with a few extra characters thrown in as needed); Eastern Europe uses variations on the Greek; and these two alphabets overlap copnsiderably.

(The linguist experts on the board will be by shortly to correct my oversimplifications.)

Many languages never developed writing. The bottom line is that the number of languages is larger than the number of alphabets; and much, much larger than the number of “alphabet families.”

The reason musical notation has not evolved as much as alpahbets have is hinted at above. Language has been around for, what, 50,000 years? 100,000? Alphabets date back 5,000, maybe 10,000. (Again, the experts will provide us with the exact numbers.) Musical notation appears to be only a few centuries old, and codified in fixed form by the printing press pretty early on.

Thanks to all of you for replying - some really useful info and views here! This was the first time I’d ever posted to the SD, and I am impressed and delighted by the quality of the responses.

I take the excellent point that I would have been better to compare with ‘alphabets’ rather than with ‘languages’, although there is an interesting discussion to be had about the way in which either influences the other.

Nonetheless, I still feel there is an interesting mystery here. For example, many of the respondents mentioned factors which could have assisted one form of musical notation to prevail - influence of the Catholic church, relatively few predominant centres of learning etc. But all of these factors COULD have had a similar harmonising influence upon language (but obviously did not) and need not NECESSARILY have led to such common adoption of one notational system (although we know with hindsight that it obviously did). Anyway, enough. Thanks to all once again.

I’d say that musical notation is most important in homophonic and polyphonic musical systems. Musics which are strictly monophonic have less need for notation, since once you’ve got the melody, you’ve pretty much got it. It’s much harder to imitate a 12-part harmony, since some of the parts (probably 10 or 11!) or going to be mainly supporting. So we have to right them down or their subtle beauty will be lost. Or else it will take a really long time to explain … “Well, I was having the tenors sing a whole octave above the baritones, but then it got a little too high, so then I dropped them to a fifth above the baritones, but only for a little while, and then I thought sevenths would be great but only for that one bar…”

Anyway, the points y’all have already raised about church music are very important. Catholicism is obviously a very successful religion, and it brought its music pretty much everywhere with it. I’d hazard a guess that hymns and chants and canons and stuff are the first homo- or polyphonic music heard in a ton of world cultures. Other polyphonic systems have evolved (the Indian musics, especially Hindustani, come to mind, but there are probably a kazillion others); I don’t know if all of these have notation systems. Anyway, the Indians have their own notation system (though IIRC it merely describes a raga, it’s not an exact blueprint or anything), which confirms my hypothesis that polyphony demands written notation much more than music in general.

The church certainly did have a harmonizing effect on language. An educated man could get by speaking Latin from the western tip of Portugal to Poland. It took hundreds of years for vernacular languages to develop self-conscious awareness and native literary forms (with plenty of exceptions, of course). Latin was even the official language of the aristocracy in the Austro-Hungarian Empire until well into the 18th century. For more information on Latin and the development of national vernacular languages, check out Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities.


I would suggest that the impact was greater on musical notation because music is a much narrower field of study. You wouldn’t go off to Rome to study your native language, and you wouldn’t likely use liturgical Latin at home very much. Even so, Latin did influence many languages (the Romance language family) by mingling with local languages. I think the alphabet/language distinction is key here.

Boris B, I agree entirely with your thesis on polyphony.