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Timeline: Sound in Time

U.S. Public Domain
7th century scholar Isidore of Seville voiced a desire to perserve sounds. He wished there was a way to write them down.

The desire to preserve music for future generations led to the development of Western notation; the lines and staves that we associate with written music today. However, there are many other forms of musical notation that were developed over the centuries by cultures around the globe.

The 7th century scholar, Isidore of Seville wrote, “Unless sounds are held by the memory of man, they perish, because they cannot be written down.”

Archeologist unearthed a set of bells in China, dating back to 5th century BCE. Along with the instruments they found instructions and writings describing a notational system. This system would’ve made it possible to recreate the music of ancient China today. But unfortunately, no examples of that music have been found. Perhaps one day we’ll hear those bells playing music from 2500 years ago.

Credit U.S. - Public Domain
This is a good example of a traditional Chinese bell. Sets of these instruments were called Bianzhong.

In Korea they developed an ingenious system of graphic notation which helped make rhythm so much easier for the performer to read. A matrix of symbols instructs the player of the exact moment a note should be struck.

Credit U.S. - Public Domain
This written matrix for Korean music helped to subdivide the beat into smaller units for more accuracy.

In India rhythmic notation for reading poetry was used as early as 2nd century BCE. Later they developed a system called the Indian Raga, which sets the tonic (I) and dominant (5) of a scale and allows the notes in-between to flex and move. As a result there is a freedom of variation in Indian music that Western notation could never recreate.

Credit U.S. - Public Domain
Traditional Indian notation uses various symbols above the text to instruct the performer.

The Russian Orthodox Church developed a unique system of nueminic notation. They painted beautiful hooks and banners over the text of chants which were meant to not only communicate notes in time, but also volume, shape, mood and even religious devotion. These symbols were tied to their religious practices and therefore have become ambiguous and difficult to decipher over the years.

Credit U.S. - Public Domain
The beautiful "hooks and banners" above the text of Russian Orthodox chants communicated much more than just notes in time.

It would be easy to say that the rise of Western culture is the reason our current system of musical notation has become the standard used around the world. There is absolutely some truth to that statement. However, it is also true that modern musical notation has been flexible enough to allow each culture that embraces it to find a way to express their music through that system. Like any language, the syntax, structure and form maybe standardized but the thoughts that language can express are up to the creator, the writer, the composer. Musical notation has allowed us write down sounds so that they can be shared by future generations and are not just locked in the “memory of man”.

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James Stewart is Vermont Public Classical's afternoon host. As a composer, he is interested in many different genres of music; writing for rock bands, symphony orchestras and everything in between.
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