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History of Music Pt. 1: It All Started by Pythagoras...

The talk about the history of musical notation runs deep. The invention and development of musical notation have been centuries-long progress. It was invented by a philosopher, a Medieval era monk, followed by all the brilliant musicians to perfect these notations along the way, until it becomes what it is today. Yeah, as I said before, progress in music is extremely important!


Music had been integral in human cultures for years. It was probably the mark of cultural explosion in Europe between 30,000 to 60,000 years ago then. Archeologists discovered two simple flutes dated to 40,000 years ago in Germany, in which one was made out of mammoth’s ivory and another out of a bird’s bone.


It was then assumed that music had existed even then, and the theory had been passed to generations verbally.


They copied and shared musical ideas across generations, without recording techniques or any form of musical notations.


Not for long, though. When the Ancient Greek empire rose to power, musical theories and applications had become integral to their civic lives.


We all knew that the c2 = a2 + b2 theorem that started it all in the algorithm, but we never knew that Pythagoras was one of the earliest pioneers in music. Back in Ancient Greece’s 600BC, when Pythagoras was walking by a blacksmith’s workshop, he was quickly intrigued by the rhythmic sounds made by the smith’s hammer - as it sounded like a tuneful melody to him. He went home, and, as a mathematician, he was interested in how music worked hence observed the numerical relationship between mathematics and music intervals. Then he started to crunch some numbers and unravel the mathematical proportions, which became the initial governing rules of the music scale. He discovered that two notes that made an interval always had a ratio of 2 to 1. The perfect fifth’s ratio is 3 to 2, and the perfect fourth is 4 to 3.



Pythagoras combined these intervals and then created other notes to make up the major scale. With his mathematical calculation, the theory of music had been born. It grew easier for him to start measuring intervals and pitches of music, for instance, he knew that a pitch’s note from a vibrating string related directly to its length. It also cataylsed the birth of early string instruments - the lyre.


The Ancient Greeks began writing musical intervals down, which was proven by a carved tombstone dated back to 100AD. The tablet, known as Seikilos Epitaph contained the earliest known example of a complete, notated song, with lyrics and music. The carved stone also noted Pythagoras’ scale with letters from the Greek alphabet. The notes were written as letters with special symbols above them, and the song’s lyrics were aligned right underneath the notes. Soon after, the Ancient Greeks also invented the idea of tetrachord - four notes of a scale.


Fast forward to 500AD! The Greek empire was deteriorating, and Rome was at the pinnacle of its power and influence across Europe. A Roman philosopher called Boethius deeply studied the Ancient Greeks’ knowledge of classical arts, mathematics, and astronomy. He then wrote a book in Latin, noting letters from A to O; A being the lowest note a male voice can sing, and O being the highest. The book is still widely used in European universities to date.


A century later, in 600AD, the fertile land of musical activity rooted mostly at the church. Monks were singing religious songs, the Plainchant, and their training involved years of intensive training to memorise those chants by hearts. When the number of songs started to develop, they became unmanageable and a system to categorise songs was needed. Collectively, they came up with a system called neumes to solve the problems, and the system was in the form of flecks and marks written above the words to each song. These petite icons symbolised the melody of the song, which indicated how high or low each note should be sung, while also taking its neighbors into consideration. It was not a set of rhythmic, optimized notations, but it was the foundation that kickstarted the entire musical staves. The system was extremely popular, with each monastery across Europe making various improvements to it.


Then, what happened to the musical neumes? Stay tuned for next week’s article to find out more!


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