The Most Important Musical Invention

The Most Important Musical Invention


Teaching music, you sometimes confront great mysteries. Once a student innocently asked me to explain the difference between major and minor. Two hours later, still enthusiastically into the explanation, I realized it was hopeless. Once beyond the typical and inadequate definitions of major and minor we all learn, this turns out to be a really deep question, and I realized I myself didn’t have a clue. That’s one kind of discovery. Another is when in the process of explaining a tool or procedure you’ve used your whole life, you suddenly realize first how much you’ve taken it for granted, and second, how much everything you assume and care about relies on this hitherto ignored tool or procedure.


That’s precisely what happened when I asked a beginning music theory class to invent their own way to represent music on a page. Many students created imaginative graphic representations. Others devised clever symbols. Most drew timelines with symbols and verbal descriptions. But even the best ones suffered vast imprecision when compared to standard notation.


And then it hit me. The most important musical invention was not among the subjects I most revered—counterpoint, harmony, sonata form, the string quartet, the piano, the orchestra. None of those! They all relied on something more fundamental. The most important musical invention, by far, was——————the horizontal line! Yes, the line. Some anonymous genius way back in the first millennium C.E. devised a line to denote pitch. Music has never been the same since.


Symbols, squiggles, numbers—all of those codes appear in non-Western music notation and are common in pre-Medieval Western notation as well. Jewish liturgical melodies are still written as squiggles (tropes) above letters. Precise pitch is anyone’s guess, but the each community has its own agreement on a relative melodic shape.


[An example of tropes over Hebrew letters that code particular melodic formulae]

Early Christian music elaborated that system. Tropes became neumes.


early Christian neumes
[Early Christian music notation, neumes over Latin letters]


But again, neumes provide only relative melodic pictures. People singing the same tune from distant areas might sing completely different notes. The tune might not be recognizable from one village to the next.


But add a horizonal line and all that changes. Why? A line embeds the ‘technology’ to represent three notes—one below the line, one on the line, and one above the line. That is significantly more precise than the general squiggles of tropes or the early neumes. And once you have one line, the next step is obvious–just add more lines!  Now place the tropes or neumes on the lines and we have a map that precisely pictures the individual notes of a melody.


The Gregorian notation of four lines changed the history of music. Four lines allow precise notation of 9 pitches—just over an octave, the range of most sung melodies!


[Example of Gregorian Chant notation of neumes placed over 4 lines with a C clef]


The line seems to be the primal source of our Western music tradition. With the four or five (modern) line staff, the only other invention needed to represent all useable pitches was the clef, an important but smaller leap of imagination than the line. The clef provides an anchor point that adjusts the register of the staff up and down to fit different voices and modes. The first clef was the letter ‘C’ and it means literally that where it is placed represents the note ‘C’ (see the Gregorian Chant example above). If the ‘C’ clef sits on the higher lines, then the staff of lines fits the pitches for lower voices.  If the ‘C’ clef sits on the lower lines, then the staff fits the pitches for higher voices. Today, the only instrument that still uses the ‘C’ clef is the viola. That clef sits right in the middle of the staff lines, just as the violas sit in the middle of the orchestra and play notes in range between the violins and cellos.


[the alto clef is a stylized letter 'C' that signals that the middle line of the staff is the pitch 'middle c' (2nd example). The clef provides the orientation to determine the names of all the other notes on the staff]


So it turns out that it is not so obvious a thing to invent a tool that represents precise pitch. In fact, it might be unique to Western civilization. Without the horizontal line, though, would we have any of the other glories in Western music? Counterpoint—literally ‘note vs. note’—is an image derived from the line. Composers use the lined staff to plot the intervals and trajectories of two or more different melodies sung simultaneously. Would we have Renaissance motets or Bach fugues without the line? The flow of vertical notes resting on horizontal lines that we call harmony is yet another. Going past simple melody, the line affords the control necessary to represent musical form that depends on pitch. As instruments became as important as the voice, the line adapted with different staff groupings and clefs. As the system of pitch grew from seven notes to twelve, the line still held strong even as new symbols—sharps and flats—began to weigh it down. Speaking of weight, a modern orchestral score page may have hundreds of staff lines, conveniently representing all the instruments that play together. We focus on the notes, but we don’t think as much about the lines. People often ask me how I can read an orchestral score of so many instrument staves on a page. But look at it the other way: how could you imagine all the interacting layers of an orchestra without such a score of lined staves?



Experimental notation in the twentieth century worked hard to conquer the domination of the line. The imagination of composers sought to focus away from the line’s simplicity and precision, to go ‘between’ the lines or away from them as a metaphor for pitch entirely. Art exhibits often display these scores.





Yet the line persists. It remains the superior visual tool for representing individual notes. The line is not so terrific at illustrating textures, colors, and larger forms or ideas, but even today in the 21st century, depicting notes so that they can be accurately performed and heard remains the primary concern of music notation.  


Computer and recording technology now affords tools that leapfrog over traditional notation. Those technologies are calling musical literacy into question. You no longer need to be able to read music in order to create your own work. But isn't it interesting that the interfaces of these technologies that bypass traditional notation also emphasize the horizontal line!


pro tools session

[Pro Tools session where the horizontal lines persist, now illustrating the acoustic energy of the sound itself instead of pitch for editing recordings]


sequencer session

[Sequencer session where again the horizontal lines persist, but instead of representing pitch, use the score metaphor to represent particular events of either recorded tracks or programmed pitches of electronically sampled instruments]


Underappreciated but subconsciously wired into our musical psyche, the horizontal lines continue. If you ever wonder how composers “thought of all that music” (a phrase I often hear at concerts), keep in mind that they had some help. A big part of the work was plotting and replotting notes on horizontal lines.  So next time you’re listening to the Bach Chaconne, Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9, Debussy’s La Mer, or Stravinsky’s Petrushka, and you marvel at the glories of all those notes, take a moment to consider all the lines upon which they rest! 


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