Before we had a way to write music in a way that was universally understood by musicians around the world, it was passed on from one person to one another orally after being memorized.1 This meant that there was potential for the music to lose its originality, as is the case with most things that are passed on by word of mouth. This is one of the main reasons behind the invention of musical notation. 

What is Musical Notation? 

A musical notation is a written record of the sounds in a piece of music that are heard or imagined. These sounds are recorded with a set of instructions for accurate performance of the music in the way it was intended to be performed by its composer.2 

The western music notation system is the most widely used method of recording music today. It has gone through many changes over time and has also retained some of its ancient recording symbols and systems as well. It has existed for nearly 3,000 years!3

Origins of Musical Notation 

According to research and historical findings,2 the western system of musical notation originated in Ancient Greece. This system was followed from the sixth century B.C. to the fourth century A.D. However, the first evidence of written music was found inscribed on clay tablets dating back to 1400 B.C. from ancient Mesopotamia. These tablets had information on musical scales and harmonies inscribed on them.

Evolution of Musical Notation 

Later, a new system of music notation, known as solfege, was evolving in the area around the time the Byzantine Empire took over the region. According to experts, the system assigned certain syllables to different notes and scale degrees. Later, during the middle ages, an Italian monk by the name of Guido d’Arezzo started notating music on a set of lines with spaces in between them. Today, in music notation, these lines are now known as “staff.”

The need for recording music may have been sparked by a type of liturgical melodies with religious texts that were sung during the early middle ages in medieval churches, called Plainchant.5 During this time, these chants were transmitted orally. When the first emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, Charlemagne,6 decided to unite all his territories, he also brought about musical uniformity in the chants that were sung in churches, which gave way to the Gregorian chant. It may have been this need for uniformity, which required a more accurate means of transmission, which in turn led to music being recorded in a written form. 

Staff notation significantly evolved from the Middle Ages, through the Renaissance period, and all the way to the Baroque period during the 18th century.7 Many of the symbols and rules have since become part of the present-day western notation system. 

Present Day Musical Notation 

As musical notation evolved, the number of lines in a staff increased from four to five, and symbols to precisely indicate various elements of sound were introduced. The accuracy of written music today allows for communicating sophisticated characteristics of a composition that are used to perform music pieces exactly the way their composers envisioned and wrote them. Today, the western musical system is one of the most advanced methods of communicating music through writing, and without it, we would have never known the true sound of how musical masterpieces were actually imagined by their creators. 

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1. A Brief History of Musical Notation from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance – (n.d.). Retrieved July 17, 2022, from
2. musical notation | Description, Systems, & Note Symbols | Britannica. (n.d.). Retrieved July 17, 2022, from
3. What Is Music Notation? Meaning, Symbols & History. (n.d.). Retrieved July 17, 2022, from
4. Staff | Musical Dictionary. (n.d.). Retrieved July 17, 2022, from
5. What is…Plainchant? | Classical Music. (n.d.). Retrieved July 17, 2022, from
6. Charlemagne | Biography, Accomplishments, Children, & Facts | Britannica. (n.d.). Retrieved July 17, 2022, from
7. Baroque period summary | Britannica. (n.d.). Retrieved July 17, 2022, from