History of notation

With Behind Bars etc my ‘bibles’ for current practice, I’d like to look into the longer history and development of musical notation.

Anyone know and can comment on Williams’ The Story of Notation (it’s over 100 years old), please?

I know of Apel’s The Notation of Polyphonic Music 900 - 1600, which presumably is the standard for music before the Common Practice period.

Is there anything more comprehensive, up to date and detailed, illustrative of the way in which, specifically, notation conventions have changed and been used in music from neumes to the C21st, please?


Not an answer, only a suggestion.
This forum may be quite interesting for such questions:

And a very helpful suggestion, teacue; thanks!

Don’t forget the IMSLP website. http://imslp.org/

They have multiple printed versions of the standard repertoire pieces. You can, for instance, look at the first published versions of the Beethoven piano sonatas and compare them with later versions - early Breitkopf, later Breitkopf, Peters, Schott, Schirmer, etc. There isn’t any explanation of the differences, but close study reveals how music notation/engraving changed from about 1820-1920.

Thanks; that’s really helpful!

Is IMSLP (still) considered the ‘best’ (=most comprehensive, easiest to use etc) site of its kind, would you say?

In fact, I’m really looking for a text to detail the development of scoring.


There is considerable complexity in the notational relationships of 14. C Mensuration that I have never got to the bottom of. This was still alive in Monterverdi and Frescobaldi’s music, and lingered even later into the 17th C. OUP published a book on it by Anna Maria Busse Berger. While this contains perhaps the clearest explanation of these conventions, that is not saying much! :slight_smile:


Thanks, David. Yes: she seems to have written extensively on the subject.

I wonder if the development of notation from neumes to microtones is just too big a subject for one book to cover well?

I think you may be right, Mark, and I am not sure that anyone is interested in knowing about the whole gamut in any meaningfully profound way. The subject is full of intricacies. See my attached example, a transcription of an engraved edition from c. 1700, which contains several conventions that have fallen by the wayside in most modern editions. The last thing I would encourage is a book like D. J. Grout’s, which I personally think did more harm than good in its use in college music history survey courses! :slight_smile:


Especially with early keyboard music, there are often things that are difficult to decipher in modern scores, where going back to early editions with idiosyncratic notation makes the meaning perfectly clear.

Thanks, David and Steve!

Yes… too right: on the notatio forum the one response I’ve got so far is that if I find such a book, “let us know”.

So am leaning towards Williams.

I don’t know of Grout… ???

I was reading Couperin’s 'L’art de toucher…’ the other day; and saw how he used a small (relatively indistinct?) open square as a movable Do in the F clef.

Aren’t such things fascinating; and able to explain how we do things now.

The short answer is that you dont need to, Mark, you dont want to, and you are lucky not to have encountered it.

The long answer is that he wrote a fairly fat book “The History of Western Music”, which tried to cover everything, and missed the wood for the trees, not to mention skating over a lot of interesting pieces and composers, for whom there was not room in one book! It was the standard text in many schools of music for far to many decades, and it is probably wishful thinking on my part that it has now been abandoned…

L’art de toucher, on the other hand, is something that one should play, preferably on a good French-style harpsichord, reading the text only as commentary, an allowing the instrument to show one how the music goes!


I have a copy here if there is anything specific, but I don’t remember it being informative about notation.

Somewhere higher up the page, I introduced Grout as an example of a book that tried to write everything one needed to know about a topic over many centuries, and failed miserably. :slight_smile:


Thanks, David and Steve,

No, I definitely don’t need a book on music history for this. I’ll steer away from Grout anyway :slight_smile:

It’s how the conventions of notation developed and changed and how one can learn about standards etc now that I feel I should know more about.