Contents: Introduction * History and Function of Neumes


Greek is a musical language. Early forms of the language even usedtonal stress. By New Testament times, this tonal usage had faded,but even so, many biblical texts are suitable for singing.Unfortunately, in ancient times there was no good way to record the melody ofthe piece being sung.

The earliest systems of musical notation were developed between 1500 and3000 years ago by the Greeks. These schemes were generally based on lettersof the Greek alphabet. This had several problems: The melody of the songcould be confused with its words, the system was not very accurate, and itwas immensely complicated. A similar problem occurred in recording Latinmusical notation; according to John Julian, A Dictionary of Hymnology,revised edition, 1907, article on "Latin Hymnody:"

[F]rom the 7th and 8th centuries musical notes of some kindare appended to all hymns. The first system, usual in the 5th century, wasalphabetical; that of Boethius (De Musicâ, Lib. iv., c. 14), which markedthe notes by the fifteen first letters of the alphabet. Sometimes the firstOctave was represented by the seven first capitals, the second by the sevensmaller letters. Others, again, used Greek Capitals for this purpose. Allthese methods were, however, found unsatisfactory....

Neumes and neuming were developed to overcome these problemsNeumes were small marks placed above the text to indicate the"shape" of a melody. As a form of notation, they were initiallyeven less effective than the letter-based systems they replaced -- butthey were unambiguous and took very little space, and so they survivedwhen other systems failed. Our modern musical notation is descended fromneumes.

History and Function of Neumes

The psalms provide clear evidence on Biblical texts being sung. Manyof the psalms indicate the tune used for them. There are places in the NewTestament (e.g. Mark 14:26 and parallels, Acts 16:25) which apparently referto the singing of psalms and biblical texts. But we have no way to knowwhat tunes were used.

This was as much a problem for the ancients as it is for us. By the ninthcentury they were beginning to develop ways to preserve tunes. We call theearly form of this system neuming, and the symbols used nuemes(both from Greek πνευμα).

The earliest neumes (found in manuscripts such as Ψ) couldn't reallyrecord a tune. Neither pitch nor duration was indicated, just the general"shape" of the tune. Theoretically only two symbols were used: "Up"(the acutus, originally symbolized by something like /), and the"Down" (gravis, \). These could then be combinedinto symbols such as the "Up-then-down" (^).This simple set of symbols wasn't much help if you didn't know a tune --but could be invaluable if you knew the tune but didn't quite know how to fitit to the words. It could also jog your memory if you slipped a little.

Neumes were usually written in green or red ink in the space betweenthe lines of text. They are, for obvious reasons, more common in lectionariesthan in continuous-text manuscripts.

As the centuries passed, neuming became more and more complex, addingmetrical notations and, eventually, ledger lines. The picture below(a small portion of chapter 16 of Mark from the tenth century manuscript 274)shows a few neumes in exaggerated red. In this image we see not onlythe acutus and the gravis, but such symbols as the podatus(the J symbol, also written !), which later became a rising eighth note.

By the twelfth century, these evolved neumes had becomea legitimate musical notation, which in turn evolved into the church's ancient"plainsong notation" and the modern musical staff.

All of these forms, however, were space-intensive (plainsong notationtook four ledger lines, and more elaborate notations might take as manyas fifteen), and are not normally found in Biblical manuscripts (so muchso that most music history books do not even mention the use of neumes inBiblical manuscripts; they usually start the history of notation aroundthe twelfth century and its virga, punctae, and breves).

The primary use of neumes to the Biblical scholar is for dating:If a manuscript has neumes, it has to date from roughly the eighthcentury or later. The form of the neumes may provide additionalinformation about the manuscript's age.