Contents: Introduction * History and Function of Neumes


Greek is a musical language. Early forms of the language even used tonal 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 of the piece being sung.

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

History and Function of Neumes

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

The earliest systems of musical notation were developed between 1500 and 3000 years ago by the Greeks. These schemes were generally based on letters of the Greek alphabet. This had several problems: The melody of the song could be confused with its words, the system was not very accurate, and it was immensely complicated. A similar problem occurred in recording Latin musical 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 kind are appended to all hymns. The first system, usual in the 5th century, was alphabetical; that of Boethius (De Musicâ, Lib. iv., c. 14), which marked the notes by the fifteen first letters of the alphabet. Sometimes the first Octave was represented by the seven first capitals, the second by the seven smaller letters. Others, again, used Greek Capitals for this purpose. All these methods were, however, found unsatisfactory....

The problems with this were several: It took a lot of training to really understand the system, and it was tricky to copy accurately; the notation might get lost or misplaced or even get stuck into the text of the hymn.

Another method, still used well into the Middle Ages, was to actually show the shape of the melody by having the words rise up and down above the baseline. So, for example, the tune of "God Save the King" or "America," (which begins, in the key of G, with G G A F# G A, B B C B A G) would look like this:

Long live no-
our King, ble
God save the King.


sweet land li-
try thee, ber-
My coun- of ty.

This was clearer than the letters, but it took a tremendous amount of space, and there was the danger of high or low syllables slipping into the graph of a different line.

Neumes and neuming were developed to overcome these problems. Neumes were small marks placed above the text to indicate the "shape" of a melody. As a form of notation, they were initially even less effective than the letter-based systems they replaced -- but they were unambiguous and took very little space, and so they survived when other systems failed. Our modern musical notation is descended from neumes.

In the eleventh century manuscript Harley 3011 in the British Library, there is an illustration of the Holy Spirit speaking to Gregory the Great, apparently teaching him about music. The spirit, shown as a dove, is speaking to Gregory, who is taking it down. I can't read the text he is copying, but it clearly is neumed. (It should perhaps be noted that there is little evidence Gregory the Great had anything to with creating Gregorian Chant, and no evidence that neumes were in use in his time. The illustration proves only that neumes were associated with music, and with Gregorian Chant, by the eleventh century.)

The earliest neumes (found in manuscripts such as Ψ) couldn't really record 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 combined into 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 fit it 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 between the lines of text. They are, for obvious reasons, more common in lectionaries than in continuous-text manuscripts.

Sadly for students of neumes, there were many local variations in the notations. For example, in St. Gall, we sometimes see a system consisting solely of the punctum, ・, and the virga, /. Just to make life incredibly tricky, the virga indicated that the note was higher than either the note before or after and the punctum meant that it was either lower or the same pitch. Context could clarify, but it's easy to see why that didn't last! Some traditions also required hints and helps in the margin, but this (apart from again getting into the complications of what these "signative letters" meant) required the singer to look in two places at once, which was an obvious problem. To add to the complications, particularly in the Latin liturgy, there might be many notes associated with a particular syllable, and just marking one or two neumes wasn't really sufficient to describe what was going on.

The St. Gall system was one of the most popular in Latin works, but France alone used the St. Gall system, the Breton system (also found in a few British documents), the Lorraine system, and the Lyon system, plus a system from Corbie that eventually evolved into the "Anglo-Saxon" notation. The Greek church of course used its own system. 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 only the acutus and the gravis, but such symbols as the podatus (the J symbol, also written !), which later became a rising eighth note.

As the centuries passed, neuming became more and more complex, adding metrical notations and, eventually, ledger lines. Aquitaine in the south of France -- the home of the troubadours! -- started using vertical positions in its neuming (the equivalent of the positional system of words shown above, but since neumes were small, it didn't take as much space). At first, there was just a single ledger line, for reference. Then a second line -- with the two lines perhaps being different colors, e.g. red for the tonic and green or yellow for what we would now call the fifth. It still didn't give complete details of the pitch, but it was getting close. Gradually more lines were added. Colors, for the moment, continued to be used -- e.g. the thirteenth century English rota (round) "Sumer is icumen in" has a red cross to mark the start of each repeat.

And the symbols were slowly changing. It's easy to see how notations like J and Ɉ and ⌠ could evolve into ♩ and ♪! By the twelfth century, although the symbols were still square rather than round (so ⎦ or ⎡ rather than ♩), we were seeing such modern symbols as ♮ for a natural, and the four stave lines that are used in "plainsong notation." The four-line plainsong staff was almost universal by the thirteenth century. So by then, the evolved neumes had become a legitimate musical notation (although note duration was still less clear than their pitches, in part perhaps because plainsong was often not very rhythmic), which in turn evolved the modern musical staff. This notation was all but universal by the thirteenth century, although the notes were still square. (Interestingly, the mere existence of a true form of notation allowed the creation of revolutionary musical forms, because it allowed musicians to transcribe rather than have to remember the whole thing. And even if one could remember a multi-part composition, there was little way to pass it on to someone else until there was a competent notation.)

To be sure, some of the symbols used, such as red ink for some special notes, were later abandoned. But the general trend was ever closer to our modern notation. We also see, in the fourteenth century, the first true tablature (i.e. a notation for explaining how to play music on a particular instrument) -- although it was keyboard tablature, which has largely gone extinct because it doesn't supply much information not found in standard musical notation; I doubt modern tablature for stringed instruments bears it any relation.

All of these true musical notations, however, were space-intensive (plainsong notation took four ledger lines, and more elaborate notations might take as many as fifteen), and are not normally found in Biblical manuscripts (so much so that most music history books do not even mention the use of neumes in Biblical manuscripts; they usually start the history of notation around the twelfth century and its virga, punctae, and breves). What's more, the musical staff is a Latin, western notation. The Greek East was much more likely to use its own notation which stood closer to the original neumes. This system remained less precise but also less space-intensive; even in late minuscules, it all fits on a single line. It's just that it has more symbols than had been used in the earliest neumed manuscripts.

Other churches had still other systems -- both Slavic and Armenian manuscripts have a notation that looks neume-like but is distinct. (Supposedly Armenian khaz notation conveyed both pitch and rhythm, although to me it appears too minimal to supply that much data.)

It is also worth noting that varying systems of notation could persist in a region at the same time. (As still happens today, with plainsong and standard musical notation still in existence.) The most advanced system of notation, at least in the Latin regions, was for church music; secular music was not recorded until somewhat later, and even then, the notation was more primitive.

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