In Western culture, there had been an unbroken tradition in musical practice and theory from the earliest written records of the Sumerians (c. 2500 BC) through the Babylonians and Persians down to ancient Greece and Rome. However, the Germanic migrations of the 400s AD brought about a break with this tradition. Most in western Europe for the next few centuries did not understand the Greek language, and thus the works of Boethius, who saw what was happening and translated ancient Greek treatises into Latin, became the foundation of learning during this period. With the advent of scholarly reforms by Charlemagne, who was particularly interested in music, began a period of intense activity in the monasteries of the writing and copying of treatises in music theory — the Musica enchiriadis is one of the earliest and most interesting of these. Charlemagne sought to unify the practice of church music by eliminating regional stylistic differences.
There is evidence that the earliest Western musical notation, in the form of neumes in camp aperto (without staff-lines), was created at Metz around 800, as a result of Charlemagne’s desire for Frankish church musicians to retain the performance nuances used by the Roman singers.
Western musical practice and theory of today can be traced in an unbroken line from this time to the present, thus it had its beginnings with Charlemagne.
Neumes are the basic elements of Western and Eastern systems of musical notation prior to the invention of five-line staff notation. The word neume is a Middle English corruption of the ultimately Greek word for breath (pneuma).
The earliest neumes were inflective marks which indicated the general shape but not necessarily the exact notes or rhythms to be sung. Later developments included the use of heightened neumes which showed the relative pitches between neumes, and the creation of a four-line musical staff that identified particular pitches. Neumes do not generally indicate rhythm, but additional symbols were sometimes juxtaposed with neumes to indicate changes in articulation, duration, or tempo. Neumatic notation was later used in medieval music to indicate certain patterns of rhythm called rhythmic modes, and eventually evolved into modern musical notation. Neumatic notation remains standard in modern editions of plainchant.
Although chant was probably sung since the earliest days of the church, for centuries they were only transmitted orally.
The earliest systems involving neumes are of Aramaic origin and were used to notate inflections in the quasi-emmelic recitation of the Christian holy scriptures. As such they resemble functionally a similar system used for the notation of recitation of the Qur’an, the holy book of Islam. This early system was called ekphonetic notation, from the Greek ekphonesis meaning quasi-melodic recitation of text.
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