Words and Music


Articles about music might seem out of place on a blog about writing, but words and music have always gone together. In pre-literate societies, if people needed to remember words, they tended to put them together in rhyming or rhythmic patterns, making them easier to recall. It was only a short step to using different pitches of the voice, and sound made by external means to further enhance those verbal patterns.

When written language came along, the link with music continued. Western music derives its basic shape from the Greeks, particularly from fifth century BC thinker Pythagoras. Greek musicians decided on the distances between musical steps, which generally speaking are still in use today. They also confirmed the relationship between words and music by naming musical notes after letters of the alphabet.

With the collapse of the Greek civilisation, the alphabetical system of musical notation was lost for centuries. Music survived largely in Gregorian chant, a combination of words and music designed to help illiterate Medieval congregations remember passages from the Bible. The time came, however, when musicians once again required notation to represent music. After both Pope Gregory the Great, and Emperor Charlemagne demanded a standardisation of chants, it became politically vital for church choristers to reproduce chants in an accepted way. This demanded notation.  From the 7th Century, marks called neumes, began to appear, indicating where the voice should go up or down. But these marks did not indicate where a singer was starting from on the ladder of musical sounds.

The breakthrough came when a teacher of choristers at Areazzo, named Guido Monaco, came up with a notation system to help orientate his pupils as they struggled to learn hundreds of chants. Described in his books Aliae Regulae and Micologus, both published around 1030, Monaco’s system took its lead from the Greek idea of turning to the written word, naming notes after letters of the alphabet – A,B,C,D,E,F,G. He drew a red line above a line of words to be sung, a line which Monaco declared represented middle F, a note right in the centre of a singer’s normal singing range. Then a second yellow line was added to represent middle C. Other notes could then be written above or below these two lines at graduated heights. It was now possible for a singer or musician to know exactly which note they had to sing or play. It was also possible to read and write music. Until this point music had been an oral tradition with no specific composers, but with Monaco’s system it was possible for people to start writing down musical ideas. The first named composer is generally held to be a Frenchman named Perokin, who lived roughly between 1170 and 1236. He wrote his music as you might write a story, using Monaco’s system based on the letters of the alphabet.

Today the link between words and music is if anything stronger than ever, in the various forms of song writing which have dominated global culture since the 1950s.

Hans Christian Anderson said that where words fail, music speaks. You could also say that where words and music come from is actually the same place.

Grease 2

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