Saturday, July 7, 2007

51. On The Origin of Tuned Pipes and Music Notation

I am now, finally, in a position to provide an answer to the puzzler: what was the first music notation and what did the notes look like? The first music notation appeared with the invention of tuned pipes. The system of pipes is in itself the equivalent of a notation system. What each note looks like is a single pipe. I.e., once you have a situation where two diffferent tones are produced from two different pipes, regardless of how they are tuned, then each pipe ipso facto becomes a signifier for the tone it will produce when played. To notate a melody you would line them up and then point to one pipe at a time in the same sequence as the melody you have in mind. Whether this was actually done or not is beside the point. If in principle it could have been done, then it was a system of notation.

You may object that an important aspect of notation is that it is permanent, whereas the process I just described is ephemeral and requires memorization. That would be true for the notation of a melody, yes. But each set of pipes can also be regarded as the notation of a scale. And as such it would have some permanence, at least as much as an inscription on parchment or paper. If the original pipes are then used as templates for the production of new pipes, we have a very durable notation system indeed, comparable to the digital encoding processes of today, which in principle could be perpetuated indefinitely.

1 comment:

Brodie said...

Well I was somewhat in the neighborhood at least, if not quite on the mark! I was thinking more of a system of written notation so I thought perhaps lines of varying lengths representing the various pipes would be the first notation system. But it makes sense to me that our ancestors would use an even simpler system, simply pointing and memorizing the "notes" almost like a Simon game. This is great stuff Victor, my mind continues to be blown as I read more and more!