In considering the question of the benefits of dots versus ties for extending note values, I got to wondering about the origins of those two notations.

  • Did one emerge before the other?
  • For what purpose(s) were they first developed?

There is an excellent description of the emergence of the dot in Original sources for note-increment dot. So I think my question boils down to:

What is the history of the tie, and what relationship does that history hold with the dot, if any?

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    One only-somewhat-off-topic note: The 1703 edition (the 15th) of a John Playford book advertises "The new ty'd note." It turns out, though, that it uses the word "tie" to mean not only what we do but also the beaming of eighth notes (see p 19 and following here. Note that the preceding page addresses both dots ("The Prick of Perfection, or Point of Addition") as well as ties across bar lines. This is by no means anything new; both appear in the 2nd edition at least, almost a century earlier. What is new... Oct 30 '21 at 2:28
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    ... Is that Playford had taken until 1703 to manage to effectively beam 8th notes together using movable type. Movable type seriously interfered with the ability to use slurs coherently. The German printers of the 1620 Capriccio Stravagante could do little more than scatter equal-sized slur-shapes around meaninglessly (see pp 72 ff, even though the groundbreaking Venetian printing houses had decades earlier succeeded in aligning them to starting and ending notes ... Oct 30 '21 at 2:37
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    ... (and they gave up on the moveable-type experiment and went back to engraving entire plates long, long before Playford was still scratching his head about how to beam). What's the point? Just that evolution of musical notation is always entangled in the evolution of the physical technologies employed. I'm pretty sure notes were beamed in woodblock printing way earlier, but were temporarily forced to show even a run of 32nd notes as individual flags for about a century, just because of the technological constraint. One other point: ... Oct 30 '21 at 2:40
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    ... That 1655 Playford book shows both dots and ties, and demonstrates why man at least cannot live by dots alone: Sometimes you're forced to hold a note across a barline. (Although the 1703 edition says that sometimes they would put the dot itself in the next bar, but use a tie to make the intention clear.) I don't have time at the moment to search out the actual headwaters of the tie, but I imagine they come along hand in hand with the barline. Oct 30 '21 at 2:47
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    @AndyBonner I'm quite sure dots are older. Here we see them in 15th century work: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Johannes_Ockeghem#/media/… and I wouldn't be surprised if they were in use much earlier. Some more hints: ties are often used to notate 1. syncopation or generally more complex rhythms, 2. notes going over bar lines. Barlines themselves are relatively young! One more thing to consider: if a notation is used for multiple centuries, its use may change and evolve. Nov 1 '21 at 23:53

This is a fascinating question, and although I don't have a definite source that says this or that, I believe I've triangulated the data as best we can. For simplicity's sake, I'll refer to some entries in the Harvard Dictionary of Music.

The entry for dotted note isn't all that helpful, but the entry for tie tells us that "[t]he advent of the tie coincides with the advent of the bar line." When considering the bar line entry, we read that "the earliest [instance is in] Faenza, Biblioteca comunale, 117, from ca. 1400."

With this, let's assume that the tie appeared, at the earliest, around the year 1400.

The earliest dot notation that I know of is from Machaut; I found this example in his manuscripts from MS E, 131r:

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Machaut, however, died in 1377, meaning that these manuscripts would have been dating from sometime before this date.

Thus with the earliest appearance of the tie being "ca. 1400" and definitive evidence of dots appearing, at the latest, in 1377, we can assume the dot appeared first.

There's of course some wiggle room here with the meaning of "ca. 1400," but I think we're relatively safe to assume that the dot preceded the tie. Further evidence of this is that Machaut was operating in the ars nova, a tradition connected to treatises from ca. 1320 of Jehan des Murs and Philippe de Vitry. (There's also an interesting national connection: this is a French tradition, but the appearance of the bar line in the Faenza manuscript is Italian!)

With all of this said, the musical idea of elongating a prior note by some amount long precedes the visual notation of the dot and tie themselves. But these particular symbols were made necessary as rhythmic notation evolved from rhythmic modes through mensural and proportional systems into something like what we have today.

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