When was the first time someone wrote music in the way we use it today (on a stave)? Was this the first way people ever wrote music or did they do something else before that? (such as just writing the note names)

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    I've voted to close, because there are at least three different questions here; however, most, if not all, have been answered in other posts on this site. Some basic searches should help you find them. In particular, look for posts about ancient Greek music and posts containing "Guido d'Arezzo" and "staff".
    – Aaron
    Jan 13 at 19:09
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    I’m rolling back this edit because the fundamental question should not be changed once answers have been posted. You should ask the “Why do we use a stave…” question in a separate post. Jan 15 at 4:20

1 Answer 1


The history of music notation is long and complex, but this wiki page will give a few good reference points: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Staff_(music)#History

Neumes were used before modern notes and staff lines. Neumes were a kind of calligraphic line using various shapes to indicate little melodic motifs. The wiki example shows neumes on a single line "staff." Around the year 1000 four line staff was developed.

Some old systems of notation did write out pitch letter names, but of those systems, I've usually seen them referred to as tablature. Tablature is notation that gives fingering info rather than pitch info.

Mensural notation was the first notation to specify note lengths, and you might use that as the first notation like the notation we use today. You could use the year 1400 as a rough point in time for its standardization across Europe.


It seems to me the main reason to use staff notation rather than listing pitch names is because notation is visual rather than textual. For example, when you see four step-wise notes...

enter image description here

...you quickly understand visually what needs to be played. In fact, a well trained musical reader can often play passages like that "automatically" without consciously thinking about the pitch letters.

Textually, if you see E D C B, you need to read those pitches and recognize the reverse alphabetical order.

I'm not an expert, but I generally understand the brain uses different pathways for visual and textual processing, and the visual processing is faster.

  • Mensural notation began in the late 1200s, as the Wikipedia article notes.
    – phoog
    Jan 13 at 20:25
  • We know there is music notation (which I think is closer to nuematic and not mensural) from Ancient Greece, so the earliest notation is at least 2000 years old. I’m not sure if there is older notation from outside of Europe. My understanding is Ancient Greek notation is the earliest known form of notation from Europe. Jan 13 at 20:32
  • @Phoog, I made an edit. I was using that 1400 date as a point in time for standardization of use. Jan 13 at 20:53
  • @ToddWilcox - nuematic? Slip of the finger, I guess, neumatic, probably - although I can't find that in my dictionaries. US English, maybe? Pneumatic, yes, with a silent p as in swimming bath..!!
    – Tim
    Jan 14 at 11:32

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