Music is quite universal in the sense that you can hand a musician almost anywhere in the world a piece of sheet music and they will be able to understand it. I've been wondering this for a while now; when was the first recorded use of the musical score we use today?


3 Answers 3


According to Wikipedia: "The first printed book to include music, the Mainz psalter (1457), had to have the notation added in by hand. (...) The first machine-printed music appeared around 1473, approximately 20 years after Gutenberg introduced the printing press."

Have a look at the Wikipedia page for more information.


From the first sentence of your question, I think you are asking "What is the earliest musical score that a musician of today could easily read?"

Consider an analogy with writing: Have you ever seen a manuscript by Shakespeare? (I think there exists exactly one.) It is written in English and in the same writing style as his contemporaries, but it's not easily readable to a person of today. The letter forms are very different. You can puzzle it out one word at a time. A researcher who reads lots of these old manuscripts can read it fluently.

The earliest writing we have is clay tablets we can't read. The earliest writing that we can read (i.e., that some professor somewhere can decipher) is such-and-such. The earliest Old English writing is such-and-such. The earliest Modern English writing is such-and-such (something like Shakespeare's manuscript). Etc.

There are ancient manuscripts that we know are music but we can't decipher. There are ancient Byzantine musical manuscripts that experts can decipher.

Gregorian Chant from around the year 600 is the earliest music in a notation similar to modern notation (notes on the lines and spaces of a staff with a clef). This notation is still in use in the Roman Catholic Church. Music from Shakespeare's time looks funny with its dots and points and diamond-shaped notes but you can read it. It's called "pricksong" from the dots and points.

Is a J.S. Bach manuscript an example of modern musical notation? That's just a matter of opinion. Bach uses obsolete clefs and sometimes beams the notes differently from how we would.

So I think the answer to your original question is "sometime during or after Shakespeare's time and before Bach". That would be the 16th or 17th century, or late Renaissance / early Baroque.

  • 1
    Chant doesn't actually acquire a staff or clefs until close to AD 1000. Earlier chant notations (e.g. e-codices.unifr.ch/en/csg/0359/40/medium ) just indicate direction of motion, not size of motion. Commented Feb 25, 2013 at 4:45
  • 1
    Byzantine chant notation numes are actually still being actively used by the Greek Orthodox Church. It's not just the experts reading that sort of thing, as far as I've seen. (Source is I'm Eastern Orthodox and have seen Churches in the US with chants notated by the Byzantine numes).
    – Josiah
    Commented Oct 22, 2015 at 4:37
  • I'll second @Josiah I'm also Orthodox and I can read Byzantine chant fairly well. A lot of modern Byzantine chant can be found here Commented Oct 29, 2015 at 13:49
  • @MichaelScottCuthbert, Moreover the earlier notations don't first appear till the mid-800s, although we know some existed in the early 800s, possibly the late 700s, now lost.
    – Coemgenus
    Commented Dec 21, 2017 at 5:19

I believe sheet music is only a documentation of what was performed or recorded originally. It is most commonly written after a piece is collaborated not before. Its Used as A reference. It is nearly impossible to read a series of notes with out hearing the song and perform or sound exactly same as the "Artist" or musician.

  • 2
    Two problems with your post Joshua - 1) it doesn't answer the question, and 2) there are people who compose and write the score before anything is played.
    – Doktor Mayhem
    Commented Nov 2, 2017 at 7:43

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