At some point old notation gave way to new notation.

The unit note of contemporary music is the Semibreve, and the half note, the Minim. Both words mean short (and shorter) time duration.

Early music had: the Long, the Breve, and the Semibreve.

The Semibreve being the shortest note, whereas now it is the longest.

Both systems were binary: ie each succeeding note was half the preceding note.

My theory is this: With the invention of movable type used in printing presses the dies for the Long, the Breve, and the Semibreve would have become clogged with ink very frequently. Far better to have dies with solid surfaces like the Crotchets, Quavers, and Semiquavers etc., with only the occasional Minim and Semibreve.

In short, has the change from long notation to short notation been precipitated by the invention of the printing press?

Or is there another explanation for the change in notation?

  • I strongly doubt printing processes have anything to do with it. In fact I was under the impression that hand-copying was still the dominant means of score reproduction well into the classical period, long after the new notation took over; but coming to think of it I actually don't know about the timeline of printing for musical scores, so I could be completely off here. Commented Dec 22, 2018 at 21:52
  • I was about to write an answer along the lines of @leftaroundabout’s comment, when I found this Wikipedia article which details a much earlier timeline than I thought. I don’t know whether its sources check out but it seems quite plausible. Interesting question!
    – 11684
    Commented Dec 22, 2018 at 22:06
  • @leftroundabout movable-type printing flourished in Italy in the 16th century and into the 17th. Lots of music survives only in that form. More pieces were probably copied by hand, since any music that didn't appeal to the mass market would not have been printed. But my understanding is that the technical circumstance that led to the popularity of open "white" notes in the first place was the switch from parchment and vellum to paper.
    – phoog
    Commented Apr 5, 2019 at 5:05

4 Answers 4


I believe that the transition to shorter notes came in mid-16th century Italy, with the development of the note nere (literally "black note") style of madrigal. In addition to using shorter note durations, note nere madrigals also replaced the use of the slashed-C time signature (alla breve) with an open-C. In theory, this should have resulted in halving the tempo, thus cancelling out the shorter note values, in which case, note nere would only be a notational convention. While this doesn't seem to have totally been the case; it appears that musicologists are uncertain of the exact stylistic implications of this change, much less the reasons behind it. For reference, I found the first page of a 1965 article, The Note Nere Madrigal by James Haar, which states "the line between notational fad and stylistic advance is doubtless a thin one." Unfortunately, I don't have access to the full paper, so I can't see where the author ultimately draws that line. Nor do I know how far modern historical research has gone since then.


Chant (from around the time of Guido if not before) used solid head notes, so I don't think the solid-open head means anything other than notationally. The linked paper suggests that solid notes became open to make it easier to notate by pen (which begs the question of why new solid but flagged notes developped) https://www.thelantern.com/2015/09/professor-breaks-down-history-of-music-notation/.

I would guess that the Gregorian notation was adapted to other uses then extended to make longer notes by using open notes and shorter durations by flagging (the eighth note had a flag.) Some open note stuff showed 3 vs 2 divisions by using several notes before and after a given note to give the length. More information here: http://www.thisisgabes.com/images/docs/musicsymbol.pdf

Carl Parrish's book, "The Notation of Medieval Music," discusses notation up to the 1500s. I didn't find much about why composers (printers or copiers actually) changed the "default" note durations. Of course, one can use anything for duration. Old tango and swing notation was in 2/4 with an eighth note pulse; more recent composers and arrangers prefer 4/4 markings with a quarter note pulse. I've seen waltzes written 3/4 and 3/8; those in 3/8 seem to me to be faster. This is probably a hold over from mensural notation in which note values and time signatures indicated tempo value. Dolmestch online suggests that musical styles used faster notes (perhaps improvements in instrument construction) so the breve got slower. https://www.dolmetsch.com/musictheory2.htm

  • Flags originally made notes longer, not shorter (that is, the longa has a flag while the breve does not).
    – phoog
    Commented Apr 5, 2019 at 5:08
  • The longa has a stem.but not a flag. Likewise the maxima (which is distinguished by its open head being longer).
    – Rosie F
    Commented Jan 17, 2020 at 9:17

Prior to Gutenberg, open head notes were used for other purposes. We weren't using bar lines (or time signatures) as a standard for marking meters. The precursors of bar lines were actually used to denote rests, with the length of the line determining the number of rest beats. Meters were noted by "colorization", with open head notes indicating duple meter and solid note note heads triple meter.

There were significant variations in notation geographically, and even where handwritten notation was identical there were significant variations in the interpretation of the notation - the "Italian" style was binary, while the "French" style was ternary (similar to modern "swing").

The development of the printing press didn't lead to changes in notation - it lead to the opposite, the fixing of notation in a standard form. Music notation adapted to what was readily available for notation: Once you have a cast for a symbol, why spend the time developing another one for the same concept? (This is also seen today, with software like Finale and Sibelius leading to more standardization in chord symbols).

And the clogging of type was definitely not a factor. If you've ever visited a print shop in a historical setting you might have witnessed the regular cleaning of the form with brushes. Ink is generally sticky stuff, and as the form (the type locked in the chase) collected dust and dirt, ALL of the type surfaces became fuzzy in the transfer of images to the page.

While that's going to happen faster with open symbols, in the context of your hypothesis it's important to realize that the bulk of printing wasn't music - it was text. We did not alter the symbols for all of the letters with closed loops (abdegopq)... we developed the habit of regularly cleaning the printing form. By the time we started printing music we had already been printing text for about 20 years, so printing open headed notes was no more difficult than printing p's and q's.


Each language/notation system provides a fluency but also imposes limitations on the expression of creative ideas. Our current (Western) music notation system is based on an archaic modal framework. Accidentals were added later, to accommodate an expanded chromatic pitch system. Temperament methods (n-limit just intonations, meantone, equal temperament, etc) were then added to accommodate tonal modulation and harmonic intonation within a chromatic system.

In many cases, notation (symbol) evolutions are a secondary effect of advances in theoretical terminology (nomenclature). Pitch (note) duration terminology has evolved in specificity from indirect, esoteric and cumbersome terms (crotchet; hemidemisemiquaver) to simpler quantified terms (quarter note/rest; 64th note/rest). By indirect, I mean note definitions like: "the value of a quaver is one eighth of a semibreve, or half of a crotchet". Direct terminology skips the step of esoteric translation: the value of an quarter note is 1/4 of a whole note, 1/2 of a half note; the eighth note is half of a quarter note, etc.

As musical languages continue to evolve, the larger problem becomes: how much longer can ‘bolt-on’ expansions to a simple modal (7 pitch per octave; A-G) notation and theoretical framework suffice. One modern example is microtonal (>12 pitches per octave) music, which is pushing modal notation and modal intervallic theory to its endpoint. As a result, we see an increasing notation 'discordance' in the continuing invention of numerous, incompatible pitch-modifier symbols (accidentals) necessary to notate musical ideas beyond the limits of a chromatic (12 pitch per octave) system.

Pitch (note) duration terminology has been updated to the modern era in its quantitative basis. It has a dual complexity in notating a wide array of simplified, absolutely-defined duration relationships (half note=2 quarter notes), as well as symbolizing a contextually adaptive structure: accommodating flexible variances in the temporal duration of a quarter note (in seconds), relative to tempo or pulse. However, the underlying modal system and theoretical framework of music is proving to be much more resistant to modern evolution.

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