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. – leftaroundabout Dec 22 '18 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 Dec 22 '18 at 22:06

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

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