“Music produces a kind of pleasure which human nature cannot do without,” said Confucius, the ancient Chinese philosopher. William Shakespeare managed to say it in fewer words. “If music be the food of love, play on.”
The very sight of musical symbols is enough to put a person in that pleasurable mood of which Confucius speaks, which perhapsexplainsÂ why people incorporate musical motifs in tattooÂ designs. The most recognizable signs in the musical realm are thetreble clef, the staff, and the notes.
Clef, of course, is French for ‘key’, and it is the first sign we encounter on a sheet of music. It is superimposed over the five lines of the staff, and it’sÂ purposeÂ is to indicate the pitch of the written notes. The familiar ‘treble clef’ looks like a grandiose ‘S’, but its critical component is theÂ curl. The line on the staff that passes through thatÂ curlÂ is identified as G, which is why it’s also called the G-clef. In earlier times, it was known as the ‘violin clef’, because it marked the treble – or highest (pre-pubescent) – voice part.
By identifying G, the other notes on the staff – E G B D F – are also known, since their relationship to G never changes. Similarly, the F-clef, also called the ‘base clef’, assigns the note F to the line on the staff that falls between the two dots of the clef.
Is theÂ treble clefÂ a stylized ‘G’, or is it an ‘S’? There is, in fact, a connection between S and G. The syllable ‘sol’ was the name given to G in the medieval system for naming notes, which is still in use today – do, re, me, fa, so, la, ti, do. Those syllables were drawn from the first syllables of each successive verse in a choral hymn to St.Â John the Baptist, around 1000 AD. At some point in its evolution, ‘sol’ was shortened to ‘so’, so that all the syllables ended in a vowel.
Musical currency is the ‘note’, which has three distinct parts. The rounded head is either white (open), or black (closed). Other than whole notes or double whole notes, the note sign comes with a stem and a flag to indicate its (shorter) time value.
Historically, all notes started out being solid black. But with theÂ introductionÂ of paper in Europe, scribes struggled to keep the ink from bleeding along the fibres, which created a blob. TheÂ solutionÂ was to use less ink, and the best way to do that was todrawÂ notes in outline. With that, the white note was born.
Cultures much more ancient than theÂ EuropeansÂ had devised systems for denoting music, including the Egyptians, the Chinese, and early peoples living in Anatolia (modern Turkey). As early as 200 BC, the Greeks applied a system of ‘accents’ to texts that were meant to be sung. The oldest evidence of a complete musical composition from Western cultures is the Greek Seikilos Epitaph.