Tibetan musical score from a Buddhist monastic ritual, circa late 18th-19th century


A short history of music

Early music was passed on from person to person. Oral tradition remains the norm in many regions, including most of Africa. Generally, though, some form of musical notation is used.

The ancient Greeks wrote melodies as lines of letters. But it wasn’t until eighth-century church music that changes in pitches were shown: diagonal lines indicated rises or falls in the tune. More precise changes in pitch were written in the tenth century, when a single line represented a fixed tone and pitch varied above or below this by set distances. By the 12th century, staves had four lines with pitches on alternate spaces and lines. We now have five.

In Japanese music there is no consensus notation because the music is so diverse. The notation for shakuhachi bamboo flutes is pictorial: a symbol for each note with dots and lines for lengths and intonation.

Lead image:

Tibetan musical score from a Buddhist monastic ritual, dating from the late 18th or 19th century.

Wellcome Library, London CC BY

About this resource

This resource was first published in ‘Music, Mind and Medicine’ in June 2009 and reviewed and updated in July 2014.

Music, Mind and Medicine
Education levels:
14–16, 16–19, Continuing professional development