Robert Estrin - piano expert

When Was Music First Written Down?

Learn more about music history with this basic question

In this video, Robert answers a question for which people often don't have an answer. Music history is a fascinating subject indeed, and today Robert talks about how the first notation appeared in the world of music.

Released on June 18, 2014

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Video Transcription

Hi and welcome to and, I'm Robert Estrin. And today's question is when was music first written down? Boy, you know this is a great question. Because there's so much music from centuries ago, you feel like we know all the music that ever was ever played, but it's far from the truth. As a matter of fact, through most of history, music was not written down. We don't really know what people played in antiquity with the songs they sang and the beats they pounded on their drums, and all the rest of it. But actually, written music goes back further than you think.

There were primitive types of writing that at least had notes, certain degrees of scale degrees, going back to ancient Rome and Greece. In fact, in ancient Greece, as long ago as the 6th century, there was some time of writing. Now, the early writing of music was really just reminders of how to sing the songs more or less and really that's where music rotation grew from. And our system really has its roots in the 11th century growing from Gregorian chant in the church, plain song, taking liturgical text and singing it.

And to remind people the ways it went up or down and different flourishes, there were little squiggly lines and such. Eventually, Guido de Arezzo decided to draw a line and make that one reference of pitch, and notes could go above and below that line. That eventually got to a point where there were four lines. And if you've ever seen some of the Gregorian chant notations, it's a very interesting, it's evocative of modern notation, but not quite. It doesn't have bar lines. It doesn't really have the same rhythmic accuracy that we have today.

It wasn't until the end of the 17th century that modern notation, as we know it, was really flourishing. So again, to recap, ancient Greece going back to the 6th century B.C., by the way, ancient Greece, make a note of that. There was some attempt at writing down ideas that could be translated so people could remember them musically, but it wasn't until really the 11th century with Gregorian chant and the four lines, and finally by the end of the 17th century we have modern notation as we know it today.

Thanks for the excellent question and keep them coming in. I'm Robert Estrin here at and
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Comments, Questions, Requests:

kelly on April 14, 2017 @9:00 pm PST
id like to see the replica of the musical sketch by beethoven as i believe i have a replica as well...where indeed is the real one?
Robert Estrin - host, on April 20, 2017 @1:38 pm PST
There are a number of historic manuscripts of some of Beethoven's compositions. He had a massive body of work. There are original manuscripts of some of Beethoven's works you can explore here:
Fulvia * VSM MEMBER * on June 18, 2014 @11:12 am PST
Most interesting subject. I have a reproduction of a letter written as a musical sketch by Beethoven to H R H, the Archduke Rudolph of Austria, January 20,1820. I feel sorry for the poor Archduke, I don't know how he could have "played" that letter, I can't! The notes are barely scribbled with no sense of order. Was Beethoven particularly disorganized? or was it the way composers were writing at that time?
Robert - host, on June 18, 2014 @2:33 pm PST
If you look at Beethoven's scores, they are indeed quite haphazard at times. Unlike Mozart and Schubert who were said to hear a composition in their heads in almost a complete way then transcribe them, Beethoven rewrote his compositions constantly. This is why there are so many discrepancies with Beethoven's scores. Securing an authoritative edition (or editions) of Beethoven's is very instructive at times trying to determine exactly what he intended.
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