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Musical notation: 8th - 14th century

The tunes and rhythm of the plainsong of the early Christian church are passed from generation to generation in the equivalent of an oral tradition in poetry. Sometimes, on written texts of the psalms, simple accents are added above the words as a reminder of how the phrases go. These accents slowly evolve into full musical notation.

Between the 8th and the 12th centuries the accents begin to be placed slightly above or below each other to indicate relative pitch. Before the end of this period they are arranged on or between ruled lines, to suggest the relationship more accurately.

This development turns the accents into individual notes. During the 13th century another missing ingredient is added; the shape of each note on the paper begins to vary to suggest its length. By the 14th century six different lengths of note are clearly established.

A book of about 1320, the Ars Nova ('New Art') of Philippe de Vitry, lays out the notational system which has remained in use until our own time (though the shape of each note on the page has altered considerably). In the 16th century scores are written out for the first time, combining all the parts (vocal or instrumental) of a piece. Bar lines are introduced to show the measure to which all the parts conform.

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