Gateway to the Classics: Display Item
Lucy C. Lillie

Development of Musical Standards and Notation

Musical Standards Yesterday and To‑day — How To Enjoy the Story of any Art — A Harmony Class — A Fascinating Story — Early Notation — A Musical Note‑book

"W HAT I want to hear from you," said Von Bulow to a young lady who applied to him for instruction, "is a scale and an arpeggio."

The young lady played the scale of E minor, which is the one used, as a rule, in foreign conservatories as a test for a student's or beginner's capacity. Next the chord of A flat in arpeggio. Again and again she had to repeat them, each time following some especial instruction from the master, and at the end of half an hour she found herself doing them in a manner altogether new to herself, and certainly very much better than she had ever done them before. That half-hour's experience, it seems to me, was invaluable, for it taught her that even when a thing seems to be well done it can always be improved upon, and that a scale which had seemed to her so simple a performance really meant far more than she or most young students appreciate.

I have heard elderly ladies say that when they were taught music in the first decades of this century, the principal thing was the amount of time they spent practising and the number of pieces which they learned. To perform "The Battle of Prague" or "The Dewdrop" waltz was all that could be expected from amateurs; but in those days only professional musicians really studied. I do not want to say anything against our grandmothers' sincerity, but girls at school or under a governess in those days "took" music as they all took drawing-lessons. Is there any household, I wonder, where souvenirs of the past are cherished, in which there are to be found no pictures of large, flat-looking flowers on pasteboard, or music-books full of painfully unclassical music? Unfortunately, young people to‑day "take" music very often with the same inartistic spirit, but happily such rarely perform except for their own families after they leave school. The student whose music nowadays is considered worth anything is the student who thinks and feels and is patient.

Of course every school or conservatory has its own ideas, and I am sure my young readers can tell me of fifty different and perhaps equally excellent methods of teaching used by their different teachers; but the main points, if successful, must be the same, and in this little work my object is not so directly to teach, rather is it to help the student and the teacher by a little outside impetus—something to make study seem more entertaining and worth while.

Directly we begin to think of study as a science and a system the impression is apt to be gained that of necessity the work must be dull and uninteresting; but in point of fact, as I hope to show you, the very science and system of music constitutes its first charm; we will find the history of the science little by little unfolds what makes it most romantic and picturesque, and at last the dullest of five-finger exercises and most tiresome of scales will become invested with a sort of glamour or poetry which will be welcomed by the student who is really zealous as part of what one day will be the real glory of a great achievement.

Now there is nothing gained by going too rapidly in any study. Harmony, thorough-bass, counter-point, all of which mean about the same thing, and which constitute the science of music, are studies which the greatest masters have considered work for a lifetime; but instead of discouraging the young student, this should rather make him see how necessary it is to begin from the very beginning, to understand each day's work at the piano with some of its scientific meaning. All that I hope to do in these pages is to tell you the story of music, as it were, to offer some simple suggestions for piano practice and study, to give the mere rudiments of what is called theory, and to tell you something of the lives of the great composers, the musical influences of their times, and to introduce you to certain of their works.

The world to‑day is full of melody; of music such as one hundred years ago could not have been produced. At concerts all over this country, as well as in Europe, the very best music is to be heard; therefore even young people in the audience should bring with them a certain amount of technical knowledge. They should learn enough of theory to understand what is being produced by the great artists of the day. It is all very well to enjoy a fine orchestra, an opera, or an oratorio without troubling one's self about anything scientific connected with it, but really the history of all three is as charming as any fairy tale, and the very science in it, as I hope to show you, has its picturesque side; so that you need never feel it dull work, this following the study of music with a conscientious regard for its higher meanings and its original starting points.

Although study with a view to making music a "career" is different in one sense from study simply for love of it as an art and a personal resource, yet the guiding rules must be the same; and the young student who says to herself, "Oh, but I never should want to play in public!" ought to work with the same spirit as the one who looks forward to a public life, the only difference being in the time bestowed on it. For a professional future six and eight hours a day are required, besides a complete musical life; but two hours a day well employed can work wonders with the amateur student, and with what a feeling of joyful possession does not such a one reach a day when she can really interpret the master's meaning! It ought never to be considered in the light of an accomplishment, only as an art to be acquired for itself, and for the joy there is in acquiring and possessing it. If you do not feel that your music will make you yourself happy, even though you were alone and never to be heard, then do not try to pursue it. Be very certain that no one will care for what you can do in it.

On the other hand, there are many people who for some reason—usually a defective touch or lack of proper feeling for music—can never become executants; yet such a one can nearly always derive the greatest profit and enjoyment from the theoretical study of music. I often wonder why this is not considered a necessary study, independent of musical performance, just as other sciences are taught, for by this means you can open up a whole field of thought and enjoyment.

Listening to music becomes another and newer delight, and besides you can be in possession at least of the science of one of the noblest arts. The best composers have by no means been the best performers—indeed, the very reverse has often been the case, and some of the very best teachers abroad play but indifferently well; that is, the best teachers of technique; for when people speak of taking lessons from Liszt, or Rubenstein, or Bulow, etc., it usually means only playing pieces the notes of which they have learned for these great masters, who correct their style and offer suggestions.

Music as a theory no doubt entails years of study before the whole, or even the suggestion of the whole, is attained, but a great deal that is very satisfactory may be learned in a much shorter time; and to the young student who feels no "instinct" for performance let me suggest fifteen or twenty minutes a day of "theory"; perhaps it may develop the lacking instinct; at all events, if persevered in, it must lead to much satisfaction in hearing and understanding the music on all sides of us to‑day.

I well remember the first morning I ever spent in a foreign conservatory of music. I arrived just as the harmony class had assembled. Beside me sat a slim little girl with a very pretty, pale face, and a tired, anxious look. When we had all opened our books, she whispered to me, "May I look over you?"

The expression in her eyes was so piteous that it went to my heart to answer, "You may if you like, dear; only it won't help you. I don't know much of anything myself."

I never shall forget her look as she burst into a silent fit of crying, which for ten minutes stopped the lesson.

Often since I have thought of my little worried companion, who struggled on through the winter, always declaring she could not learn because she could not like it, and I have wondered if there were not a great many young students who feel in the same way.

It is so stupid to hear of semibreves and crotchets and quavers and minims and scales and clefs and scores, and all sorts of terms like "allegro" and "andante" and "con moto" and "adagio," and indeed whole Italian sentences, that used to look to me, when I was a child, like impertinent intrusions into English music.

But have you ever thought whether this system of music which we have to‑day may not have had a story—a far-off story almost as entrancing as a fairy tale? I think, had some one told my little friend the story of the system she was toiling to understand, it would all have looked very different, and the study would have been tinged with a real delight.

Now, what I propose to tell you is the history of the notes we use. This is really an introduction to the study of thorough-bass, or harmony; and if you make yourself complete master of the first simple rules or ideas, you will find later that many seemingly difficult things come almost instinctively.

You know that music to‑day is written according to a system, but, as you can readily understand, it was not perfected without a long test of various methods and centuries in which no ideas were sufficiently systematized to create a standard—centuries of crude music and mere experiment, from the days of Saint Gregory, in 590, to the time of John Sebastian Bach, in the middle of the 18th century, when at last even the question of time was perfected. In our own day, however, the study of harmony has become generally appreciated, and masters in the science have quite lately decided upon the best terms to use in expressing certain points which must be impressed upon every student's mind, in such manner as shall make their study not only simpler, but, at the same time, what is called more technical in character. So, for instance, the old-fashioned use of the terms crotchets and quavers is entirely abandoned; whole notes, half notes, quarter notes, etc., take their place, and instead of tones we have steps and half steps, which, as you will see in a later chapter, express better the actual sound of each note in the scale.

The very first ideas of harmony came from the Greeks. In Oriental times there was music at every season of festivity, triumph, mourning, or family rejoicing; but there was no special system for its government, and we suppose that the music of those early days was of a rude character, rendered impressive and effective, however, by the martial spirit or the bravely swelling chorus which inspired and performed it. With the early days of Christianity came a desire for music of a more delicate, although solemn, kind. To express the tenderness of the new law—the law of Christ and his wonderful messages of love—music of a different order seemed needful, and the hearts of men, especially among those early saints, longed for some expression which was poetic and demonstrative of the joyous faith that was within them. Of course their resources were still of the very scantiest. No system of notation had been established, although the letters of the alphabet were used to suggest certain notes; but in the days of St. Gregory we read that musical schools were established in Rome, and we know that he gave his name to a special kind of chant. Church music reached a point in his day whence it could be carried on.

Now we have in old manuscripts some illustrations which show how music was written. The system of using letters of the alphabet, however, came to an end, and was replaced by the use of a series of characters. These are called neumæ,  and each character had a different name. The first was known as the virga,  and it was a long single note; the bivirga  represented two notes, and the trivirga  three; the punctus  was a short note, etc.

In old volumes are various illustrations which show how music was written in that day, and the study of them is curious, since they represent the method which originally preceded the very beginning of our present and perfect system.


Figure 1—The Neumæ

Figure 1 shows the neumæ. There are ten here, but authorities differ as to the number that were really in use. These neumæ were placed over the words, as shown in Figure 2. We are not quite certain what melody they here represent, but the solution given underneath is the probable one.


Figure 2


Probable Solution of Figure 2

The first idea of making lines occurred in the year 900. But for a long time only one red line was used, and on this the F note was written; the grave sounds were placed below this line, the acute ones above it. How this music looked when written you will see in Figure 3 below.


Figure 3


Probable Solution of Figure 3

Early in the tenth century a monk in Flanders, named Hucbaldus, introduced a stave, as we call it, consisting of a great number of lines. At first these lines were not occupied by notes, but by the syllables to be sung, as shown in Figure 4 below. In order to show whether the voice was to proceed by a tone or a semitone the letters T and S were introduced. One advantage attending this system was that it could be applied to a scale of any extent, and even used for a number of voices singing at the same time.


Figure 4


Solution of Figure 4

In the Bodleian library at Oxford, England, is a very precious book once used in the Cathedral at Winchester. It is MS., of course, and is believed to have been written during the reign of King Ethelred II., who died in 1016. In it we find music written in two different fashions, as shown in Figure 5 below.


Figure 5

This, then, was the period of change. We have the simple neumæ above the words, and we have actually a four-line stave with notes instead of words.

But up to this time all the notes were the same; no difference in length was indicated, and no one who had not heard the melody could sing it from them. Presently the breve, semibreve, and dot, as shown in Figure 6 below, began to appear, and thus, little by little, our own system of notation was approached. In 1600, an Italian named Franco de Colonia established a system of time, and in or about 1600 the first idea of a score originated.


Figure 6

Do you know what a score is? I was at a concert rehearsal in Paris one day, when a very knowing-looking young person of about fourteen, with a great deal of fur and velvet on, and a large roll of music, came in with her governess and sat down near me. The orchestra were going to give part of "Faust" with some singing, and this pert young lady turned to her governess, saying,

"Don't you want the score, Miss —?" and forthwith she handed her the programme.

Now I think it would have been much wiser for this small person to have first been sure what a score was before she talked of it. The origin of the score was in 1600. A composer named Peri published his "Eurydice," and he put the instrumental accompaniment below the vocal part. Then he scored the bars through the stave, connecting the words and music. Hence we call the music and words together the score of the work.

As music began to progress—as oratorios, masses, and operas were written—it became necessary to establish a definite system of time. It was done gradually; but at last, in Bach's day, it was a carefully arranged science—so many beats to the bar, so much value to each note.

A grand science has come from those first queer little attempts at written music which we find it so hard to understand to‑day, and yet how grateful we ought to be to the patient people of the seventh and tenth centuries who tried to record some of their musical feelings!

When you sit down to your first harmony lesson, try to remember what a wonderful story those little black notes could tell. It is not dull or colorless work; indeed, if you consider it in the right way, it is like a charming tale in which many characters which make the pages of history vivid and fascinating appear, giving to our work that sense of personality and of tradition—the peculiar interest which comes of any study handed down from one generation to another. All the gradual progression, the slow steps upward, are marked by melody, harmony, chant, or song, so that music as we possess it now may be reckoned as the result of a beautiful and suggestive past. Not a note that you play, not a phrase uttered in your music, not a period rounded and completed but may be made suggestive if you only learn to think of it in this inspiring way.

In this first chapter I want to suggest to you a musical note-book which from day to day may be kept up with profit and much pleasurable interest. Do not attempt to make it too elaborate. From simple beginnings come the best results, and in the study of music, more perhaps than in any other science, everything should be taken slowly and deliberately. No matter how often you go over and over the same things, keep to them until their meanings are fully mastered. Then there will be no confusion in your progress, no necessity for going back.

Begin your note-book with a summary of what you have gathered from this chapter. Put down a list of the early musical terms; add to it such dates as create landmarks in the history of notation. For example, that of St. Gregory, of Hucbaldus, and John Sebastian Bach. Any comments which occur to your own mind it is well to insert; and if you make your book with each alternate leaf of music-lined paper you can gradually add certain fragments of music, so that at the end of a year quite a valuable little book will be in your own possession, and will be an admirable companion to the musical diary of which I will speak later.