The earliest neumes were inflective marks that indicated the general shape but not necessarily the exact notes or rhythms to be sung. Later developments included the use of heightened neumes that showed the relative pitches between neumes, and the creation of a four-line musical staff that identified particular pitches. Neumes do not generally indicate rhythm, but additional symbols were sometimes juxtaposed with neumes to indicate changes in articulation, duration, or tempo. Neumatic notation was later used in medieval music to indicate certain patterns of rhythm called rhythmic modes, and eventually evolved into modern musical notation. Neumatic notation remains standard in modern editions of plainchant.
The word "neume" entered the English language in the Middle English forms "newme", "nevme", "neme" in the 15th century, from the Middle French "neume", in turn from either medieval Latin "pneuma" or "neuma", the former either from ancient Greek pneuma ("breath") or neuma ("sign"), or else directly from Greek as a corruption or an adaptation of the former.
The earliest known systems involving neumes are of Aramaic origin and were used to notate inflections in the quasi-emmelic (melodic) recitation of the Christian holy scriptures. As such they resemble functionally a similar system used for the notation of recitation of the Qur'an, the holy book of Islam. This early system was called ekphonetic notation, from the Greek ekphonesis meaning quasi-melodic recitation of text.
Around the 9th century neumes began to become shorthand mnemonic aids for the proper melodic recitation of chant. A prevalent view is that neumatic notation was first developed in the Eastern Roman Empire. This seems plausible given the well-documented peak of musical composition and cultural activity in major cities of the empire (now regions of southern Turkey, Syria, Lebanon and Israel) at that time. The corpus of extant Byzantine music in manuscript and printed form is far larger than that of the Gregorian chant, due in part to the fact that neumes fell into disuse in the west after the rise of modern staff notation and with it the new techniques of polyphonic music, while the Eastern tradition of Greek orthodox church music and the reformed neume notation remains alive today.
The earliest Western notation for chant appears in the 9th century. These early staffless neumes, called cheironomic or in campo aperto, appeared as freeform wavy lines above the text. Various scholars see these as deriving from cheironomic hand-gestures, from the ekphonetic notation of Byzantine chant, or from punctuation or accent marks. A single neume could represent a single pitch, or a series of pitches all sung on the same syllable. Cheironomic neumes indicated changes in pitch and duration within each syllable, but did not attempt to specify the pitches of individual notes, the intervals between pitches within a neume, nor the relative starting pitches of different syllables' neumes.
There is evidence that the earliest Western musical notation, in the form of neumes in campo aperto (without staff-lines), was created at Metz around 800, as a result of Charlemagne's desire for Frankish church musicians to retain the performance nuances used by the Roman singers.
Presumably these were intended only as mnemonics for melodies learned by ear. The earliest extant manuscripts (9th-10th centuries) of such neumes include:
In the early 11th century, Beneventan neumes (from the churches of Benevento in southern Italy) were written at varying distances from the text to indicate the overall shape of the melody; such neumes are called "heightened" or "diastematic" neumes, which showed the relative pitches between neumes. A few manuscripts from the same period use "digraphic" notation in which note names are included below the neumes. Shortly after this, one to four staff lines--an innovation traditionally ascribed to Guido d'Arezzo--clarified the exact relationship between pitches. One line was marked as representing a particular pitch, usually C or F. These neumes resembled the same thin, scripty style of the chironomic notation. By the 11th century, chironomic neumes had evolved into square notation; in Germany, a variant called Gothic neumes continued to be used until the 16th century. This variant is also known as Hufnagel notation, as the used neumes resemble the nails (hufnagels) one uses to attach horseshoes.
By the 13th century, the neumes of Gregorian chant were usually written in square notation on a staff with four lines and three spaces and a clef marker, as in the 14th-15th century Graduale Aboense shown here. In square notation, small groups of ascending notes on a syllable are shown as stacked squares, read from bottom to top, while descending notes are written with diamonds read from left to right. In melismatic chants, in which a syllable may be sung to a large number of notes, a series of smaller such groups of neumes are written in succession, read from left to right. A special symbol called the custos, placed at the end of a system, showed which pitch came next at the start of the following system. Special neumes such as the oriscus, quilisma, and liquescent neumes, indicate particular vocal treatments for these notes. This system of square notation is standard in modern chantbooks.
Various manuscripts and printed editions of Gregorian chant, using varying styles of square-note neumes, circulated throughout the Catholic Church for centuries. Some editions added rhythmic patterns, or meter, to the chants. In the 19th century the monks of the Benedictine abbey of Solesmes, particularly Dom Joseph Pothier (1835-1923) and Dom André Mocquereau (1849-1930) collected facsimiles of the earliest manuscripts and published them in a series of 12 publications called Paléographie musicale (French article). They also assembled definitive versions of many of the chants, and developed a standardized form of the square-note notation that was adopted by the Catholic Church and is still in use in publications such as the Liber Usualis (although there are also published editions of this book in modern notation).
As a general rule, the notes of a single neume are never sung to more than one syllable; all three pitches of a three-note neume, for example, must all be sung on the same syllable. (This is not universally accepted; Richard Crocker has argued that in the special case of the early Aquitanian polyphony of the St. Martial school, neumes must have been "broken" between syllables to facilitate the coordination of parts.) However, a single syllable may be sung to so many notes that several neumes in succession are used to notate it. The single-note neumes indicate that only a single note corresponds to that syllable. Chants that primarily use single-note neumes are called syllabic; chants with typically one multi-note neume per syllable are called neumatic, and those with many neumes per syllable are called melismatic.
The Solesmes monks also determined, based on their research, performance practice for Gregorian chant. Because of the ambiguity of medieval musical notation, the question of rhythm in Gregorian chant is contested by scholars. Some neumes, such as the pressus, do indicate the lengthening of notes.[contradictory] Common modern practice, following the Solesmes interpretation, is to perform Gregorian chant with no beat or regular metric accent, in which time is free, allowing the text to determine the accent and the melodic contour to determine phrasing. By the 13th century, with the widespread use of square notation, it is believed that most chant was sung with each note getting approximately an equal value, although Jerome of Moravia cites exceptions in which certain notes, such as the final notes of a chant, are lengthened. The Solesmes school, represented by Dom Pothier and Dom Mocquereau, supports a rhythm of equal values per note, allowing for lengthening and shortening of note values for musical purposes. A second school of thought, including Wagner, Jammers, and Lipphardt, supports different rhythmic realizations of chant by imposing musical meter on the chant in various ways. Musicologist Gustave Reese said that the second group, called mensuralists, "have an impressive amount of historical evidence on their side" (Music in the Middle Ages, p. 146), but the equal-note Solesmes interpretation has permeated the musical world, apparently due to its ease of learning and resonance with modern musical taste.
Neumes are written on a four-line staff on the lines and spaces, unlike modern music notation, which uses five lines. Chant does not rely on any absolute pitch or key; the clefs are only to establish the half and whole steps of the solfege or hexachord scale: "ut", "re", "mi", "fa", "sol", "la", "ti", "ut". The clef bracketing a line indicates the location "ut" in the case of the C clef, or "fa" in the case of the F clef as shown:
The virga and punctum are sung identically. Scholars disagree on whether the bipunctum indicates a note twice as long, or whether the same note should be re-articulated. When this latter interpretation is favoured, it may be called a repercussive neume.
When two notes are one above the other, as in the podatus, the lower note is always sung first.
The fact that the first two notes of the porrectus are connected as a diagonal rather than as individual notes seems to be a scribe's shortcut.
Several neumes in a row can be juxtaposed for a single syllable, but the following usages have specific names. These are only a few examples.
|Flat||Same meaning as modern flat; only occurs on B, and is placed before the entire neume, or group of neumes, rather than immediately before the affected note. Its effect typically lasts the length of a word and is reinserted if needed on the next word.|
|Custos||At the end of a staff, the custos indicates what the first note of the next staff will be|
|Mora||Like a dot in modern notation, lengthens the preceding note, typically doubling it|
The interpretation of these markings is the subject of great dispute among scholars.
|Indicates a subsidiary accent when there are five or more notes in a neume group. This marking was an invention of the Solemnes interpreters, rather than a marking from the original manuscripts.|
|Used over a single note or a group of notes (as shown), essentially ignored in the Solesmes interpretation; other scholars treat it as indicating a lengthening or stress on the note(s).|
|Can occur on almost any type of neume pointing up or down; usually associated with certain letter combinations such as double consonants, consonant pairs, or diphthongs in the text; usually interpreted as a kind of grace note|
|Always as part of a multi-note neume, usually a climacus, this sign is a matter of great dispute; the Solesmes interpretation is that the preceding note is to be lengthened slightly.|
Other interpretations of the quilisma:
There are other uncommon neume shapes thought to indicate special types of vocal performance, though their precise meaning is a matter of debate:
There are also litterae significativae in many manuscripts, usually interpreted to indicate variations in tempo, e.g. c = celeriter (fast), t = tenete (hold) (an early form of the tenuto), a = auge (lengthen, as in a tie). The Solesmes editions omit all such letters.
Neumes were used for notating other kinds of melody than plainchant, including troubadour and trouvère melodies, monophonic versus and conductus, and the individual lines of polyphonic songs. In some traditions, such as the Notre Dame school of polyphony, certain patterns of neumes were used to represent particular rhythmic patterns called rhythmic modes.