When music became “complex”

Example of early Western neume notation

A recent post by Bryan Townsend has really gotten my intellectual juices flowing.  My comment there reflected a line of thinking I’ve been on for some time as I’ve been re-evaluating my own Classical music training and the sense of music history we get as a result of that.

See, there was basically a sharp divergence of culture once the Roman Empire fell that roughly coincides with the formation of the Western Roman Empire that would become modern Europe and the Eastern Roman Empire which would eventually become the Ottoman Empire and then all the various countries of the Middle East, North Africa and Central Asia.  This is an oversimplification, but the point I wanted to make is that, for all we know music before the Western Roman Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church was relatively “simple.”

What I mean by that is that right around the 9th and 10th centuries both sides of the church started notation traditions, but eventually took very different approaches in creating “complex” art musics.  I know the idea of simple vs. complex is a contentious one, but indulge me for a second.  Up until the beginnings of notations in the respective churches, most of what we know about music was that it was relatively monophonic andrelatively diatonic (the Oud used to be just a fretted as it’s close cousin in the West, the lute).  Then the notation started and revolutionized the way folks thought of music.

Example of Eastern Byzantine chant notation

The introduction of polyphony and harmony (i.e. greater vertical complexity) was aided by the staff notation that the West eventually adopted while in the East the Byzantine chant notation and other Eastern church notations developed afterwards favored a more relative notion of pitches which I am almost thinking lead to greater usage of microtonal elements in Arabic and Ottoman musics (i.e. greater horizontal complexity).  And both seemed to have happened after notation developed.  I’ll have to come back to this later, but I’m going to post my response to Bryan’s post below just for convenience’s sake:

So much I’d like to say about this that will have to wait for later as I have to get to a performance in a bit.

I’ll just note a couple of things. Since I’ve been exploring all the world musics and especially that of the Middle East I’ve realized why there are usually huge gaps in our traditional Western music education. I’ve been looking back at some of my old music history texts and have since been skimming a wide range of standard texts, references and encyclopedias and there always seems to be that huge gap in between ancient Greek music (and sometimes a brief discussion of the music Rome) till the middle ages. As if no music happened during that time (or rather no ‘important’ art music happened during hat time).

But it was precisely in that interval between the fall of the Roman Empire and the rise of the Western Church as a cultural force that we had the rise of the Arabic and Eastern Roman Empire. Both of these became the backdrop for Ottoman culture and music in ways that the rise of the Western Church became the backdrop for the rest of Europe.

But It think one thing is is very interesting with the parallel rise of Europe and the Ottoman Empire is that it was the church on both sides that laid the foundations for music notation. Some Greek and Armenian chant notation dates back to the 9th century (right alongside the usage of neumes for Gregorian chant) but the cultural divide between these two civilizations was probably such that the respective music notation systems (as well as theology) probably didn’t interact nearly as much as would, say, folks musicians through the trade routes.

What I also find interesting is that some of the early treatises and writings about Arabic music seem to indicate that it wasn’t nearly as microtonal as today. The Oud, which is the instrument most associated with Arabic music used to be fretted, which plays havoc when trying to do microtonal scales obviously. The Lute/Oud (both names come from the old Arabic word “A’lud”) were practiclaly the same instrument–or rather, had a common ancestor, but the lute developed in a culture that started to favor chordal harmony while the oud developed in a culture that started to favor greater microtonal complexity. There was no need to eliminate frets for the lute, but much need to do so with the oud. I sometimes wonder how much the Eastern notation system drove or was just a reflection of greater microtonal complexity in ways that Western staff notation drove or was just a reflection of greater harmonic complexity.

I think it we basically had a diverging point between what would have been a much more ‘unified’ culture (via the Roman Empire) that also made the respective art music traditions diverge (as well as the church).

It almost seems like the wrong question to ask where harmony/polyphony/staff notation originate when we can also ask where microtonal/heterophony/linear notaion originate. Two different sides of two very different art music traditions, neither one more complex than the other if we take into account al the different ways music can be complex, I think.

Ok, that was longer than I intended–will definitely come back to this! Thanks for the great post and thought provoking comments!!


  1. it all changes with the entrance of notation. the written music. there’s an interesting parallel to the introduction of the alphabet and the written word (and printed word): check out “The Alphabet Versus The Goddess” by Leonard Shlain to see what havoc that brought about! Fortunately in music its different, but codification still brings paradoxes: greater intellectualization in order to convey purer intuition and experience (if that makes any sense).


    • Thanks for the book suggestion, Nick–sounds like an interesting read. And yes, you’re absolutely right–anytime a culture figures out a way to notate anything then whatever that notation ranges over will increase in complexity. And your last comment made perfect sense!


  2. I’ve always been fascinated by music notation–it seems to me to be one of the greatest human inventions. How does notation influence composition? Now there is one of the big unanswered questions. But I can talk about the problem of notation in one piece I recently wrote. Oddly enough, the problem was the opposite of the one Jon and I have been discussing lately. We have been talking about the problem of how to notate rhythms accurately and how and where that was discovered. In the piece I wanted to write, my problem was that I wanted it to be without rhythm–or without a beat, at least. Part of my inspiration was the so-called unmeasured preludes of the 17th century French composers who simply wrote all the notes as whole notes. So I decided that was how I could subvert my music software to do what I wanted: all whole notes! I made each ‘measure’ a phrase or section, so I ended up with odd time signatures like 5/1 or 16/1.

    I talk more about the piece and include my first draft of the score here:



    • Hah! Great way to make the program do what you want, Bryan! That is an interesting issue since we’ve developed programs to implicitly have a time signature that would make it difficult for us to notate what we want if what we want is a completely un-metered section!


  3. or you could write a one measure piece: 1600/1…
    Carla Bley wrote without barlines sometimes, and there’s the “timeline” notation of some 20th century composers, but I don’t know if Sibelius supports that. I’m using Musescore: forget about “modern” notations, tho there is support for microtones (yay!). Now if I just had the guts to use them!


    • A large proportion of much older notated music (especially chants) were often notated without barlines–I think the idea of ordering time into repeated (bars/measures) units is a much later concept and likely something that has much more to do with the Western branch of the church than anything else. Using bells to help order the day for monks seems to be the starting pointing of strictly ordered time.

      Not sure if Sibelius supports a timeline function, though that would be kinda cool f it did!


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