Standards in Music

Working in a field that is standards heavy, I often get questions from clients and students about the origin of standards. Recently I heard a discussion on CBC radio talking about the origins of musical notation, and I realized that this is probably one of the earliest examples of standardization. Here’s the story as I understand it.

In the early days of the Holy Roman Empire, Pope Gregory I, who sat as Bishop of Rome from 590 to 604, decided that there was a political need to solidify Rome’s hold on Catholic Christian communities. All of these communities used the same Latin liturgy, but the music that was used when singing parts of the Mass varied from church to church and monastery to monastery. To help consolidate Rome’s hold, the decision was made that all of the communities should use the same music. Eliminating the local variations in music would show Rome’s power and help to unify the community. The problem was that there was no means to communicate music in writing, and relying strictly on the memory of the field agents was not the most reliable means. Some means of conveying music in written form was required.

Someone in Rome developed the earliest method for writing music down, but the exact person who came up with the system is unknown, lost in time.  The earliest records only show increases and decreases in pitch, with no information on duration, rhythm or pace. This system used marks called “neumes”.

Early musical notation
Neume musical notation

From this early system grew the complex notation that is now used to communicate music, a standardized system used world-wide for communicating western music.

So how old is standardization? Based on this story, at least 1500 years!

Do you have a story about the origins of standardization or a particular standard? Share it with us by leaving a comment!

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Acknowledgements: Neume image from Wikimedia Commons. h more...
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Author: Doug Nix

+DougNix is Managing Director and Principal Consultant at Compliance InSight Consulting, Inc. ( in Kitchener, Ontario, and is Lead Author and Managing Editor of the Machinery Safety 101 blog.

Doug's work includes teaching machinery risk assessment techniques privately and through Conestoga College Institute of Technology and Advanced Learning in Kitchener, Ontario, as well as providing technical services and training programs to clients related to risk assessment, industrial machinery safety, safety-related control system integration and reliability, laser safety and regulatory conformity.

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