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

Doug Nix is Managing Director and Principal Consultant at Compliance InSight Consulting, Inc. ( in Kitchener, Ontario, and is Lead Author and Senior 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. For more see Doug's LinkedIn profile.