Standards in Music

Last updated on August 31st, 2022 at 10:32 am

Working in a standards-heavy field, I often get questions from clients and students about the origin of standards. Recently I heard a discussion on CBC radio 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 these communities used the same Latin liturgy, but the music 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 way to convey 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 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 worldwide 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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