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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