It’s About Time – a story about music notation.

One night, while teaching my class, a student was confused about the types of notes I was referring to: quarter notes, whole notes, etc. To answer her questions, I wrote a story – an imaginary story – of how music notation came to be. I hope you enjoy it.

 

It’s About Time
Once upon a time in a land far, far away, there lived a man called The Time Keeper, or The Keeper, as he was commonly known. The Keeper noticed the sounds of nature and of the villagers walking to and fro. The rhythms they created fascinated him. A very creative and innovative person, he thought about how he might create a language with which he could notate the various rhythms he observed. Being able to write down and diagram rhythmic patterns and the pulses of nature would enable him to archive, share, and reproduce them.

One day while on a stroll, The Keeper noticed how simple the act of walking was: left, right, left, right… He got out his sketchpad and drew a line that looked like a leg and at the bottom of that line he drew a foot. He would use that symbol each time he took a step, and before long he had filled the entire page with these symbols. The Keeper realized that it would be difficult to keep track of all those steps, as the symbols all looked the same and they went on and on with out any simple way to count them. Perhaps they could be grouped together in some way to make it easier to track them.

“Left, right…” the Keeper said to himself. “There is a grouping I could use.”

So, every two steps the Keeper made a vertical bar to separate the steps. That helped, but still seemed like a lot to keep track of.

“What if I doubled that, and grouped my footsteps into fours?” he wondered. “Left, right, left, right… Yes, that would do quite well.”

So, the Keeper made a vertical mark every four steps. He called it a bar. (He also simplified his foot symbol to being simply a vertical line with a solid oblong oval at the bottom where the foot used to be.)

“What shall I name those four steps grouped together?” he wondered. “I have it! I shall call it a measure.”

As the Keeper went on to think about all this, he realized that he would be noting all types of sounds and rhythms besides footsteps. He decided that he would call those “lines with legs” by a new name: notes. Since there were four of them in each measure; each representing a quarter of that whole measure, he would call them quarter notes.

Soon he realized that other sounds and rhythms he heard often lasted longer than the length of one footstep: often twice the length, while others moved by much faster. So, he created half notes, which were twice the length of a quarter note, and the whole note, which represented the length of four quarter notes. The half note looked just like the quarter note, but he left the oblong oval hollow, instead of filling it in. For the whole note, he decided to leave the hollow oval, but to remove the stem/leg.

He also realized that many sounds happened more often; sometimes twice as often as a single quarter note. To notate those sounds, The Keeper  divided each quarter into two parts: one for the initial downstep of his quarter note (that initially represented his footsteps) and another for the upstep. Since there would be eight  of these in a measure, he called them eighth notes.  Rather than creating a new symbol for these faster notes, he simply added a little flag at the top of the stem of the note. If needed, he could even divide those farther, creating sixteenth notes (two flags,) and even thirty-second notes (three flags.)

“Wow,” he exclaimed. “I have now created a system where I can notate the durations of any rhythmic pattern I encounter.”

And then he rested.

He sat down by the side of the path he had been walking on, and listened; hoping to hear something exciting he could notate with his new set of musical symbols.

Amid the chattering of the birds, and the footsteps of passersby, he observed that there were often times when there was no sound at all.

“Hmmmm,” he thought. “It seems that certain sounds are resting, much like I am. I will need to create some symbols that can represent these empty spaces. I shall call them rests.”

For the quarter note rest, he drew a squiggly line that looked somewhat like a broken leg. For the eighth note rest, he made a vertical line with a flag, (somewhat like the eighth note,) but left the oval off. For the sixteenth note rest, he did similarly; leaving the oval off, but adding two flags. For some unknown reason, he made the half note rest look a little like a hat: a line with a rectangle on top, and for the whole note rest, he turned that hat upside down.

Now he could resume his work: to observe, listen, and notate all the interesting rhythms he wanted to remember.


Well, that’s odd…

The Keeper continued his work of listening and notating the various sounds and rhythms he heard. The sounds of certain machines and the clip-clop of passing horses all seemed to easily fit into the system he created that was based on a measure of four quarter notes. But occasionally he would hear patterns of sounds that felt more natural to count them in groups of five, as the patterns just didn’t line up as well in groups of four.

“This presents a problem,” he thought to himself. “Will counting in ‘five’ mean that I have to create all new notes and rests? That could be quite cumbersome having two sets of fractional divisions, and as I discovered this new grouping of five, I would suspect that there are other odd groupings yet to be found as well.”

The Keeper paced to and fro, pondering this dilemma. As he walked, he realized that even as he walked left, right, left, right – he could still use his footsteps as units of measurement – he would simply be counting “in five” instead of “in four.” He could continue to use all the same names and values as before, after all – four quarter notes would still equal a whole note. The math was still applicable as long as he indicated how each measure was to be counted: a signature of sorts that would direct the reader.

“I will write one number that will indicate how many beats I am grouping into each measure, and then another number to remind myself of which value I am using to count with,” he said.

So, the Keeper invented the time signature and put it at the beginning of each rhythmic pattern he notated. It looked like a fraction; one number on top of the other, with a slash between the two. The upper number notated the number of beats, and the lower represented the note value used to count.

Soon his notebook was filled with rhythms of all sorts. As predicted, he discovered that some patterns were best counted in other time signatures. Some worked best in “seven,” while others were in “nine.” Some patterns seemed to repeat between steps, causing The Keeper to think of using the “eighth notes” as the unit of measurement.

Soon he invented the triplet, which was a way of counting three notes in one beat, and all sorts of shorthand symbols he could use when wanting to communicate repeated measures, or entire passages.

He began creating his own rhythms and compositions; writing page after page of notes and rests. Changing time signatures midway wouldn’t be a problem as long as he made note of the change, and soon others in the land learned to read and write this new language. To see many villagers gathering together to perform these rhythmic pieces was not uncommon.

A new way to communicate was created and all was good.

The End.

Or is it?

Stay tuned for the next chapter when The Keeper met meets his new wife to be: Melody.


4 Responses to “It’s About Time – a story about music notation.”

  1. Escape Route Says:

    Brilliance. It doesn’t get any better than this. Simple and imaginative.

  2. Jeff West Says:

    Hello Rhan ~ Such a fun creation ~ I have a new granddaughter, 2 weeks old ~ Her name is Melody ~ I look forward to part 2 ~ Jeff (o)==:: BTW~ You have been posted on my new un-blog ~ The Bad-Ass Baritone Ukulele.

  3. renounruser1 Says:

    Hi Rhan, I really enjoyed reading this wonderful tale of music’s Keeper. I want you to know that I really miss learning from you. And being in AIGT. You are such a great teacher. Love, Christa

    Sent from my iPad

    >

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