Note - History of Note Names

History of Note Names

Music notation systems have used letters of the alphabet for centuries. The 6th century philosopher Boethius is known to have used the first fifteen letters of the alphabet to signify the notes of the two-octave range that was in use at the time. Though it is not known whether this was his devising or common usage at the time, this is nonetheless called Boethian notation.

Following this, the system of repeating letters A-G in each octave was introduced, these being written as minuscules for the second octave (a-g) and double minuscules for the third (aa-gg). When the compass of used notes was extended down by one note, to a G, it was given the Greek G (Γ), gamma. (It is from this that the French word for scale, gamme is derived, and the English word gamut, from "Gamma-Ut", the lowest note in Medieval music notation.)

The remaining five notes of the chromatic scale (the black keys on a piano keyboard) were added gradually; the first being B, which was flattened in certain modes to avoid the dissonant tritone interval. This change was not always shown in notation, but when written, B♭ (B-flat) was written as a Latin, round "b", and B♮ (B-natural) a Gothic or "hard-edged" b. These evolved into the modern flat and natural symbols respectively. The sharp symbol arose from a barred b, called the "cancelled b".

In parts of Europe, including Germany, the Czech Republic, Poland, Hungary, Norway and Finland, the natural symbol transformed into the letter H (possibly for hart, German for hard): in German music notation, H is B♮ (B-natural) and B is B♭ (B-flat). Occasionally, music written in German for international use will use H for B-natural and Bb for B-flat (with a modern-script lowercase b instead of a flat sign). Since a Bes or B♭ in Northern Europe (i.e. a B elsewhere) is both rare and unorthodox (more likely to be expressed as Heses), it is generally clear what this notation means.

In Italian, Portuguese, Greek, French, Russian, Flemish, Romanian, Spanish, Persian, Arabic, Hebrew, Bulgarian and Turkish notation the notes of scales are given in terms of Do-Re-Mi-Fa-Sol-La-Si rather than C-D-E-F-G-A-B. These names follow the original names reputedly given by Guido d'Arezzo, who had taken them from the first syllables of the first six musical phrases of a Gregorian Chant melody Ut queant laxis, which began on the appropriate scale degrees. These became the basis of the solfege system. "Do" later replaced the original "Ut" for ease of singing (most likely from the beginning of Dominus, Lord), though "Ut" is still used in some places. "Si" or "Ti" was added as the seventh degree (from Sancte Johannes, St. John, to whom the hymn is dedicated). The use of 'Si' versus 'Ti' varies regionally.

In a newly developed system, primarily in use in the United States, notes of scales become independent to the music notation. In this system the natural symbols C-D-E-F-G-A-B refer to the absolute notes, while the names Do-Re-Mi-Fa-So-La-Ti are relativized and show only the relationship between pitches, where Do is the name of the base pitch of the scale, Re is the name of the second pitch, etc. The idea of so-called movable-do, originally suggested by John Curwen in the 19th century, was fully developed and involved into a whole educational system by Zoltán Kodály in the middle of the 20th century, which system is known as the Kodály Method or Kodály Concept.

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