The History of Writing and Reading – Part 13: The Evolution of Musical Notation

[Editor’s note: This is the fourteenth of an ongoing series that examines the rise of writing – and therefore reading – around the world. We will be looking at the major developments and forces that shaped the written languages we use today. Links to all the previous posts are listed at the end of this one.]

Music is a pervasive part of just about every culture on the planet, and archaeologists have found evidence of primitive flute-like instruments made of bone and ivory dating back at least 43,000 years. Most musical traditions of that time were probably passed down by an oral tradition.[1] At some point, though, music had to be codified and written down so that one person’s ideas could be communicated to another person – or another society. When did that take place? And how is the reading of musical notation similar to or different from reading other forms of text?

Let’s start with the second question. Katarzyna Julia Leikvoll, while a doctoral student at the University of Stavanger in Norway, noted that many students struggle with reading musical text. Even after many years of practice, few are able to sight read musical notation as easily as they read text in a book. She wondered if it could be explained “by differences in how they learn to read text and music.” In March 2017, she defended her Ph.D. thesis in Literacy Studies, focusing on how writing, visual recognition, and understanding may provide a more efficient way of learning to read and play music.

Leikvoll examined how beginner piano students learn to read music in Norwegian extra-curricular music schools. She then compared this to how reading and writing is taught in primary schools and found that there are both similarities and differences. In both text and musical notation, the reader has to be able to decode larger units such as words in text, and chords and scales in music. The reader of both forms of notation also needs to be able to anticipate what the next word or group of notes will be, based on the context. Leikvoll points out that this helps to maintain fluency in reading and in playing.[2]

Learning to recognize individual letters and common words is part of the Norwegian method for teaching reading and writing in primary schools, and writing is an integral part of literacy learning. Therefore, writing and text comprehension is emphasized in the classroom. Other frequently used teaching activities are listening and demonstration by using objects that can be seen and touched. The first sentences students are presented with usually consist of two or three words, and they come with textbook illustrations to help them focus on understanding what is they are reading or what is being read to them – pupils have to reflect upon whether or not the illustration corresponds to the text, which leads to comprehension of the written material.

Leikvoll points out that the most popular piano methods for beginners are usually based on using single notes as commands to the fingers on which keys to press. “Piano teachers explain music reading to beginners by pointing to the sheet music saying ‘This is note C, D, E. Here are the C, D and E keys. Now play!’ [But] no child is taught how to read by being told ‘This is the letter A. This is B. This is C. Now read!’” she says. “Furthermore, there are no exercises for writing music and no information as to what is important to look for in an unfamiliar sheet of music. Notes are not explained as visual symbols representing particular sounds, but as commands on which keys to press.” Once students understand that harmonic relationships between groups of notes form a scaffold around which a piece is built, those structures “can be recognized as meaningful units when you read and play unfamiliar music.”[2] Music also employs spatial relationships that text does not (i.e. chords or two-handed melodies), and it appears that different parts of the brain are responsible for decoding this information.[3]

[Editor’s note: I know that when I turn pages for musicians, I employ many of the same techniques I use for reading unfamiliar text. I look at phrases, not just single notes. I look at the pattern of the melody or of related chords and try to anticipate where they might lead. And I’m always looking ahead of what notes the musician is playing so I have a sense of where the music is going.]

Archaeologists discovered the earliest fragment of musical notation on a 4,000-year-old Sumerian clay tablet. It was part of a hymn honoring the ruler Lipit-Ishtar, and it includes instructions and tunings for the music so that others could play it. For the title of oldest existing song, though, most historians point to “Hurrian Hymn No. 6.” It was an ode to the goddess Nikkal composed in cuneiform on clay tablets by the ancient Hurrians sometime around the 14th century BCE. The tablets containing the tune were unearthed in the 1950s from the ruins of the Syrian city of Ugarit, and they include a near-complete set of musical notations, as well as specific instructions for how to play the song on a type of nine-stringed lyre.

“Hurrian Hymn No. 6” may be the world’s earliest melody, but the oldest musical composition to have survived in its entirety is a first-century Greek tune known as the “Seikilos Epitaph.” Researchers found the song engraved on an ancient marble column used to mark a woman’s gravesite in Turkey. The inscription reads: “I am a tombstone, an image. Seikilos placed me here as an everlasting sign of deathless remembrance.” The column also includes musical notation as well as a short set of lyrics that, when translated, read: “While you live, shine / Have no grief at all / Life exists only for a short while / And time demands its toll.”

You can listen to a rendition of this ancient tune at

Musical notation changed a great deal before modern conventions – we will discuss more of the specifics in an upcoming post.

Next up: Printing and the Spread of Language, Part 1



[1] Andrews, Evan. (December 18, 2015.) “What is the oldest known piece of music?”

[2] University of Stavanger. (December 29, 2017.) “How beginners can learn to read music more efficiently.” Retrieved from

[3] na. (April 8, 2015.) “How the brain reads music: the evidence for musical dyslexia.” Retrieved from


To read Part 1 (Sumerians), click here.

To read Part 2 (Egyptian hieroglyphs), click here.

To read Part 3A (Indo-European languages part 1), click here.

To read Part 3B (Indo-European languages part 2), click here.

To read Part 4 (Rosetta Stone), click here.

To read Part 5 (Chinese writing), click here.

To read Part 6 (Japanese writing), click here.

To read Part 7 (Olmecs), click here.

To read Part 8 (Mayans), click here.

To read Part 9 (Aztecs/Nahuatl), click here.

To read Part 10 (Etruscans), click here.

To read Part 11 (Meroïtic), click here.

To read Part 12 (Runes and Futhark), click here.


Author: AceReader Blogger

The AceReader blogging team is made up of specialists in a number of different areas: literacy, general education, content development, and educational software. For questions about posts, please submit them in the form below. For suggestions about blog topics, please email them to

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