Where did the musical notation come from first?

Music theory: the problem with the note name H

The problem with the note name H

Any musician who plays both English-language and German-language pieces of music will sooner or later stumble upon a problem. The note that is on the middle line in the treble clef is called "B" once and "B" without a sign. When a b is in front of it, it is sometimes called "B" and sometimes "Bb". Guitarists look in vain for an H-string on a newly purchased set of strings. Music students will not find the designation "H" on notation programs or on tuners and on some instruments; Etc.

You first have to learn that one and the same note is called differently in different countries. To the chagrin of the students, one and the same note or one and the same chord is sometimes referred to as B and sometimes as B in popular music literature. The pupil is astonished that he should play the note or chord "B" half a note higher in one book than in another book. And it is not that rare that one and the same book with "B" means two completely different tones or chords.

The "B" in England

In English-speaking countries (and in some other countries) our German "H", i.e. the note on the middle note line, is called "B" (without a preceding sign!).
This results in an easy-to-learn sequence of letters for all English-speaking students;


This order is very memorable for learning the note names, so that one has to ask oneself how it comes about that one simply breaks through something as plausible as the alphabet in Germany and turns it into an "H".

As you can see in the English-speaking world, the 7 note names are sufficient to denote all notes. If you want to have higher notes or lower notes than the seven main tones, you just start over with the same letters. The analogy to the seven days of a week, which always start over again, can be very helpful for learning.


Excursus: Why don't you start the major scale with A? [Edit]

This sequence of notes corresponds to the natural A minor scale. One could build the following donkey bridge: If at the time when the note names were introduced, songs in the minor key would have been popular (such as in Slavic countries such as Poland - where the "H" is used, however - or in the Slovakia and Russia (using the Si from Do Re Mi Fa So La Si Do) is definitely the case), then you would have had a very good explanation of why the grading system starts with "A". The fact that later melodies in major became more popular again and afterwards they preferred to start with the note "C" would not be a contradiction to this donkey bridge.

A B ( C D E F G A B C) D E F G A

As I said, it is a donkey bridge, but in fact it probably did not play out that way, since at that time only eight church modes existed, none of which had the A as the root note (at that time Finalis called) built up. Our current natural A minor scale (called "A Aeolian" in technical terms) and our current C major scale (called "C-Ionian" in technical language) came about much later. Therefore we remember that this idea with the popular minor scale may not be correct historically, but is still very useful for learning the note names.

You could also start with the A major scale and then start with the alphabet from A to G. But then we would have a problem at the very beginning.

A B C # D E F # G # A

(Engl. Spelling!)

We'd have to deal with the black keys on the piano in the first lesson.

The C major scale is easier for the beginner without its accidentals.

Gregorian chants [edit]

Our current grading system is based on older traditions, such as medieval church chants (including Gregorian chants)

These in turn are based on a series of tones adopted by the Greeks, which begins with the low A and ends with the high A.

However, the music has developed enormously over the years, so that our current use of the church scales (Doric, Phrygian, Lydian or Mixolydian) has little in common with ancient music.

What has remained, however, is the low A for the bass and the high A for the tenor, which roughly corresponds to the range of a monk or male choir.

This A became the later concert pitch.

How does the note name H come about at all? [Edit]

When comparing the note name "H" in German-speaking, Scandinavian and West Slavonic regions with the equally high note "B" in the English tradition, one has to consider the historical roots. There were two variants of the note "B" at the time of Guido von Arezzo (who introduced the stave system): the rounded "B-rotundum", which is a semitone lower, and the angular "B-quadratum". In the English tradition, the "B-quadratum" became the "B", while the "B-rotundum" was called "Bb" (pronounced: "B-flat").

In German (and other languages), on the other hand, the round "B-rotundum" became "B" (♭), while the angular "B-quadratum" is now referred to as "H" (♮) to make it easier to change from "B -rotundum "to distinguish. So the cause is more to be found in the printing press. Many print shops simply lacked the type of B-quadratum (Druck), and they made do with the similar-looking H.

The legend of the monk

Unfortunately, the legend is occasionally told of a monk who, while transcribing songs, forgot to close the arc correctly at the bottom of the small "b", which an inexperienced copyist would then have interpreted as an "h". Something like that may well have happened; But honestly, should such a transcription error really not have been noticed by scholars in the Middle Ages for centuries?

Medieval scales [edit]

If you go back further in the history of music, you will find that in the early Middle Ages only 8 (!) Root tones were actually used for the tuning of instruments:

A B C D E F G H.

Few melodies have ever been written down. The notated medieval melodies were usually so simple that you didn't need more than six tones for a song. There weren't that many instruments that had to be tuned to each other, so that only a few scales were needed, and they only used six tones.

Roughly simplified, there was the key of C with the six tones (more precisely, the Hexacord C)


There was also the key of F with the six notes


For the third key of G you needed another tone, which lies between the B and the C.

Since accidents were not known in the Middle Ages (because the melodies were so simple), you simply used the next letter in the alphabet. So you got the six tones for the G key

G A H C D E.

As I said, this is just an extremely simplified representation.

Why not assign a letter to every semitone step [edit]

Fortunately, you don't do that. You would have to learn an unsystematic sequence of letters for each of the 12 scales. That would make beginner lessons unnecessarily more complicated.

For the 7 notes of each scale you only need the first 7 letters of the alphabet, which always have the same order in the English spelling like the days of the week.

You can learn which accidentals to add to the 7 root tones with the circle of fifths. You will find that this is much simpler and more systematic in the English form, and is much easier to learn with just one memo.

Modern music

Later, when the music became more and more complex, the 8 tones were no longer enough. More nuances were needed. So the accidentals (band #) a. It is obvious that the b developed analogously to the medieval "B-rotundum", and that # from the angular "B-quadratum".

At the very latest since the Well-Tempered Clavier in the time of Johann Sebastian Bach, the need for the note name H had become superfluous.

The harmonic possibilities and abilities in today's music practice have expanded due to the equal tuning so that the historical derivation of the two note names B and B is practically irrelevant.

Nevertheless, as a German-speaking musician, you will always find both names. Since many musicians (contrary to all systematics and logic) feel obliged to the tradition and no "spelling reform" is emerging in the music, one has to know and be able to do both variants.

Be that as it may, in German-speaking countries the names of the seven root tones are


The note name "B" appears in German in so-called B keys (as in the key of F major) (see accidentals).


Because of the popularity of English-language songs, you have to reckon with both names, and therefore learn both names. As a rule of thumb you can remember that English songs mostly use the "B" and the German songs the "H".

However, you cannot rely 100% on this either, as some commercially available notation programs only offer the English version.

Our German "B" is called "Bb" in English. It is pronounced "B-flat". If you were to decide in favor of B instead of B in Germany, Norway, Finland, Poland, the Czech Republic and other countries, then Bb would be called "Bes", analogous to the other notes with "b" as the prefix. This has long been the practice in the Netherlands.

Semi-German notation

A musician always has the problem with the designation "B" that he does not know exactly which tone it is actually about. Especially with English songs, especially with chord names, you will always find B or B7 instead of B and B7.

There is no single standard in popular music literature. It even happens that the name is inconsistent in a single book.

In order to avoid confusion between the English "B" and the German "B", the "semi-German notation" has become established in some songbooks in German-language popular music literature. This is offered as an option for the Lilipond notation program, for example. One can certainly argue about the sense and nonsense of such a notation, but it shows the problem when multilingual texts with chords appear next to each other in a book and sometimes the English and sometimes the German notation is used. To avoid confusion, H and Bb are occasionally combined. B always means the German H, Bb always means the English "B-flat" or the semitone below the H. This means that confusion with the tone "B" is practically impossible. ...

Literature [edit]

  • Joseph Franz Schwanenberg: Thorough treatise on the uselessness and inappropriateness of the H in the musical alphabets along with e. Note regarding the artificial tones. Wappler, Vienna 1797 (digitized version)

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