Letter Names in Musical Notation

Have you ever wondered why we use letter names in musical notation before?

I have to confess that I had never really thought of it much until a friend asked me the other day how the music letter names were named and why the alphabet was used to name them. Here are a few ideas and links that I came up with, but please if anyone else has some other ideas, feel free to post them using the comment box below.

The first musical notation manuscripts or tablets have letters of the Greek alphabet with symbols written on the top called Neums which indicate the pitches of the notes. I found an interesting website about Byzantine Music which I found to be an interesting look at how to de- code some of the meanings of these symbols.

The first person who wrote on musical notation book was a Roman philosopher called Boethius back in the 6th Century. Boethius was the first person to record the use of letters for notes and he used 15 letters of the alphabet to represent the musical notes. This became known as Boethian notation. It is not really known if he made this method up or it was commonly used at the time, but it is thought that linking the note names to the alphabet letters originates from the earliest Greek music musical notation.

This method became very complicated over time , so changes were gradually made in order to make the whole system less complicated. The system of repeating letters A-G was introduced and gradually symbols were introduced for the chromatic notes and flats, sharps and naturals. At the end of the 12th Century, a Benedictine monk, Guido d’ Arezzo added the concept of the staff , placing the letters on lines to indicate their pitch. He also made an alternative to learning note names by inventing the solfege system which offered an alternative to learning musical letter names. This was originally first made up of the first six syllables of the first six musical phrases of a Gregorian Chant melody. This evolved over time into the syllables  Do-Re-Mi-Fa-Sol-La-Si/Ti-Do.

Check out this simple, but effective Music History lesson fact sheet called “Who Invented Musical Notation?“.

Cut Down music lesson preparation time


  • By Patricia Reply

    Very nice summary. I wanted to point out anyway that neums were not diastematic (indicators of pitch) until at least the 12th century (also in Byzantine music). The first neums (9th century) emerged as a pedagogical (mnemonic) method to remember the liturgical chants, which were learned by ear: the choir master would conduct with movements of his hand which later started to be added above the text on the liturgical books. Something very interesting is that they showed not only some basic melodic information (ascend, descend…) but very subtle one related to declamation (the first chants in Occidents were more or less elaborated forms of declamation of the psalms).

    Sometimes, and in some places, the scribes had more interest in indicating the pitch and drew their neums higher or lower around lines used otherwise to guide the copist of the text. The addition of more lines is what ended in the modern staff.

    I simply find this story fascinating!

  • By Kalliopi Charitaki Reply

    Well done Janice…This is a very good summary. The other day I found a site about ancient greek music, which I would like to share with you. These group of people try to reconstruct ancient greek instruments and play the music. Following the link below you can hear the music and see lot of pictures.

  • By Ed Haney Reply

    This does not clearly answer why the scale without sharps or flats is not the A scale. “A” is the first letter of the alphabet so why is it not the scale with not sharps and flats. What sense was there to starting with “C” and having C,D,E,F,G,A,B,C where we back into “A” “B” near the end?

  • By Peter Reply

    The key of Am starts with A and goes A B C D E F G.
    Maybe the minor scale was created first?

  • By Peter Reply

    It deals with frequencies, so maybe the C scale was created from the minor scale (opposite to what I thought) and looking at relative keys, the frequencies for A and C are the same…just an educated guess.

  • By susan Reply

    Modes came before our Western scale systems were created.

  • By Michael Reply

    Why “C” instead of “A”? The answer lies in the history of music notation and theory. Medieval theorists wanted to use the mathematical ratio-based theories handed down from the ancient Greeks. The complete set of notes, known as the “Greater Perfect System” (GPS), was given Latin letter names by later Medieval writers as a kind of shorthand, starting with “A” at the bottom. Its only priority was that it was the lowest note in the system.

    Around 1000 CE (a thousand years ago), writers started adding a note below the traditional bottom of the GPS, which they called gamma. (Using a Greek letter name preserves the integrity of the original system that starts on A…) Gamma eventually became what we call G.

    The teacher Guido, who lived around this same time, came up with a method to help his students learn intervals, which we call solmization. His system assigns syllables to six notes, or hexachord: Ut-Re-Mi-Fa-Sol-La. There were three possible hexachords: one starting on C, another on F (with a “soft” B), and a third on G (with a “hard” B).

    The complete set of possible notes, in a version that made sense for both practical and theoretical musicians, started with Gamma, or Ut. Hence the term “gamut” for a complete set.

    The modern C major scale was not standard or dominant at all. It emerged gradually from humble origins in religious chants where the last note landed on F or G.

  • By Silvestre Bau Reply

    Why C note isn’t the A note? I want to say why the base of octave doesn’t start in A instead of C? And please, give some books references, thank you!

  • By Viola Reply

    Guido of Abruzzo invented the staff for his male church singers. His original staff is pretty much the modern Alto clef, which centers on Middle C. I would love to go back in a time machine to learn more, but my guess is that among his male singers, low Ut was the lowest any of them could sing, and high Ut was the highest any of them could sing. In the Alto Clef, low Ut sits below the first ledger line below the staff and high Ut sits just above the first ledger line above the staff. I wonder if his original invention had 7 lines instead of our modern 5.

    But the older Greek method of naming notes based on their alphabet was already in existence, although it was awkward. So, after Guido, somebody noticed that some men can sing below low Ut. That seems to be when two notes were added below Ut, and the more modern version of note naming began to be used.

    Why middle Ut became codified as middle C and not A, that is a mystery to me. But my guess is that Guido’s staff kept being used as is, and new staves were invented to account for soprano and bass notes.

    It took a jump in technology to create musical instruments that could easily emit loud notes above and below the original C clef (the Alto Clef). When two-handed proto-pianos appeared, musical notation had to account for left and right-hand music. The full Grand Staff is really hard to read if all the lines are drawn in. At some point, someone realized that he could just omit several of the middle lines for clarity. Thus nowadays most musicians are only aware of the Soprano and Bass Clefs. The Alto Clef survives as the notation for viola music.

    I am sorry that I don’t have any citations for any of this. I have learned this in bits and pieces over the years.

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