Thursday, February 05, 2009

The Shape of Music

During my last year at UCSB, I wrote a post on the histories of certain punctuation marks during a time I reserve specifically for this kind of procrastination: finals week. I titled this “The Etymology Round-Up,” though I realize now that the post didn’t concern etymology in the traditional sense so much as why certain symbols have come to represent the things they do — essentially punctuation etymology, if that existed, which it might. This particular post ended up spawning two sequels — neither of which had any more to do with punctuation than the original did — and I’ve ever since been happy to read about those stray squiggles and lines that appear in print but don’t qualify as letters.

I think I’ve stumbled onto some symbols that deserve a bit of attention, even if they’re not punctuation in the traditional sense — they’re musical symbols. Like periods and commas and the like, however, the clefs and accidentals still direct how a “text” should be read and owe more of a debt to the standard alphabet than I would have guessed.

[ Three Sisters, Only One Being Pleasant ]
First the accidentals, which someone once described to me as three sisters — the flat one, the sharp one and the natural beauty. (You know, like every set of three sisters.) For whatever reason, that notion stuck, even if it may have biased be against the poor, flat sister and the unpleasant sharp sister. (Come to think of it, they all have one strike against them on account of each being accidents. Mother and Father must learn to plan better.) For the musically illiterate, the accidental symbols look like this:

left to right: flat, sharp and natural

These dealybobs essentially focus as sheet music white out. They change a note’s pitch from what is described in the most recent key signature of a piece of music. A sharp signifies that a note should be a half-tone higher than it would otherwise, a flat a half-tone lower. A natural cancels out a sharp or flat appearing in the key signature — instead of beside a note as is pictured above — that would otherwise indicate that each instance of a certain note throughout a piece of music should be played either sharp of flat. In short, it makes the note do what it was supposed to do in the first place. (Because I’m a terrible musician, I never progressed far enough to see any double sharps or double flats, which apparently exist, even though they would only appear to tell the performer to hit the note exactly one notch above the one that appears on sheet music. Why such a thing would ever be needed unless someone needed to correct hand-written sheet music, I can’t imagine, since it would otherwise be just as easy to just write in a different note. Are there double naturals? I sure hope so. I want to call them “supernaturals.”) Oddly, all three symbols evolved from the lower-case letter “b” — the sharp and the natural symbols from a “square ‘b’” and the flat from a “round ‘b.’”

When people first began writing out music notation, only the note B could be sharpened or flattened. (I have not determined what the motivation might have been behind this rule, as it seems unfair and mean to the other notes. I would gladly appreciate answers from music scholars or educated guesses from the general public.) As I understand it, music at this point in time was explained on a six-note, or hexatonic, scale, and altering B changed the rest of the notes accordingly. B was natural in the “hard hexachord,” hexachorum durum — G-A-B-C-D-E — and flat in the “soft hexachord,” hexachorum mol — F-G-A-B flat-C-D. It makes sense, then, that the soft hexachord would become associated with the rounded “b” we now use to indicate flat versions of any note. (Wikipedia points out that in French, the flat symbol is called the bémol, from the Medieval French bé mol, or “soft B.”)

How we arrived at the sharp and natural symbols is less clear to me, though both evolved from a square “b.” It had never occurred to me until I wrote this post that the sharp and natural sign are essentially the same with a few lines extended just a bit further in the former. Try it. Draw a natural symbol and lengthen the lines. Play tic-tac-toe on it for all I care.

The hard hexachord contains B natural, while the “natural hexachord,” hexachordum naturale, doesn’t contain B at all. Wikipedia points out that the French call the natural sign bécarre — from bé carre, literally “squared B.”) The French call the sharp sign the dièse — which translates into English as “sharp note” and possibly nothing else or possibly “hash,” depending on how much we want to trust Google translation. The fact that the sharp symbol would currently look almost exactly like the “# symbol” — that is, the hash, the pound sign, the number sign, the octothorpe, the criss-cross or whatever else you want to call this identity-challenged thing — would appear to be a coincidence, given that it comes from the square “b,” but I feel like the passage of time and the prevalence of both symbols probably helped their forms converge so much. Then again, I’ve never heard anything conclusive about how the number sign came to be, so perhaps it the two were actually one in the same way back.
[ Neither Fancy Chins Nor Big, Red Dogs ]
The other symbols I’m talking about today are the treble and bass clefs, which appear prior to the notes in standard sheet music and indicate pitch — or, if you’re a beginning piano student, whether you’ll be playing with your left or right hand. The treble and bass clefs look like this:

Back in elementary school, we had a music class that included singing and basic music theory. The latter, for musically inept children, is more or less limited to drawing the treble clef, which I found exceptionally difficult. For a long time, mine looked like an ampersand and a cursive “S” had an extra chromosome baby that was not long for this world. Even I could draw the bass clef well enough, however.

Again, likely because I never progressed much with music, I never heard these the treble and bass clefs called by their alternate names, the G-clef and the F-clef, respectively. The former takes its name from the fact that the G above Middle C is marked by the line on which its inner curlicue ends, the latter from the fact that the line bracketed its two dots is the F below Middle C. (Okay, in the interest of full disclosure, there’s a third clef, C-clef, whose exact center marks Middle C, but I don’t find it all that interesting so I’ll ignore it for the moment.) The clefs not only demarcate a note, however; they also represent a stylized version of the letter corresponding with that note — the treble being a fancified “G” and the bass being an abstracted, flipped-around “F.”

This website on music history offers a handy illustration of how the “G” and “F” evolved into the symbols we have now.

Thus, in the beginning the symbols were literal — “This is G” and “This is F” — but time — plus, I’d wager, the hurried penmanship of composers and the artistic flair of people in this profession — have made them take on a life and form of their own.

Incidentally, the word clef is the same one that appears in the phrase roman à clef. It’s French for “key.” Just as a roman à clef makes a lot more sense when you know what the author is actually writing about, knowing what notes the dots on the lines are supposed to be makes the song a hell of a lot easier to sing.
Previous etymology of not-words and other punctuation-related stuff:


  1. it's flat, sharp, neutral!

    i'm so glad you saw the drunken note cartoon. so amazing.

  2. Corrected. And yes, the drunken note was amazing. I don't know how my entire childhood went by without me having seen it.

  3. For the origin of the number sign (#):