Why do we use five lines to write music?

One of the very first things we learn at the beginning of our journey towards absorbing basic witchcraft music skills is that we write pitches on a system of five horizontal lines. We hardly ever question existence of the staff. It’s simply there, it’s always been there and we really do take it for granted. It’s quite a pity we fail to notice this timeless, elegant and practical design and story at the bottom of its current looks. Because, believe me or not, it’s quite a plot!

First, we need to realize that finding a way to write down music took us some time. In fact, a lot of time. The oldest musical instrument ever found is at least 40,000 years old, and the music itself is quite surely much older than that. The first grip of written piece of music we managed to discover is this Sumerian song from 15 century BC. The five-line stave system got established around early 17th century (AD). I’m pretty sure you’ve already done your maths here, but I’ll write it down anyway: figuring out a staff we know nowdays took 32 centuries. And only if we count from first known to us, sufficiently preserved attempts.

Before anyone thought of using any lines, mankind tried to maintain their songs by writing tilt letters* (the more tilt they were, the higher the tone… or so) or putting funny dots and other signs here and there over a text written in Roman script**. The problem with such a way of writing is that it’s basically as accurate as drawings of a 3-year-old. So… well, pretty inaccurate.

The thing is: those first attempts were serving more as a kind of “reminder” for those, who already knew the melody. The potential to learn from scratch just by figuring stuff out from tilted letters or some little signs above the text isn’t big, right? And we shall not forget that not many people could read back then anyway. So people basically relied on memory, and as we know, memory can be a bit tricky.

But at certain moment of history some really smart person thought: hey, we add those little funny signs here and there… what if we could put a line there as well to serve as a reference point?

And he did it. And this idea was a huge success. In fact, it was such a smasher that folks started to add other lines. Because lines are cool, right! Then, in 11th century, Guido of Arezzo thought of adding some colours to those lines – red and blue at first, third line was coloured yellow. Then he probably ran out of colours, so he stopped on fourth, black line and told everyone: enough is enough.

But it wasn’t enough, as it turned out. We can find some music written on eight-line and six-line staff from around this part of Middle Ages (earliest example of that coming from 10th century). There are also some writings using eighteen (!) lines (they were written for strictly educational purposes though). Obviously, guys were experimenting a lot.

And also, since information didn’t spread that quickly (no Twitter, sorry), it turns out that one of the most popular ways of writing polyphonic music in Italy during the late Middle Ages was putting notes on a… six-line staff. In Renaissance one can find numerous examples of music written on six-, seven- or even eight-line staves. But from 17th century on you don’t really see more than five lines in a staff anymore. How so?

A five-line staff was born in Northern France in early 13th century. It’s been gaining popularity quite quickly (given the possibilities of spreading such ideas back then) and now we barely can imagine something else in its place. How come it superseded Guido’s four-line stave and all those fancy six+ lines thing?

Well, it turns out you can’t really fit all the notes you need on four lines. It was kinda ok for vocal music with no wide scales of voice included. But if you wanted to write higher or lower notes you were in trouble. Added lines aren’t super practical. They look confusing. Performers would complain. And, trust me, there is nothing worse than a complaining performer.

Six and more lines are just too overwhelming, on the other hand. They aren’t very clear, your eyes get tired of them really fast and it’s easy to confuse something.

So, five lines are just exactly in the middle. As music was getting more and more complicated, the fact that you can fit way more notes on and in between and they don’t make you nystagmus was getting pretty important. Notes written on a five-line staff are relatively easy to sight read, which is rather useful.
Like, if you ever wondered how to become irresistible, here’s a tip: learn how to play an instrument super awesomely and how to read scores, and then impress the hell out of people by showing them you can play nicely all the music, even if you see the score for the very first time. If you ask me – it sure works 10/10!

Also… A stave has five lines. Your hand has five fingers. Coincidence? I THINK NOT!!!



*Ancient Greece
**Middle Ages



So, let me know if you enjoyed that and the history of musical staff became any closer to your heart now❤ You can visit my Twitch channel (where I do litterally nothing recently) and my Instagram. Or like me on Facebook.

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