A Dictionary of Music and Musicians/Alphabet

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ALPHABET. The musical alphabet, which serves as the designation of all musical sounds, consists of the seven letters A, B, C, D, E, F, and G, and, in German, H in addition. In the natural scale (i. e. the scale without sharps or flats) the order of these letters is as follows:—C, D, E, F, G, A, B (or, in German, H), C; the cause of this apparently arbitrary arrangement will be best understood from a brief glance at the history of the musical scale.

According to Isidore, bishop of Seville (circa 595), the oldest harps had seven strings, and the shepherds' pandean pipes seven reeds,[1] from which it appears probable as well as natural that the ancient scale consisted of seven sounds.

These seven sounds, which served for both voices and instruments, were gradually added to, until, in the time of Aristoxenus (340 B.C.), there were fifteen, extending from A the first space of the bass stave to A the second space in the treble. Each of these sounds had its distinctive name, derived from the position and length of the different strings of the phorminx or lyre, and in order to avoid writing them in full the ancient Greek authors expressed them by certain letters of the alphabet.[2] As however the properties of the notes varied continually with the different modes and so-called mutations, which by this time had been introduced into the musical system, these letters were written in an immense variety of forms, large and small, inverted, turned to the right or left, lying horizontally, accented in many ways, etc., so that, according to Alypius, the most intelligible of the Greek writers who wrote professedly to explain them, the musical signs in use in his day amounted to no fewer than 1240, and it appears probable that even this number was afterwards exceeded.

The Romans, who borrowed the Greek scale, and gave Latin names to each of its fifteen sounds, did not adopt this complicated system, but employed instead the first fifteen letters of their alphabet, A to P, and later still, Gregory the Great, who was chosen pope A.D. 590, discovering that the second half of the scale, H to P, was but a repetition of the first, A to H, abolished the last eight letters and used the first seven over again, expressing the lower octave by capitals and the upper by small letters.[3]

So far the original compass of the Greek scale was preserved, and thus A was naturally applied to the first and at that time lowest note, but about the beginning of the 10th century a new note was introduced, situated one degree below the lowest A, and called (it is difficult to say why) after the Greek letter gamma[4] and written Γ. To this others were from time to time added until the lower C was reached, in the early part of the 16th century, by Lazarino. Thus the modern scale was established, and A, originally the first, became the sixth degree.

In Germany the same system was originally adopted, but when accidentals were invented, and it became customary to sing in certain cases B♭ instead of B♮, the square shape of the natural soon became transformed into the letter H, which was applied to the note B♮ (the original B), while the rounder form of the flat received the name of B, a distinction which remains in force to the present day. (See Accidentals.)

[ F. T. ]

  1. Before the time of Terpander (about 670 B.C.) the Greek lyre is supposed to have had but four strings. Boethius attributes its extension to seven strings to Terpander.
  2. For a full description of the Greek scale see Sir J. Hawkins, 'History of Music,' ch. iv.
  3. This system of Pope Gregory forms the so-called basis of the German Tablatur, in which the octave from the C next below the bass stave to C second space is callee the great octave, and is indicated by capitals; the octave next above is known as the small octave, and is expressed by small letters; and all succeeding octaves are called once-marked, twice-marked octaves, etc,. and the letters representing them have one, two, or more horizontal lines drawn above them, thus: C D … c d … [c d … c d … c d] …, etc.
  4. The addition of the Γ is by some attributed to Guido d' Aresso; but he speaks of it in his 'Micrologus' (A.D. 1024) as being already in use.