Thomas Forrest Kelly on the history of musical notation

For most of human history, music was not “written down.” Music was an experience confined in time and space; there was no way to make a record of which notes should be sung when and how. One reason we don’t know how earlier forms of music sounded is because of the absence of adequate systems of notation. Beginning in the 11th century, systems for the recording of pitch and rhythm began to develop. In that development, the possibilities for musical composition and performance were transformed, as were the conception of what music is and the social placement of musical practices.

Thomas Forrest Kelly’s book Capturing Music: The Story of Notation (W. W. Norton, 2015) is a fascinating and wonderfully illustrated book about the earliest chapters in the history of musical notation. I had the pleasure of talking with him about his book not long after it was released. An edited version of that conversation was featured on volume 127 of the MARS HILL AUDIO Journal, and is presented here.