Contents: Introduction * History and Function of Neumes
Greek is a musical language. Early forms of the language even used tonal stress. By New Testament times, this tonal usage had faded, but even so, many biblical texts are suitable for singing. Unfortunately, in ancient times there was no good way to record the melody of the piece being sung.
The earliest systems of musical notation were developed between 1500 and 3000 years ago by the Greeks. These schemes were generally based on letters of the Greek alphabet. This had several problems: The melody of the song could be confused with its words, the system was not very accurate, and it was immensely complicated.
Neumes and neuming were developed to overcome these problems Neumes were small marks placed above the text to indicate the "shape" of a melody. As a form of notation, they were initially even less effective than the letter-based systems they replaced -- but they were unambiguous and took very little space, and so they survived when other systems failed. Our modern musical notation is descended from neumes.
The psalms provide clear evidence on Biblical texts being sung. Many of the psalms indicate the tune used for them. There are places in the New Testament (e.g. Mark 14:26 and parallels, Acts 16:25) which apparently refer to the singing of psalms and biblical texts. But we have no way to know what tunes were used.
This was as much a problem for the ancients as it is for us. By the ninth century they were beginning to develop ways to preserve tunes. We call the early form of this system neuming, and the symbols used nuemes (both from Greek pneuma).
The earliest neumes (found in manuscripts such as Y/044) couldn't really record a tune. Neither pitch nor duration was indicated, just the general "shape" of the tune. Theoretically only two symbols were used: "Up" (the acutus, originally symbolized by something like /), and the "Down" (gravis, \). These could then be combined into symbols such as the "Up-then-down" (^). This simple set of symbols wasn't much help if you didn't know a tune -- but could be invaluable if you knew the tune but didn't quite know how to fit it to the words. It could also jog your memory if you slipped a little.
Neumes were usually written in green or red ink in the space between the lines of text. They are, for obvious reasons, more common in lectionaries than in continuous-text manuscripts.
As the centuries passed, neuming became more and more complex, adding metrical notations and, eventually, ledger lines. The picture below (a small portion of chapter 16 of Mark from the tenth century manuscript 274) shows a few neumes in exaggerated red. In this image we see not only the acutus and the gravis, but such symbols as the podatus (the J symbol, also written !), which later became a rising eighth note.
By the twelfth century, these evolved neumes had become a legitimate musical notation, which in turn evolved into the church's ancient "plainsong notation" and the modern musical staff.
All of these forms, however, were space-intensive (plainsong notation took four ledger lines, and more elaborate notations might take as many as fifteen), and are not normally found in Biblical manuscripts (so much so that most music history books do not even mention the use of neumes in Biblical manuscripts; they usually start the history of notation around the twelfth century and its virga, punctae, and breves).
The primary use of neumes to the Biblical scholar is for dating: If a manuscript has neumes, it has to date from roughly the eighth century or later. The form of the neumes may provide additional information about the manuscript's age.