A neume (; sometimes spelled neum) is the basic element of Western and Eastern systems of musical notation prior to the invention of five-line staff notation.

The earliest neumes were inflective marks that indicated the general shape but not necessarily the exact notes or rhythms to be sung. Later developments included the use of heightened neumes that showed the relative pitches between neumes, and the creation of a four-line musical staff that identified particular pitches. Neumes do not generally indicate rhythm, but additional symbols were sometimes juxtaposed with neumes to indicate changes in articulation, duration, or tempo. Neumatic notation was later used in medieval music to indicate certain patterns of rhythm called rhythmic modes, and eventually evolved into modern musical notation. Neumatic notation remains standard in modern editions of plainchant.


The word "neume" entered the English language in the Middle English forms "newme", "nevme", "neme" in the 15th century, from the Middle French "neume", in turn from either medieval Latin "pneuma" or "neuma", the former either from ancient Greek πνεῦμα ("breath") or νεῦμα ("sign"), or else directly from Greek as a corruption or an adaptation of the former.

Early history

Although chant was probably sung since the earliest days of the church, for centuries they were only transmitted orally.

The earliest known systems involving neumes are of Aramaic origin and were used to notate inflections in the quasi-emmelic (melodic) recitation of the Christian holy scriptures. As such they resemble functionally a similar system used for the notation of recitation of the Qur'an, the holy book of Islam. This early system was called ekphonetic notation, from the Greek ἐκφώνησις ekphonesis meaning quasi-melodic recitation of text.

Around the 9th century neumes began to become shorthand mnemonic aids for the proper melodic recitation of chant. A prevalent view is that neumatic notation was first developed in the Eastern Roman Empire. This seems plausible given the well-documented peak of musical composition and cultural activity in major cities of the empire (now regions of southern Turkey, Syria, Lebanon and Israel) at that time. The corpus of extant Byzantine music in manuscript and printed form is far larger than that of the Gregorian chant, due in part to the fact that neumes fell into disuse in the west after the rise of modern staff notation and with it the new techniques of polyphonic music, while the Eastern tradition of Greek orthodox church music and the reformed neume notation remains alive until today.

Slavic neume notations ("Znamenny Chant") are on the whole even more difficult to decipher and transcribe than Byzantine or Gregorian neume notations.

Western plainchant

The earliest Western notation for chant appears in the 9th century. These early staffless neumes, called cheironomic or in campo aperto, appeared as freeform wavy lines above the text. Various scholars see these as deriving from cheironomic hand-gestures, from the ekphonetic notation of Byzantine chant, or from punctuation or accent marks. A single neume could represent a single pitch, or a series of pitches all sung on the same syllable. Cheironomic neumes indicated changes in pitch and duration within each syllable, but did not attempt to specify the pitches of individual notes, the intervals between pitches within a neume, nor the relative starting pitches of different syllables' neumes.

There is evidence that the earliest Western musical notation, in the form of neumes in campo aperto (without staff-lines), was created at Metz around 800, as a result of Charlemagne's desire for Frankish church musicians to retain the performance nuances used by the Roman singers.

Presumably these were intended only as mnemonics for melodies learned by ear. The earliest extant manuscripts (9th–10th centuries) of such neumes include:
  • the abbey of St. Gall, in modern-day Switzerland
  • Messine neumes (from the monastery of Metz in northeast France)
  • Aquitanian neumes (southern France, also used in Spain)
  • Laon, Chartres, Montpellier

    In the early 11th century, Beneventan neumes (from the churches of Benevento in southern Italy) were written at varying distances from the text to indicate the overall shape of the melody; such neumes are called "heightened" or "diastematic" neumes, which showed the relative pitches between neumes. A few manuscripts from the same period use "digraphic" notation in which note names are included below the neumes. Shortly after this, one to four staff lines—an innovation traditionally ascribed to Guido d'Arezzo—clarified the exact relationship between pitches. One line was marked as representing a particular pitch, usually C or F. These neumes resembled the same thin, scripty style of the chironomic notation. By the 11th century, chironomic neumes had evolved into square notation; in Germany, a variant called Gothic neumes continued to be used until the 16th century. This variant is also known as Hufnagel notation, as the used neumes resemble the nails (hufnagels) one uses to attach horseshoes.By the 13th century, the neumes of Gregorian chant were usually written in square notation on a staff with four lines and three spaces and a clef marker, as in the 14th–15th century Graduale Aboense shown here. In square notation, small groups of ascending notes on a syllable are shown as stacked squares, read from bottom to top, while descending notes are written with diamonds read from left to right. In melismatic chants, in which a syllable may be sung to a large number of notes, a series of smaller such groups of neumes are written in succession, read from left to right. A special symbol called the custos, placed at the end of a system, showed which pitch came next at the start of the following system. Special neumes such as the oriscus, quilisma, and liquescent neumes, indicate particular vocal treatments for these notes. This system of square notation is standard in modern chantbooks.

    Solesmes notation

    Various manuscripts and printed editions of Gregorian chant, using varying styles of square-note neumes, circulated throughout the Catholic Church for centuries. Some editions added rhythmic patterns, or meter, to the chants. In the 19th century the monks of the Benedictine abbey of Solesmes, particularly Dom Joseph Pothier (1835–1923) and Dom André Mocquereau (1849–1930) collected facsimiles of the earliest manuscripts and published them in a series of 12 publications called Paléographie musicale (French article). They also assembled definitive versions of many of the chants, and developed a standardized form of the square-note notation that was adopted by the Catholic Church and is still in use in publications such as the Liber Usualis (although there are also published editions of this book in modern notation).

    As a general rule, the notes of a single neume are never sung to more than one syllable; all three pitches of a three-note neume, for example, must all be sung on the same syllable. (This is not universally accepted; Richard Crocker has argued that in the special case of the early Aquitanian polyphony of the St. Martial school, neumes must have been "broken" between syllables to facilitate the coordination of parts.) However, a single syllable may be sung to so many notes that several neumes in succession are used to notate it. The single-note neumes indicate that only a single note corresponds to that syllable. Chants that primarily use single-note neumes are called syllabic; chants with typically one multi-note neume per syllable are called neumatic, and those with many neumes per syllable are called melismatic.

    Rhythmic interpretation

    The Solesmes monks also determined, based on their research, performance practice for Gregorian chant. Because of the ambiguity of medieval musical notation, the question of rhythm in Gregorian chant is contested by scholars. Some neumes, such as the pressus, do indicate the lengthening of notes. Common modern practice, following the Solesmes interpretation, is to perform Gregorian chant with no beat or regular metric accent, in which time is free, allowing the text to determine the accent and the melodic contour to determine phrasing. By the 13th century, with the widespread use of square notation, it is believed that most chant was sung with each note getting approximately an equal value, although Jerome of Moravia cites exceptions in which certain notes, such as the final notes of a chant, are lengthened. The Solesmes school, represented by Dom Pothier and Dom Mocquereau, supports a rhythm of equal values per note, allowing for lengthening and shortening of note values for musical purposes. A second school of thought, including Wagner, Jammers, and Lipphardt, supports different rhythmic realizations of chant by imposing musical meter on the chant in various ways. Musicologist Gustave Reese said that the second group, called mensuralists, "have an impressive amount of historical evidence on their side" (Music in the Middle Ages, p. 146), but the equal-note Solesmes interpretation has permeated the musical world, apparently due to its ease of learning and resonance with modern musical taste.


    Examples of neumes may be seen here: "[ Basic & Liquescent Aquitanian Neumes]" (archive from 10 June 2006, accessed 12 September 2014), [], [].


    Neumes are written on a four-line staff on the lines and spaces, unlike modern music notation, which uses five lines. Chant does not rely on any absolute pitch or key; the clefs are only to establish the half and whole steps of the solfege or hexachord scale: "ut", "re", "mi", "fa", "sol", "la", "ti", "ut". The clef bracketing a line indicates the location "ut" in the case of the C clef, or "fa" in the case of the F clef as shown: :

    Single notes

    : The virga and punctum are sung identically. Scholars disagree on whether the bipunctum indicates a note twice as long, or whether the same note should be re-articulated. When this latter interpretation is favoured, it may be called a repercussive neume.

    Two notes

    : When two notes are one above the other, as in the podatus, the lower note is always sung first.

    Three notes

    : The fact that the first two notes of the porrectus are connected as a diagonal rather than as individual notes seems to be a scribe's shortcut.

    Compound neumes

    Several neumes in a row can be juxtaposed for a single syllable, but the following usages have specific names. These are only a few examples. :

    Other basic markings


    Interpretive marks

    The interpretation of these markings is the subject of great dispute among scholars. :

    Other interpretations of the quilisma:
  • Shake or trill—Prof. William Mahrt of Stanford University supports this interpretation. This interpretation is also put into practice by the Washington Cappella Antiqua, under the current direction of Dr. Patrick Jacobson.
  • Quarter-tone or accidental. The support for this interpretation lies in some early digraphic manuscripts that combine chironomic neumes with letter-names. In places where other manuscripts have quilismas these digraphs often have a strange symbol in place of a letter, suggesting to some scholars the use of a pitch outside the solmization system represented by the letter names.

    There are other uncommon neume shapes thought to indicate special types of vocal performance, though their precise meaning is a matter of debate:
  • The trigon. The orthodox Solesme interpretation of this obscure three-note neume is a unison plus a third below, but there are other possibilities. It appears to have originated at St. Gall, though it is also widespread in French chant sources from the 10th and 11th centuries. It has been proposed that it may have a microtonal meaning, but there is "an admitted lack of conclusiveness in the arguments in favor of notes smaller than a semitone."
  • The distropha and tristropha are groups of two and three apostrophes, usually of the same pitch. They probably differed from normal repeated notes (virgae or puncta) in the way they were sung. Although there is some doubt on the matter, most modern writers accept Aurelian of Réôme's description of a staccato reiteration.
  • The oriscus is a single-note neume, usually found added as an auxiliary note to another neume. The name may derive from either the Greek horos (limit) or ōriskos (little hill). Its intended manner of performance is not clear. Although a microtonal interpretation has been suggested, there is possible contradicting evidence in the Dijon tonary, Montpellier H. 159.
  • The pressus is a compound neume, usually involving an initial neume followed by an oriscus and a punctum. The initial neume may be a virga (in which case the virga + oriscus may be together called a virga strata), in which case the pressus indicates three notes; if the initial neume is a pes, then the compound indicates a four-note group. Just as with the oriscus itself, the interpretation is unsure. When chant came to be notated on a staff, the oriscus was normally represented as having the same pitch as the immediately preceding note. There are also litterae significativae in many manuscripts, usually interpreted to indicate variations in tempo, e.g. c = celeriter (fast), t = tenete (hold) (an early form of the tenuto), a = auge (lengthen, as in a tie). The Solesmes editions omit all such letters.

    Other functions

    Neumes were used for notating other kinds of melody than plainchant, including troubadour and trouvère melodies, monophonic versus and conductus, and the individual lines of polyphonic songs. In some traditions, such as the Notre Dame school of polyphony, certain patterns of neumes were used to represent particular rhythmic patterns called rhythmic modes.

    Other types

  • Ekphonetic neumes annotating the melodic recitation of (Christian) holy scriptures.
  • Neumes of Byzantine music – in several stages, old Byzantine, middle Byzantine, late Byzantine and post-Byzantine, and neo-Byzantine (reformed).
  • Neumes of Slavic chant (Slavic neumes).
  • Mozarabic or Hispanic neumes (Spain), also called Visigothic script. These neumes have not been deciphered, but the Mozarabic liturgy varies somewhat from the Roman rite.
  • Catalan notation.
  • Daseian notation – an early form of Western music notation used in 9th and 10th-century music theory treatises.
  • Buddhist chant uses a type of neume.

    Digital notation

    Because notation software usually focuses on modern European music notation, software that allows the user to use neumes is rare.
  • Gregorio is a software especially written for that purpose. With its own GABC-Syntax and together with LuaTeX it provides high quality output of square notation neumes and also St. Gall neumes.
  • Finale can be enhanced with Medieval 2, a third-party package devoted to early music and especially neumes.
  • Lilypond is able to produce output using neumes.
  • Some open fonts for neumes are available, which can be used by common office software or scorewriters.