I’m unsurprisingly also in love with languages and mathematics as many musicians are, and I’ve been having fun working out on my own how neumes work — when to use what shapes, etc. I’ve realized that individual neumes are simply syllabary symbols, much like Japanese hiragana and katakana, as opposed to alphabets.
Syllabaries use individual symbols to record common groups of sounds, like how Japanese kana* have one symbol for “ni” and one for “ru,” etc. Each symbol very basically explained “contains” a consonant and a vowel. There are three other symbols that geminate the consonant of the following syllable, that lengthen a vowel, and that stand in for a nasal the point of articulation for which is specified by the following initial consonant as well (and which surface as a sort of vague nasalization when at the end of a word or sentence).
And of course since each vowel can stand on its own as a syllable, each vowel also have its own symbol as well. Crucially, the symbol for “ni” does not look like the symbol for “i” with an n-like thing stuck on the front. The syllable for “ni” and that for “chi” do not have much in common. (There are some trends in the orthography, like distinctions between voiced and unvoiced initial consonants, etc. “Ta” and “da” do look very much alike, but neither of them look like they contain an “a” symbol.)
By contrast, in alphabetic orthographies, each individual sound is written down, not groups of sounds (again, this is a rough thing, and in some cases they blur around the edges). Modern Western notation is more like this — one symbol per note. The scribble we use for “ba” is indeed the symbol for “b” and that for “a,” and the composite scribbles for “ta” and “ba” both have the “a” symbol in them. “Ba” and “bo” of course both start with the “b” symbol.”
In neumes/syllabaries, there is usually one symbol to denote a commonly used group of notes. In Western notation/alphabets, each individual sound has its own symbol.
It becomes even clearer that this is a musical equivalent of a syllabary when you realize that the neumes are used to attach groups of notes to particular syllables. (When attaching a group of more than the common two-to-four notes to a syllable, the composer starts using the little dots or diamonds, depending on which neume system they were employing.)
Even the liquid consonants like “n,” “r,” and “l” often have what are called liquescent neumes attached to them somewhat like that roving unspecified nasal in Japanese kana that’s less than a syllable, but more than nothing.
It makes it a lot easier to write and read the things once you realize that. It also means that, in order to do this music correctly, you really need to know the lyrics since the whole notation system is tied to them, syllable by syllable. The exact same cluster of notes, in the same general “rhythm,” would change notation completely it it were attached to a different group of lyrics with different syllable boundaries.
I don’t know why I’ve never seen this explained in any neume discussion online; the whole notation system depends on it.
- One neume per spoken syllable.
- If you must break this rule, use the small dots/diamonds on the way down.
- There are no neumes independent of text.
I’ve got to start doing this with Gregorio. This is just way too much fun — music, plus a new orthography? Untrammeled bliss.
* Kana, not kanji.