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In music, a note head is the elliptical part of a note. Note heads may be coloured completely black or white, indicating the note value (i.e., rhythmic duration). In a whole note, the note head is the only component of the note. Shorter note values attach a stem to the note head, and possibly beams or flags. The longer double whole note can be written with vertical lines surrounding it, two attached note heads, or a rectangular note head.
Note heads ultimately derive from the neumes used to notate Gregorian chant. The punctum, seen at right, is the simplest of the shapes and most clearly anticipates the modern note head. When placed on a clef, the position of a note head indicated the relative frequency of a note. The development of different colors of note heads, and the use of it to indicate rhythmic values, was the use of white mensural notation, adopted around 1450.
Franco of Cologne, ancient composer and music theorist, codified a system of rhythm notation. He explained this system in his work, Ars Cantus Mensurabilis, (which means “The Art of Measurable Music”) circa 1280. In this system, the relative duration of notes was indicated by the note shapes. The note heads were rectangles, squares, or diamonds depending on the note length. This system was expanded during the Ars Nova period.
Shortly before the Renaissance, scribes began to write the notes of the Franconian and Ars Nova style with open note heads. During the Renaissance, composers added shorter note durations that used filled-in note heads. Near the end of the 16th century, the square or diamond-shaped notes changed to the round note heads that are used today.
- Burkholder, J.P., Grout, D.J., & Palisca, C.V. (2006). A history of western music 7th ed.. New York, NY: W.W Norton & Company. ISBN 0-393-97991-1
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