Music 101½

It’s been said before by others, but I hadn’t realised how insidious it is: When musicians talk about ‘theory’, they actually mean ‘notation’. With reference to my previous whinging about music notation, I notice that the Music Notation Modernization Association are suggesting a number of revisions to make notation more useful and consistent. One of the more prominent suggestions is a change to the use of staves to make them compatible with the octave-offset principle I mentioned earlier, thus making the appearance of notes consistent across all staves, and making the use of clefs of any kind redundant.

The above idea especially comes into its own when combined with their other proposals:

  • Chromatic staves to indicate intervals in a proportional manner (rather than the current bonkers ‘♯’ and ‘♭’ notation)
  • Twinline staves, which only require two horizontal lines, rather than the conventional five, provides a significant increase in readability, in keeping with Tufte’s principle of maximising data-ink ratio.
  • Note color or shape used to discriminate pitch, rather than the current quirky use of partially indicating note length. This is perhaps my favourite, as it massively increases the ease of rapidly identifying notes on sight. Since note colour is currently used to distinguish between a minim and a crotchet, then some other way of making them distinct would have to be found. A unique flag on the note stem would seem to suffice, and would be more in keeping with the other note duration symbology.

After what looks like years of painstaking brainstorming, research, focus testing and refinement, the only thing left for the MNMA to do is to decide on one single notation that unambiguously combines all the above ideas, and promote its use with the aim of gradually supplanting conventional notation. Unfortunately, this seems to be something they have singularly failed to do. By failing to adopt and recommend a single notation, they seem to be ensuring that none of their ideas will ever gain any traction.

6 thoughts on “Music 101½

  1. More:

    a) Downward-pointing stems go on the left side of the note, as opposed to the right-hand side for the rising stems of low notes. So the stems of simultaneous notes don’t even line up.

    b) Staves should be drawn vertically, reading down the page.

  2. On further reflection, the above doesn’t go remotely far enough. The ideas presented by the MNMA are laudable, but are merely superficial polishing and refinement of a notation that is fundamentally broken. From its inability to provide absolutely unambiguous delineation of pitch and interval at a glance. The notation itself is only half to blame – it goes hand-in-hand with a conceptual framework that permits such abberations as enharmonics and ties which must be used simply to clarify the ambiguity of your chosen time signature. It must be possible to do better. As the esteemed Xtian said, if only we were more intelligent, then we wouldn’t have to think quite so hard all the time.

  3. Oh, and Nick: They apparently wanted to make the ‘B’ higher than the ‘A♯’ purely in order to maintain the proportional interval spacing which was introduced by giving all the accidentals their own positions on the stave.

  4. A comparison occurs to me which I think makes the importance of this fairly clear. The notation used by the Roman Empire to write numbers must have seemed perfectly adequate to those who used it. There are convoluted methods available for performing arithmetic with Roman numerals – it did its job, and the fact there were some operations that couldn’t be performed were doubtless written off by those attempting them due to the plain fact that numbers were hard. But in actual fact, numbers aren’t hard. They were just using a suboptimal notation. By failing to tune the notation to make these arithmetic operations fluid and seamless, they were held back to pre-Greek levels of maths and science for nigh on a thousand years. Notation matters. It shapes our conceptions of a topic, and moulds our ability to think. Getting the notation as right as we can possibly get it is a vital foundation in allowing the creativity of current and future generations to blossom. So there.

  5. Hey. Thanks Nick. I don’t see why the suggested notations are more susceptible to ambiguities when carelessly hand-written. To my very amateur perception, they seem to have been designed specifically to help eliminate those kinds of problems. eg. using note color *as well* as note position to indicate pitch makes it practically impossible to mistake an ‘F’ for a ‘F#’ – that’s almost precisely the point.

    If you read their research methodology, they had a bunch of people put a large number of suggested notations through exercises such as ‘hand-writing out Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor for organ, BWV 565’, to see what the practical implications of each notation turned out to be, along with prosaic considerations such as whether the notation needs specialised notepaper, or can practically be written by hand on a blank sheet of paper.

    Yes, note ‘color’ is only intended to denote ‘filledness’. Pre-emptive slapping sidestepped. :-)

    I don’t think they intend to suggest using both ‘F#’ and ‘Gâ™­’, that’s just a poorly judged axis labelling for the diagram.

    I have running water, would you like some of mine?

  6. I spent years struggling with the current notation, but most people seem to manage it. However, that’s not a real argument and certainly not the one I’ll use here…

    While I like the idea of some of the above, there are clear reasons why they hadn’t been adopted before and are only relevant in a technology-based system where machines can print the music out. Many of them are susceptible to accuracy of drawing (spread of ink, late-nightedness of writing, level of inebriation) that would not be the case with the current system.

    To me, using the shape to indicate pitch seems to me as arbitrarily bonkers as the sharp or flat symbol (which, btw, seems to work rather well, although the underlying framework of octave-offsets is a bit nuts, it has to be said).

    And if by “color” you mean anything more than “fill”, slappety slap.

    I love the idea of just two lines and everything else annotated appropriately, although there is still redundancy between A# and B. Why should the B be higher? It’s got the line. Or why should it have the line, since it’s higher? But I am still a little concerned that without the fill-distinction (a pain the arse, I’m sure, when writing by hand)that it would be all to easy to confuse F with F# and G with F#.

    And why have F# and G flat? Why not just F#? I assume that’s also a suggestion, although it isn’t reflected above.

    Oh, it’s all shit. I can hardly read English as it is, how am I ever going to master music.

    Are they also suggesting different notations for different instruments? They’re probably already busy setting up a cartel of translation services providers and re-education seminars. And does the whole world subscribe to the current system? Or Koreans different, the Japanese, the Chileans or Africans?

    I can’t be arsed any more… And there’s no running water…

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