Posts Tagged ‘notation’

What makes standard notation standard?

Tuesday, June 14th, 2011

An excerpt from Chapter 6 of my forthcoming book, Music: Notation and Practice in Past and Present, now in press with National Social Science Press.

Like any technological standard, Western standard musical notation has gone through a process of innovation, widespread adoption and now what technologist Jaron Lanier refers to as lock-in—it is now more or less impossible to radically alter or reform the standard notation because of its widespread use.  Musicians who read standard notation have a vested interest in maintaining its place in the culture—any written language is relatively difficult to learn.  Similarly, it seems highly unlikely that the published music of the last four centuries or so—all written in notation that is more-or-less readable to modern eyes—might be transcribed into some new system (although in at least one case, efforts have been made in this direction).

Standard musical notation is largely a product of the Renaissance, and by 1600, composers and publishers were producing scores that generally adhere to the descriptions given in Part 2 of this book.  Most of the notational concepts for music were invented much earlier, but a period of consolidation in notation—aided by the development of the printing press and subsequent dissemination of printed music after 1500—meant that many alternatives continued to be tried.  Even to the present day, reforms and changes to the notational system have been suggested, sometimes by composers who wish to incorporate a new musical effect, sometimes by pedagogues who hope to simplify the reading and teaching of music, sometimes by hopeful amateurs and entrepreneurs who desire to give back to society or enlarge their bank accounts.  Even this author has suggested a notational innovation, made use of it in compositions and presented it in a scholarly forum.

What then allowed our system of notation to become an international standard, and what keeps it in its position as the primary means of communicating musical intentions in written form?  A few considerations:

  • Completeness:  As demonstrated in the previous chapters, the standard notational system allows for the adequate (although not always ideal) description of all seven musical elements, plus lyrics in vocal music.  Each element has a separate means of description and set of symbols, but at the same time, the use of one symbol to denote the pitch and duration of each musical event allows for relative ease of reading, once the system has been learned.  The crucial information about melody, harmony and rhythm is encoded in a central way, so that the mind focuses on these things, while the other, less fluid, elements are notated in more ancillary ways.
  • Readability:  For a notation that must present seven elements simultaneously, the standard notation is surprisingly clean and clear in most circumstances.  The decision, for example, to limit the staff to five lines plus ledger lines, means that no note is ever very far from the landmarks provided by the two outer lines, allowing musicians to easily recognize what pitch they are looking at.  Similarly, the tendency to favor the quarter-note and dotted quarter-note as beat length notes means that a great deal of squinting at multiple flags or beams is eliminated, but that all notes shorter than a beat are beamed to reflect where they fall within a beat.
  • Writeability:  Standard musical notation has a limited set of relatively simple symbols, meaning that anyone with sufficient motor control can quickly and easily learn to write and copy music by hand.  In the 21st century, this may seem less than important, but prior to music notation software, all notated music began life as handwritten marks on physical paper.  As late as the 1990s, college music programs in the United States included coursework in music manuscript in their baccalaureate programs, so that their graduates would have the skills required to produce legible notation.  Prior to the widespread availability of photocopied music, members of school ensembles often had to make handwritten copies of music arranged for them.[1]  More importantly, it was often by copying music that composers of earlier generations learned their craft.  Johann Sebastian Bach, scion of a long-established family of musicians, learned the family trade in part through this means.
  • Printability:  Without a doubt, the technological innovation that allowed musical notation to truly become an internationally standardized language was the printing press.  While early printing methods for music involved experiments with woodcuts and movable type, the means which remains the standard for music publishing even to this day is engraving, first by hand-etching and later by photographic means.  The symbols of Western musical notation are relatively simple—straight lines and a few curves and circles—allowing them to be engraved relatively simply.  Mozart is known to have owned a set of engraving tools for the preparation of copper plates for printed music, and the relative ease of engraving music allowed Bach—a middle-class wage earner in the best of times—to self-finance the engraving and publication of some of his pieces.  The design of music and music fonts continues to allow printing on the same equipment used for the printing of text and illustrations, so a complete redesign of the printing technology was unnecessary.  Alternatives that require the use of colored inks, perhaps, or textured paper in the manner of Braille (see below) have universally failed to enjoy the same success as the monochromatic, two-dimensional standard system.
  • Unambiguity:  The standard system of musical notation employs unique symbolism for every element of music.  Two different musical events look different on the page, while two identical events look the same.  While any system would hopefully have solved these problems, Western notation has done so in a way that not only communicates necessary information, but also ingeniously incorporates the human ability for chunking, especially in the elements of melody, harmony and rhythm.  Furthermore, despite being unambiguous to a high degree, the system leaves a great deal of freedom for performers to interpret the same notation in different ways.


The above considerations, then, have all contributed to the success of Western musical notation.  Since around 1600, the standard system of notation has remained remarkably stable, with changes and adaptations more the result of innovations in instrumental capabilities and stylistic preferences than any wholesale revision of notational practice.  However, the system is by no means perfect, and can be confusing in some respects.  While it is doubtful that any system to fully notate all seven musical elements could be truly termed “simple,” there are some aspects of notation, and the nomenclature of Western music in general, which are somewhat confusing.  For consideration, some of these are listed below:

  • Ambiguity of pitch.  An odd property of musical nomenclature, and thus of standard musical notation, is that pitches can have any number of different names.  Eb, for example, can also be named D#, or Fbb.  Although there is, at least conceptually, a difference between these enharmonic pitches in many musical styles, the fact remains that in the system of equal temperament now widely adopted in Western music, there is no difference in the frequency of enharmonic pitches for keyboard or electronic instruments.  If these notes are practically, if not conceptually, identical, perpetuating a system of notation that attempts to differentiate between them may be unnecessary.
  • Limited rhythmic potential.  The current Western system of notation deals best with what are termed simple and compound meters, i.e., meters in which the beat divides equally into twos and threes.  Awkwardly, when other prime divisions are required, the somewhat clumsy tuplet notation is brought into play.  Five-to-a-beat and seven-to-a-beat music, although rare in the history of Western composition, may represent a direction that musicians may wish to pursue.  Until adequate notation for these meters is found, their full potential may not be explored.[2]
  • Minimal emphasis on certain elements.  The notation for dynamics, timbre and form in standard notation is extremely rudimentary, and frequently falls back upon linguistic cues such as “crescendo,” “pizzicato” and “D.S. al Coda.”  Since Western music has traditionally emphasized the elements of melody, harmony and rhythm, the other elements have been relegated to subsidiary roles in traditional notation.  It is possible, though, to imagine music that is centered upon other elements, as was attempted first by Arnold Schoenberg in his experiments with klangfarbenmelodie (tone-color melody) in the first decade of the 20th century.  Indications for timbre and dynamics, in particular, are very crude in standard notation, and leave a great deal to the performer (although this may also be desirable in some styles).
  • Adaptability.  For some instruments and styles, standard notation is simply not effective.  Western notation gives a picture of a composer’s musical intent in absolute musical terms, and does not give a precise description of the physical means of producing the correct sounds on any instrument.  Notation developed as a mnemonic shorthand for vocal music, particularly plainchant, but even in this form, it only tells what to sing, not how to sing.  Many instrumentalists find it a relatively simple thing to relate pitches notes on a staff to fingerings, keys or embouchure adjustments, but for others, the entire system seems entirely counterintuitive.  For example, guitar players, with their six strings arrayed with the lowest at the top of the instrument, find the standard staff, with low pitches depicted at the bottom, to be much more difficult than other notational solutions, including guitar tablature, which will be discussed below.
  • Numeracy.  From tuplet numbers to fingerings and string numbers to the indication of first and second endings, standard musical notation has a tendency to rely on Arabic and Roman numerals to a great extent.  This can cause some confusion, but is ameliorated by the tendency of some uses of numbers to be employed only in the absence of others—fingerings for pianists mean that violin string numbers are unnecessary.
  • Accessibility.  All humans are capable of musical expression and of enjoying music.  It has been this author’s privilege to work with, at various times, persons who are visually-impaired, hearing-impaired and mentally challenged who not only enjoy music but can engage in it with creativity and passion.  Musical notation, however, does not always assist in this regard.  Efforts have been made in this direction, but standard notation more-or-less assumes so-called “normal” capabilities in the person using it.  As with so many other areas, improved access to assistive technology has allowed great strides, along with continuing social reforms, legislative and otherwise, that have allowed individuals with disabilities to take a freer and more meaningful role in society.

What attributes, then, does good notation have?  In thoughts about Western notation, five qualities seem to be required of effective symbolism for music, and perhaps for notations of any type.  The first attribute is simplicity.  For maximum effectiveness and success, symbols should be relatively simple, although complex enough to give all needed information.  While some musical symbols in traditional notation are somewhat complex, most are relatively easily learned, easily remembered and easily duplicated.  While some symbols may seem difficult to modern eyes, consideration of their origins as marks to be made with a quill pen brings the realization that most are actually quite simple.  An example of this is the quarter-rest, which seems relatively complex, but when drawn with a quill, requires only two movements.  Other more complex symbols are only rarely drawn, such as the coda sign.

The second requirement for successful notation is clarity.  Symbols for one element of music must not physically interfere with each other, and must be immediately recognizable.  Engravers and copyists spend as much time ensuring that symbols do not collide with each other in published music as composers do writing the music in the first place.  In standard notation, a few conflicts occur—the shape of notes, usually reserved for rhythmic information, is frequently altered to indicate timbre, for example—but for the most part, standards of engraving have developed to make allowances for these conflicts to be resolved.  In addition, the spacing and layout of symbols on the page is a science unto itself, to a greater extent than one might think.  In well-engraved music, not only do the shapes of notes describe their rhythm, but their spacing within a measure also is a cue to their location.  The eyes are drawn across the page from left to right by the oval-shaped noteheads, and sixteenth-notes are always closer together than quarter-notes.  The style sheet of a reputable music publisher is very detailed, and its development over the centuries accounts for the difference between music that is easy to read and that which is more of a struggle.  Modern digital notesetting software, the musical equivalent of word processing, incorporates these rules without a thought from the user, thus representing a major advance in the clarity of musical notation.

A third necessary attribute of successful notation is uniqueness: under no circumstances can the same symbol be used to mean different things.  While some symbols, such as Arabic numerals, are used in multiple roles (meter signatures, tuplet notation, fingerings, etc.), they are also used in such a way as to remain distinct from each other in most cases, although not without the potential for confusion, as a numeral placed above the beam for a group of eighth-notes could be either a fingering or a tuplet numeral).  In addition, these are relatively subsidiary markings that do not lie at the core function of notation—the indication of pitch and duration.  Another symbol that might be perceived as being overused is the dot, which serves to augment the duration of a note when placed to the right of a notehead, but actually shortens that duration when placed above or below to indicate a staccato articulation.  Just as the experienced reader of English has learned to differentiate between the words though, tough and through, the experienced reader of music automatically finds the difference between the staccato mark and the augmentation dot.

This ability of the human mind raises the question, then, of just how fine a distinction can be made in notation, and how adaptable is the musical mind.  This is a question, certainly, for neuroscientists, but years of teaching the standard system of musical notation to students from kindergarten through college have given this author some insight in this area.  The human mind is quite capable of making rapid and accurate distinctions based on quite minute details—no doubt a trait selected for in the course of human evolution as our ancestors depended on fast and accurate perception of the natural world for their survival.  As with any language, those who, in the end, read music most fluently seem to be those who are exposed to it at an early age, both as musical performance and notation.  Many (although not most) children are reasonably fluent readers of their native language by the age of five, and there is no reason that children can’t be trained in reading music at that early age as well.  As with much other knowledge, it is the combination of opportunity and desire that leads some to pursue and succeed in music at a young age while others remain musically illiterate for their entire lifespans.

[1] The author’s father, who played in high school band in the 1960s describes having a personal copy book into which arrangements of his school songs were inscribed.  As young composer in the 1990s, the author’s earliest compositions had instrumental parts copied out by hand and then photocopied as needed.

[2] This author has proposed a solution to this particular notational problem, summarized in his poster session “On Rhythmic Notation and Nomenclature of Five-to-a-Beat Music” at the 2010 national conference of the College Music Society.  Other solutions have been proposed, but would require a complete revision of the musical system.