A “Note” to the “Staff”: Knowing Multiple Forms of Music Notation
A version of this blog post is being republished in the forthcoming book, Technology for Unleashing Creativity from Oxford University Press set for release in 2022. This blog post was also adapted from Creative Musicking: Practical, Real-life Ideas to Get Your Learners Creating Their Own Music (2020).
There are a number of different styles of musical notation. One of them, is the one that most trained musicians throughout the world seem to value the most–Western Staff Notation. You know, the five-line staff with alternating lines and spaces for pitch and the a series of sticks, lines, dots, and flags to indicate rhythm? I get it, it’s pretty great, I mean if a group of musicians know how to read Western Staff Notation, they can read down a piece of music and play it as it was intended to be played the first time without hearing it first. A pretty impressive skill to non-musicians and musicians alike. However, it’s not perfect.
Knowing Multiple Forms of Notation
One of the major flaws in Western Staff Notation is key signatures. Even the best Western Staff Notation readers make mistakes reading in, say, Cb or any other hard-to-read key signature with lots of flats or sharps. Accidentals, double-flats and double-sharps just add another layer to the confusion. I know that classical composers will tell you differently, but do you REALLY need F-sharp major AND G-flat major? C-flat AND B? C-sharp AND D-flat? You get my drift. It seems that there have been people who recognized this as a problem too and came up with a system called Simplified Music Notation to try and curb this issue.
Another glaring flaw with Western Staff notation is time signatures. The rule for the top number applies in most situations; same with the bottom, but “what gets the beat” only works until it’s not a “4” anymore. When the bottom number is “8,” based on the rules we were taught, the eighth-notes would presumably get the beat, I mean, because that’s what we’re told–NOPE. It’s the dotted quarter-note that gets the beat.
The naming system in English-speaking North America is a little strange too. A quarter note is only a quarter of a whole measure in 4/4 time and considered to be quarter of a whole note. It’s still called a quarter note in 3/4 time where it should be called a third-note (three beats to a measure) and still called a quarter note in 2/4 time where it should be called a half note. The practice of indicating sound for a whole measure using a whole note in any time signature (much like the whole rest) has fallen out of favour and only applies to 4/4. Also, the word “note” is used to describe a rhythm AND a pitch, which are not the same thing. In my opinion, a better system is the French naming system because the rhythms are called what they look like instead of how they relate to 4/4 time. Take a look:
whole note = ronde (round)
half note = blanche (white)
quarter note = noir (black)
eighth note = croche (hook)
sixteenth note = double-croche (double-hook)
The rhythm notation itself is actually one of the best aspects about Western Staff Notation. It has the ability to notate ANY duration of a sound. That’s why a lot of other notational systems have adopted Western rhythm notation into their standardization.
What we often forget is that there are a lot of other forms of standard and non-standard notational systems that are common and completely legitimate. Here are the most common ones:
Tab is used commonly–and many times exclusively–as a notation system for fretted instruments. Guitar has a six-line “staff,” bass and ukulele have four. Numbers indicate what frets to press down, stacked numbers indicate harmony or a chord. There are many other unique markings in tab to mean any number of musical elements. In some instances, the system utilizes Western rhythm notation to indicate rhythm, but the ultimate purpose of tab is to transmit or notate a piece of music that is already well known by the player. It has a different purpose than Western Staff Notation.