A version of this blog post has been republishing in Technology for Unleashing Creativity from Oxford University Press (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.
Think of tab as the notation for the age of the digital recording. It is designed to be used in partnership with the recording. Here is a great video that explains how tab works: (although he mentions a disadvantage that rhythm is not included but, again, it has a different purpose than Western Staff Notation so mentioning this as a disadvantage is not necessary.)
Horn players in funk bands or any non-jazz popular ensemble have been known to use a form of tab for horn players called soul tab. I’ve used it myself. It’s a combination of note-names and rhythm notation that communicate a chart to the performer.
Nashville Number System
Nashville Numbers are used primarily in the Nashville country music scene and it is a versatile and effective system for transmitting music. It uses numbers to represent scale degrees and also has its own system of markings to indicate any musical element. It is designed to give the chordal structure of a song and can sometimes communicate melody by using (again) Western rhythm notation combined with scale degrees or can give strumming pattern information, too. It is most similar to figured bass of the baroque and classical periods. It serves the same purpose but instead, it is just the numbers. The numbers facilitate easy transposition, and the charts do allow for and expect some element of improvisation.
Chas Williams, author of the book The Nashville Number System, has a great series of videos that explain the system well. Here is the introductory video, and you only have to watch the first couple of minutes to understand how it works:
Rap Flow Charts
Emcees (rappers) write out their flow (rap style) in what’s called a flow chart. A flow in rap is the relationship between the rhythm and the words and how it interacts with the beat. Since words and rhythm are the most important tenets of rap, it just makes sense. It’s not standardized, so flow charts vary based on the individual. They are mostly used for rappers to remember their flow for recording purposes. They can also be used to analyze a rap song. All of them, however, show how the lyrics interact with the beat of the music using underlines or beat numbers to indicate where the beat lands in the lyrics. They are also organized into measures. Here is one example of how a rap flow chart could look:
In this one, the beat numbers are lined up above the part of the word that gets the beat. The blank spaces are rests. (my first ever rap flow)
If you would like to know more about how rap and rap flow charts work, I recommend this book by Paul Edwards.
Digital Audio Workstations (DAW)
With a DAW, you actually have the ability to see the sounds being produced. There is no notation per se, but the sounds on the screen become a notation of sorts. There is no need for using traditional notation, aside from perhaps planning out the original form of the song. As well, music composed in a DAW will sound the same every time because there is no human error or interpretation to change it. Using a DAW, the composer can create sounds that traditional instruments cannot reproduce making it endlessly creative.
And within the MIDI protocol, there are squares and rectangles resembling organum from the Middle Ages or, more recently, a piano roll (from a player piano). MIDI notation is often called MIDI Piano Roll notation for its resemblance and similar function to a player piano’s piano roll. When you edit MIDI in a DAW, the area on your screen that you do that in is called a piano roll. It is standard notation across all MIDI composing software from Chrome Music Lab to BeepBox with only slight variations.
An example of MIDI Piano Roll notation
Here is an example of what a DAW like BandLab looks like:
Modern Musicians and Notation
Modern music educators should be versed in these styles of notation for music. Just like an English language learner needs to know all forms of English writing, a music learner needs to know all forms of music notation. The instrument or style that a particular learner is playing may even dictate the notation that is used (or not used). Drummers in rock ensembles for example, (I would argue) may not even need to read any form of notation since all of their music-making is made by ear or improvised.
Not one notational system is perfect, and no notational system should have superiority over the other. Tab has developed a rather blasphemous reputation among classically trained music educators, but it has a different purpose than Western Staff Notation. Nashville Numbers resembles figured bass and is used as a form of standardized notation in the country music scene. Rap flow charts and DAWs all focus on different styles and have different benefits, too.
Which systems do you use regularly with your learners? Are there any other systems that you use that are not mentioned here? Let me know.
Until next time, Happy Musicking!