Read Music Faster With Hummingbird.
April 19, 2013 12:01 PM   Subscribe

 
A buddy of mine linked to this on Facebook a few days ago, and I don't feel like my skepticism of it has faded, although I'm having a hard time deciding whether my aversion to it is a result of reason or prejudice. Getting rid of key signatures is a terrible idea that favors beginners but makes sight reading a giant pain in the ass. Using physical length as an index for duration sounds intuitive at first glance, but in practice we're shit at gauging lengths and now the notehead duration indicators are more obscure.

Also worth noting that my random click through of the transcriptions shows songs with key centers clustered around the C/A minor part of the circle of fifths, and the Moonlight Sonata transcription is transposed from the original C# minor to E minor. I think that's telling.

Part of the reason I think my hackles are getting raised here is because I see this sort of thing in tech all the time. Someone comes along and says, "the old way is broken! I've invented this new system that is much easier!" They're only sometimes right about the first part (in this case, I think it's true -- music notation is terribly under-expressive in pretty much every way, but this doesn't tackle that problem anyway!) but they're usually wrong about the second: what they've invented instead is a system that eliminates the typical difficulties of the beginner, but also precludes the granularity of usage that an expert expects. It's the modern designer-fueled disease of "everything should be intuitive all the time!"
posted by invitapriore at 12:07 PM on April 19, 2013 [71 favorites]


Interesting. It's like they mashed up Rock Band with written notation. I doubt it will catch on, but it's certainly neat to look at.
posted by jbickers at 12:09 PM on April 19, 2013 [2 favorites]


I feel like they fixed the wrong thing. The staff is hard and weird to newcomers, the notations themselves are simple enough.
posted by 2bucksplus at 12:15 PM on April 19, 2013 [17 favorites]


This fails miserably in bad lighting or with bad eyes.
posted by seanmpuckett at 12:16 PM on April 19, 2013 [2 favorites]


Okay, and I hate traditional notation. But this is not the answer.
posted by seanmpuckett at 12:16 PM on April 19, 2013 [3 favorites]


Oh, hello Esperanto for Musicians!
posted by jph at 12:16 PM on April 19, 2013 [45 favorites]


As someone who teaches students notation pretty much daily, I'm not sure if this is much of an improvement. The different shapes make students memorize MORE information that is already expressed by the line/space the music is on. The spacial approach to rhythm may help when looking at music theoretically, but can be imprecise in performance.
posted by lownote at 12:18 PM on April 19, 2013 [2 favorites]


I don't think that mentally calculating line length is easier than converting a note to length.

I wonder how they notate triplets...
posted by Hollywood Upstairs Medical College at 12:20 PM on April 19, 2013 [7 favorites]


The soft, bubbly forms are fun! Hummingbird is inviting when traditional notation can feel intimidating.

This is risible. I want a musical score, not a teddy bear.
posted by thelonius at 12:21 PM on April 19, 2013 [4 favorites]


This fails miserably in bad lighting or with bad eyes.

Just like... all written material, of any kind, ever.

Anyway, I think modifying traditional notation to represent note length spacially instead of symbolically is a good idea (my percussion teacher would do this for me, and it was immensely helpful), but that's pretty easy to do without throwing the rest of it out.

But yes of course this is new and not what we learned, so obviously it sucks.
posted by Sokka shot first at 12:23 PM on April 19, 2013


Hex codes in ScreamTracker seemed intuitive at the time.
posted by benzenedream at 12:26 PM on April 19, 2013 [18 favorites]


When I think to the poorly photocopied sheet music I've used, I think this notation might be a little less resilient in that respect. I also agree that figuring out where notes are on the staff is the tricky part, and it does actually have a special symbol to tell you which is C. That is actually be a good idea, if for teaching people to read music if nothing else. I feel that might make it quicker to remember where 'c' should go, spatially, rather than having to count lines.
posted by Zalzidrax at 12:27 PM on April 19, 2013


Just one more distraction for already taxed school music program budgets.
posted by Catblack at 12:27 PM on April 19, 2013


I also saw this last week on Facebook and thought fail. It's nearly impossible to judge it without bias if you know traditional notation, however.

I'd love to see someone without any musical experience try to learn both ways and see which she prefers.
posted by mrgrimm at 12:27 PM on April 19, 2013 [1 favorite]


Is it easier than shape notes?
posted by The Underpants Monster at 12:28 PM on April 19, 2013


Read music better by not having the memories of a cantankerous old piano teacher calling you an idiot every time you played a wrong note.

Yeah. Fuck you Mister Fogel.
posted by popcassady at 12:32 PM on April 19, 2013 [4 favorites]


designers gotta design.
posted by roue at 12:34 PM on April 19, 2013 [1 favorite]


I actually think it would be easier to judge it if they would show me a faithful transcription of pieces I'm familiar with written in Hummingbird. Instead, on their site they have "Moonlight Sonata" which is basically the middle school quarter note version of the piece. Show me a Bach Sonata and I'll tell you how reasonable this is.

But, very basically: this idea is kind of half baked as it is. If you've got a different notation for each note, you no longer need the staff. So putting it on the staff is vestigial and actually unhelpful for us to judge its efficiency against traditional notation.

So okay, this is probably fine, but I honestly doubt that this is actually an improvement. This is, in my estimation, just a rearranging of previous notation. A solution in search of a problem.
posted by jph at 12:34 PM on April 19, 2013 [2 favorites]


Under-expressiveness of musical notation is a feature, not a bug. It gives more latitude to the performer and for the bandleader/conductor. These people are not machines.

Also, nthing the show-us-the-Bach-sonata.
posted by curuinor at 12:37 PM on April 19, 2013 [1 favorite]


How well would the duration represented by length thing work for a complicated piece, I wonder?
posted by thelonius at 12:37 PM on April 19, 2013


Regarding the line length: it's not just line length, from what I can see. The whole note also has two ) right after it, half note has 1, quarter note has 0, and the eighth note is at a 45 degree angle downwards. So that doesn't seem like a terrible drawback.

Funnily enough, what I like most about it is also what seems to be what needs the most work: the notes as placed both on the line indicating their pitch as well as the shape of the symbol indicating the pitch. That's pretty neat as an idea, and C D E F G are easy enough, but the A & B are a bit too easy to get confused.

I think that for this to work in performance, the print would have to be larger so that those internal details could be more easily seen. Same thing with the multiple hash tags on the 16th & 32nd notes/rests.

you no longer need the staff. So putting it on the staff is vestigial

I think the idea is redundancy and multiple reinforcement -- you can see where it is spatially on the staff, AND the note announces its pitch visually.
posted by Saxon Kane at 12:41 PM on April 19, 2013 [3 favorites]


I am a pianist and while at first glance I think it looks like a wonderfully coherent idea (especially the different picture for each musical note), I think it is very, very unlikely to take hold for the same reason that the non-ergonomic QWERTY keyboard reigns and always will.
posted by mermily at 12:43 PM on April 19, 2013 [1 favorite]


Der: "Regarding using line length to indicate duration" I mean.

The rhythmic aspect of this seems to be the least readable.
posted by Saxon Kane at 12:44 PM on April 19, 2013


Stems! My kingdom for stems!

I actually like the idea of encoding pitches. When I read through the guides and examples, the notation for "G", "A", "E", etc. was consistent no matter what octave. That would come in handy for alto and tenor clefs.

This system would crumble under instrument-specific articulations. How do you denote harmonics on a violin?
posted by NemesisVex at 12:50 PM on April 19, 2013


jph: "Oh, hello Esperanto for Musicians!"

That was my exact reaction when someone told me about this a few days ago.

I may have some cognitive bias here - I spent all that time learning musical notation, nobody ELSE gets to do it the easy way - but I'm not convinced this is sufficiently better to get us out of the current equilibrium result.
posted by dismas at 12:50 PM on April 19, 2013


Using both a distinctive symbol and a vertical position on the staff means this system isn't completely irrelevant to traditional notation. If they just used symbols without a staff, someone who learned this system would be no closer to being able to read any existing sheet music. Since this retains the standard arrangement on the staff, it should be possible to learn this notation as a beginner and then transition to traditional notation.
posted by logopetria at 12:51 PM on April 19, 2013 [1 favorite]


Pitch symbols are obvious, barely requiring memorization

I get suspicious when someone says something is "obvious", since if it that were the case they wouldn't actually have to tell me it was. Rather, I'd see it & go, "Oh. Obvious."
posted by Going To Maine at 12:51 PM on April 19, 2013 [7 favorites]


Anyway, I think modifying traditional notation to represent note length spacially instead of symbolically is a good idea (my percussion teacher would do this for me, and it was immensely helpful), but that's pretty easy to do without throwing the rest of it out.

I can totally understand how that's helpful when you're just starting to learn music notation, and I think when I first learned to read it I did a similar thing with drawing lines outward from the noteheads, but the problem is that it doesn't stay useful: eventually you get used to the notation and you don't need the visualization anymore, and at that point it's much easier to disambiguate durations with the note head/stem, especially with shorter durations. If I were sight reading this stuff there's no way I would even consider using the duration lines as my guide.

Under-expressiveness of musical notation is a feature, not a bug. It gives more latitude to the performer and for the bandleader/conductor. These people are not machines.

No, it's totally a bug, both because it precludes a whole swath of approaches to music creation and because it encourages musicians to think in terms of the expressive units it affords, which are abstract and limited. You could replicate the current system with more expressive notation if you wanted to by just omitting details, but the converse isn't possible with the current system.
posted by invitapriore at 12:52 PM on April 19, 2013 [2 favorites]


This reminds me of people who think that all we need to do to make programming easier is invent easier programming languages. Which is kinda-sorta true -- there is a lot of stupid stuff in the standard programming languages -- but that's a very small amount of what you spend your time on if you get good at it.
posted by miyabo at 12:52 PM on April 19, 2013 [3 favorites]


I hated traditional notation, and I had to transcribe in to my own notation - but that's because i'm a weirdo who learned how to play by ear well before I learned how to read music.

This solves the wrong problems, in my opinion.

One advantage that the traditional notation has the division of notes into eights, quarters, etc. is a very deciperable process --- It's purely adding one component for each division up to quarter notes, and then quarternotes are sub divided based on the number of -- err, "flags" - You don't have to have perfect sight if you can easily see the "flags", the - err, "flagpole," and if the note is filled in or not.

The different symbols seem as if they wouldn't correspond quite as well, on a purely visual/mathmatical basis.

Now, find a way to deal with notes that are off the 5 lines in a more graceful manner - and possibly eliminate the need for sharps/naturals (which is what I did) and you are solving an area that people traditionally trip up on.

(sorry for the lack of technical terms, i erased that part of my memory some time ago)
posted by MysticMCJ at 12:55 PM on April 19, 2013


Many, many complaints here about how this system is redundant, not better once you're an experienced musician, etc... Let's look at the FPP again:
"If you learned to play a musical instrument as a kid, you likely remember your first encounter with traditional music notation. You remember being baffled by the symbols denoting quarter notes, eighth notes, sixteenth notes. Or the difficulty of reading notes located above or below the staff. The Western system of music notation goes back hundreds of years, and it has been befuddling students for generations." A piano teacher and a data visualization professional team up to create Hummingbird, a new system of music notation which claims to make sight reading "easier to learn, faster to read, and simpler for even the trickiest music." [emphasis mine]
So, it doesn't seem to be aimed at experienced musicians at all.

This feels like we're reviewing training wheels on a bike with "it will slow experienced riders down" and "how will those things stay on when I mountain bike offroads?"
posted by IAmBroom at 12:56 PM on April 19, 2013 [8 favorites]


But if a principle of good design is to eliminate redundancy and unnecessary complexity, then this design just autofails by adding an entirely redundant feature to musical notation by changing the shape of the notes and keeping the staff. Furthermore, why abandon previous rest notation? As I said, a solution in search of a problem.
posted by jph at 12:57 PM on April 19, 2013 [2 favorites]


The hardest thing for me with reading music is not length of notes (what's so difficult about whole/half/eighth/etc.?) but having to suss out where exactly on the staff every note was and what note that happened to correspond to in that particular clef.

And that's why I ended up on drums.
posted by Sys Rq at 1:00 PM on April 19, 2013 [3 favorites]


you know, you could simply reverse the infographic on the bottom for a completely viable rationale to go to traditional notation FROM hummingbird, with very little change in verbage
posted by MysticMCJ at 1:01 PM on April 19, 2013 [3 favorites]


So, it doesn't seem to be aimed at experienced musicians at all.

But then it doesn't have any use. Music notation is meant to facilitate the communication of musical content -- reading and writing it isn't a meaningful skill in its own right -- so unless this system is designed to be a potential general purpose notation then all learning it gets you is the ability to read and write Hummingbird.
posted by invitapriore at 1:02 PM on April 19, 2013 [5 favorites]


invitapriore: “Getting rid of key signatures is a terrible idea that favors beginners but makes sight reading a giant pain in the ass.”

As a jazz musician who can only fitfully pick his way through written music, although I can play through a lead sheet, I don't like this new system much – it's exactly as complicated as the old system, and it has the added drawback of being even less familiar to me.

However: that part, I think, is awesome, and would be really great to teach young musicians. Transposing in one's head is an essential skill of musicianship. If a young musician counted herself or himself well-trained once she or he could change the "Cm" in the corner of a piece of music to a "B♭m" or "Fm" and still play it straight through, then we'd really be cooking. "Giant pain in the ass?" Maybe. Worthwhile as a necessary exercise in transposition? Yeah, I think so.

I mean, I've met guys who could play all of Scott Joplin's works in any key. In my mind, that's quality of musicianship, because it involves actually learning the harmonic relationships of the music one is playing.
posted by koeselitz at 1:03 PM on April 19, 2013 [1 favorite]


The Underpants Monster: "Is it easier than shape notes?"

I've been singing shape note (four shape system) music regularly for a few years now, and Hummingbird does not seem to be an improvement. The thing that makes the four-shape system better is how well it highlights intervals. This might not seem like a great benefit when dealing with small intervals, but IMO it's much easier to sightread any intervals more than a fourth apart when they're in shapes compared to roundnotes. Other seven-shape systems have been around for a long time (cf. Christian Harmony) but are less appealing to me because they don't highlight the fourth as well as four-shape fa-so-la-fa-so-la-mi-fa systems do.
posted by The White Hat at 1:03 PM on April 19, 2013


IAmBroom: "Many, many complaints here about how this system is redundant, not better once you're an experienced musician, etc... Let's look at the FPP again:
"If you learned to play a musical instrument as a kid, you likely remember your first encounter with traditional music notation. You remember being baffled by the symbols denoting quarter notes, eighth notes, sixteenth notes. Or the difficulty of reading notes located above or below the staff. The Western system of music notation goes back hundreds of years, and it has been befuddling students for generations." A piano teacher and a data visualization professional team up to create Hummingbird, a new system of music notation which claims to make sight reading "easier to learn, faster to read, and simpler for even the trickiest music." [emphasis mine]
So, it doesn't seem to be aimed at experienced musicians at all.

This feels like we're reviewing training wheels on a bike with "it will slow experienced riders down" and "how will those things stay on when I mountain bike offroads?"
"

But presumably we want inexperienced musicians to be experienced musicians one day (at least some of them), at which point they'll have to learn a new set of notation.

Again I'm not saying that this is inherently a bad idea, but that it's not so good an idea that it's feasible to adopt, if that makes any sense. But then again, I learned musical notation at an early age and it's never seemed that hard to me.
posted by dismas at 1:04 PM on April 19, 2013


lownote: "The different shapes make students memorize MORE information that is already expressed by the line/space the music is on."

But you're assuming that rote memorization is a good thing. The neat thing about this system is that it's far more intuitive, and often offers multiple cues to readers.

I can read traditional musical notation, and it's not terribly difficult to memorize, but the symbols sure do seem arbitrary and archaic. Once you learn the first few symbols, it's fairly easy to deduce the meaning of the remaining ones.

I also always had difficulty spatially parsing each note's location on the staff (probably related to the fact that I had a tough time learning to read as a kid, and still struggle with drawing). I also always found it profoundly annoying that horizontal scale is essentially meaningless in traditional notation (this makes sense if you're handwriting your music, but is completely unnecessary if you've got a computer to do your typesetting).

I don't play music any more, because I could never master sight reading -- there was simply too much going on at once. However, I do think that I'd eventually be able to parse hummingbird's notation without playing the thing a thousand times.

tl;dr; Traditional music notation seems to strongly favor people whose brains have been wired a certain way. If you can capably read musical notation, Hummingbird is probably not going to solve any problems that you have. However, it might make music more accessible to a group of people who have traditionally had great difficulty communicating in its written language.
posted by schmod at 1:07 PM on April 19, 2013


I wonder how they notate triplets...

I had that question too! Or dotted notes. If a dotted eighth note is distinguished from a quarter note by being 1.5 times as long as an eighth note and not twice as long … that strikes me as pretty awful.
posted by kenko at 1:13 PM on April 19, 2013


Transposing in one's head is an essential skill of musicianship. If a young musician counted herself or himself well-trained once she or he could change the "Cm" in the corner of a piece of music to a "B♭m" or "Fm" and still play it straight through, then we'd really be cooking. "Giant pain in the ass?" Maybe. Worthwhile as a necessary exercise in transposition? Yeah, I think so.

That's a good point, koeselitz, and maybe that's the pedagogic application that this system is meant for, although it just made me realize that it presents another difficulty for someone analyzing in a score in that getting rid of explicit key information both makes the analyzer's job more tedious and also eliminates a significant insight into the composer's intent. That might be a good thing, though. Music theorists have a really bizarrely excessive faith in the ability of listeners to maintain a particular tonal context in their heads over long, tonally ambiguous stretches.
posted by invitapriore at 1:14 PM on April 19, 2013 [2 favorites]


ah, found my MAJOR problem with it - it looks like a goddamned astrology chart.

Not sure if if this is a sharp, or the cusp of aries...
posted by MysticMCJ at 1:15 PM on April 19, 2013 [4 favorites]


Those note-shapes look nice now, but they're going to look basically indistinguishable when the students in an under-funded middle-school music program are reading a third-generation photocopy of the original. The cute little accidental stems will probably suffer the same fate.
posted by Johnny Assay at 1:16 PM on April 19, 2013 [1 favorite]


Shape notes - the good thing about shape notes, at least, is they can be ignored by someone who has a full understanding of standard notation. So some of the note heads are shaped funny. I can choose to ignore that if I don't want to learn something additional/different.

But THIS is a train wreck.
posted by randomkeystrike at 1:20 PM on April 19, 2013


As much as I hate sight reading, this is a train wreck. The old system isn't broken, and I think trying to teach music theory with this new system would be pretty hellish.

OTOH if you are teaching someone to sight sing this could be helpful-but we already have do-re-me-fa -so and so forth.


(You want an improvement on sight reading and more flexibility in your playing? Learn to read chords on piano! Won't help you with Beethoven, but most of you don't want to play Moonlight Sonata anyway.)
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 1:26 PM on April 19, 2013


Wow, that system is hard to read. Tiny little tickies for eighth notes? No thank you!
posted by 3.2.3 at 1:27 PM on April 19, 2013


When I think to the poorly photocopied sheet music I've used, I think this notation might be a little less resilient in that respect.

Sheet music publishers should love it then!
posted by grouse at 1:33 PM on April 19, 2013


Sheet music publishers should love it then!

This is the absolute truth - They were always one step away from having it show VOID all over the sheet if it was copied.
posted by MysticMCJ at 1:36 PM on April 19, 2013


I learned how to read music as a kid (years of piano lessons) and its also never seemed hard to me. But then I have a copy of Alfred's Basic piano course, which breaks up learning the notation into little bits, eighth notes aren't even introduced until halfway through the first book. Learning to read/play the trickiest music came LONG after learning to read (most) musical notation. Their justification sounds as if this system will be most useful when teaching beginners whose teacher's possess unreasonable expectations.
It also seems rather futile to reinvent notation when placed against all the music that has already been written. Eventually the student will need to learn it, why not just start their to begin with?
posted by florencetnoa at 1:40 PM on April 19, 2013 [1 favorite]


I know we've got computer typesetting now, but this is basically impossible to write out by hand, which is a major problem.
posted by Jahaza at 1:40 PM on April 19, 2013 [3 favorites]


I remember seeing several approaches to make a better music notation. I didn't find the one I remember liking best, but here's a bunch. All of them, without exception, are better than this.

It's as if it's a parody... stick to all the terrible bits (odd symbols for duration? Check. Arbitrarily putting notes on five lines and having to correct later with sharp and flat? Check.), and make everything more confusing by adding additional redundancy (now it's lines and odd symbols? Great!). The symbols are too small to read even if you're not stressed out by having to make your fingers do the right thing. It's all around awful. Targeting it at novices makes it worse, not better.
posted by dlg at 1:40 PM on April 19, 2013 [5 favorites]


This reminds me of ITA, the "Initial Teaching Alphabet", a 1960's educational experiment. The idea was to teach kids to read using a "rationalized" alphabet where each symbol maps uniquely onto a phoneme (requiring 44 symbols). After learning to read using this alphabet, students were to transition to traditional notation - since (just like music) you still need to be able to read that, as there's just too much existing repertoire (it's not all going to all get translated to ITA, or Hummingbird). Anyhow, my older siblings were subjected to this - I remember seeing the books they brought home from school filled with weird glyphs (can't give you a sample, as ITA never made it into Unicode, although to my surprise I see that there's still an active ITA association). Fortunately, this experiment was phased out just before I started school. And the outcome is, I am the only one out of my siblings who can spell correctly! Yeah, English is hard, and music is hard - that's why it's best to start learning it young, while brain plasticity is at its maximum. Start with the real thing, not a watered-down or "simplified" version.
posted by crazy_yeti at 1:44 PM on April 19, 2013 [7 favorites]


Also, the mnemonics: "D" is "down"? Well that'll be confusing when you're going from C to D!
posted by Jahaza at 1:46 PM on April 19, 2013


> This reminds me of ITA, the "Initial Teaching Alphabet"

HOLY SHIT, I LEARNED THAT. Like, in the 80s. I had totally forgotten about it until I saw the vowels, but I recognize (and can easily read) all of the letters

The thing is, I had already learned the "normal" alphabet... so I have absolutely no clue how or why I got exposed to this.
posted by MysticMCJ at 1:51 PM on April 19, 2013


Also, the mnemonics: "D" is "down"?
Yeah, there are so many things wrong with this system that it's hard to know where to begin...
posted by crazy_yeti at 1:53 PM on April 19, 2013


I don't know that this system is as terrible as some think, but it seems a bit mistargeted to me. I'd be willing to bet that the majority of musicians today don't read music fluently if at all. Precise paper transcription of music is only really necessary for a few particular types of Western music.

Seems like you get pretty far with a group of young, inexperienced musicians without any sheet music at all just by teaching them scales, rhythm, two-beat vs. three-beat patterns, intervals, chords, melody vs harmony, call and response, verse-chorus-bridge structure, 12-bar blues...You don't need sheet music to learn that. You'll want some kind of tablature when you start talking about structure, but you don't need to transcribe every single note. The idea that a performance of a particular should be note-for-note the same as any other performance of the song is important to some traditions, but not to the vast majority of how music is actually played and experienced around the world.

Music education sucks a lot of the joy out of music. Same with math education.
posted by echo target at 1:55 PM on April 19, 2013 [9 favorites]


Precise paper transcription of music is only really necessary for a few particular types of Western music.

It's crazy how many people seem to think that this is the most essential thing about music. People will learn that the Beatles couldn't read music, for example, and they think that's incredible. They couldn't read music! As if reading music is what makes someone able to write good songs.

Filed in my cabinet of musical pet peeves (like anyone who ever took piano lessons calling themselves 'classically trained')
posted by thelonius at 2:06 PM on April 19, 2013 [2 favorites]


Unless something has changed Eric Clapton can't read music either. Heck, our last music pastor before the present one can't read music, and he played piano and led a full band music team for ten years!

It makes my heart hurt how many kids get forced into piano lessons and then quit at the first opportunity without learning just how incredibly fun REAL music is. We aren't ALL meant to play Beethoven. And Beethoven would most likely SUCK at jazz.
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 2:13 PM on April 19, 2013 [2 favorites]


Hm. Well, this is an interesting turn the conversation has taken; some thoughts:

echo target: “I don't know that this system is as terrible as some think, but it seems a bit mistargeted to me. I'd be willing to bet that the majority of musicians today don't read music fluently if at all. Precise paper transcription of music is only really necessary for a few particular types of Western music.”

On the wager that most musicians today don't read music fluently: as far as jazz (my own milieu) goes, this is less true than it used to be. If you're teaching yourself, taking the time to learn to read music and sight-read can be a huge impediment; but if you're learning music scholastically, it's something you learn early precisely because it's the biggest facilitator of sharing how music is played precisely with other people. That is – your teacher will want to show you things, to have you play this and that, and written music is the easiest way. And just in general jazz musicians have a much more music-school background than they used to. (I'm kind of an aberration, actually – almost exclusively self-taught, which does hold me back a little I think.)

“Seems like you get pretty far with a group of young, inexperienced musicians without any sheet music at all just by teaching them scales, rhythm, two-beat vs. three-beat patterns, intervals, chords, melody vs harmony, call and response, verse-chorus-bridge structure, 12-bar blues...You don't need sheet music to learn that. You'll want some kind of tablature when you start talking about structure, but you don't need to transcribe every single note. The idea that a performance of a particular should be note-for-note the same as any other performance of the song is important to some traditions, but not to the vast majority of how music is actually played and experienced around the world. Music education sucks a lot of the joy out of music. Same with math education.”

I have more mixed feelings about this – or rather I think there are various definitions for the term "music education."

I mean: if Billy Taylor heard you say "music education sucks all of the joy out of music," I think he'd say something like: 'bullshit. Being educated about music is what helps you play and enjoy it better. Anything else isn't really music education.' And on that level, I think he'd be right. Billy Taylor did a lot for jazz as an educator because he exploded a lot of silly myths people have about jazz: that it's 'purely intuitive,' that it means totally freeing yourself from constructive thoughts or logic or something, that it isn't a careful synthesis of very hard work and a knowledge of music theory. People have this idea that jazz is just getting up there and blowing, letting the music take you; but it's not. It's a highly intellectual activity.

But on the other hand, I'd actually take what you say about starting young, inexperienced musicians out and teaching them scales and all that even further. I would say many of the very greatest musicians of the 20th century couldn't read music. I mean, watch this guy for a few moments, and contemplate the fact that he couldn't read a single note of sheet music. He's damned good – one of the best pianists to have ever existed – and moreover he's doing some crazy and complicated stuff, substituting tritones and introducing chromatic motion and keeping two and three and even four parts going at once with both hands. If you sat down with Errol Garner and said: "hey Errol – play me a C minor diminished seventh chord," he'd know precisely what you were talking about.

I guess what I'm getting at is this: music transcription – the way it's written down, etc – is entirely distinct from music theory. And, while music transcription is entirely extraneous to what Errol Garner was doing (the same is true for most of us jazz musicians) music theory isn't; it's still very important, even if all we're doing is rejecting it or something like that.

And that, to me, is problematic. This is all a roundabout, long-winded way of saying that I wonder if music transcription should have more to do with music theory. Other people have had this idea, especially teachers. As I said above, I do like the fact that keys are framed in terms of keys in this system rather than an accretion of accidentals (how many sharps, how many flats, etc). I think that means that maybe Hummingbird might be somewhat useful for teaching music theory.

But: personally? I still think music theory's the important thing, and I could care less about transcription except insofar as it helps me listen to what I'm hearing. It does, kind of, in that transcribing solos and stuff has been a great exercise for me; but I'll never be able to sight-read music. Although I think it might be fun to sight-read, I have other priorities at this point in my life. Like being a better jazz musician.
posted by koeselitz at 2:43 PM on April 19, 2013 [11 favorites]


music transcription...is entirely distinct from music theory

Aha, see, now you're at the heart of it. So much basic music education, at least the stuff I had, is focused entirely on transcription. I remember sitting there with our little plastic recorders, marking up our sheet music with all the letters, and trying to remember the fingerings that matched with the letters. There wasn't a drop of music theory, which would have sounded like impressive college professor stuff to me at the time.

But it doesn't have to be like that. Play these two notes together - they sound nice! Play these other two - sounds grating and nasty! Now why is that? This stuff could absolutely be taught to grade-school kids, and it would give people the tools to understand more complex music.

I'd like to see early music education focus on applied music theory rather than transcription. It'd be nice to make transcription easier and more intuitive, but once you get to the point where transcription is actually necessary, it doesn't matter quite so much whether or not it's easy. A shovel is intuitive, the controls on a hydraulic excavator are not - but most of the time you really only need a shovel. Maybe that's not the best metaphor.
posted by echo target at 3:02 PM on April 19, 2013 [3 favorites]


Having different shapes for note names isn't a terrible idea, but Hummingbird's rhythmic notation is backwards in a really terrible way. Beaming in traditional notation is a really convenient and efficient way to see how a bar of music is subdivided at a glance -- when written properly, you barely need to think about it at all. Here it's really hard to discern quickly, like you need to be able to do when reading music. Those squiggly ties and backwards arrows are cumbersome and counterintuitive. It's even hard to tell on which note they're supposed to begin and end.

Plus, everything's really tiny. Tiny tiny tiny. Just in terms of straight up legibility, it sucks.
posted by speicus at 3:12 PM on April 19, 2013


Precise paper transcription of music is only really necessary for a few particular types of Western music.

That's not, strictly speaking, true though. Without paper notation, you are forced to stick closer to what is essentially an oral history of music, limited by interactions, limited by individual abilities, and limited by time and space, and the learner's perceptions. Certainly with technology/the internet doing what it is doing, a lot of this is changing and oral histories are becoming vastly easier to preserve. But there is a kind of hard limit to what can be achieved without written notation.

Formal musical notation and music theory study has limits. It's a different kind of skill, and focusing on it exclusively limits other opportunities. I will sight read any written music you put in front of me. But when my father sits down at the piano and says "Oh, come on play Happy Birthday! You know that!" I don't. Really. I don't. I can pick it out. Sure. Eventually. But it'll take an ugly moment. And nobody wants that at their birthday party... It's like a Beowulf scholar who can read Old English but can't enjoy Harry Potter.

I think we really need to look at musical notation the same way we look at literacy in language. There is a spectrum of ability. One can recognize letters. One can recognize enough words to divine context. One can learn grammar. And so on and so on and so on, all the way up to both creative and higher order research and writing skills. So too with musical notation. Literacy isn't just an on/off, yes/no switch. It's shades of grey. So too with musical literacy.

Anyway, we need both Beowulf scholars and Harry Potter readers. And I think both groups are going to be better off if they pull toward the center of the spectrum of literacy and stop holding quite so tightly to their respective ends.
posted by jph at 3:12 PM on April 19, 2013 [1 favorite]


I don't think that mentally calculating line length is easier than converting a note to length.

But you don't have to do that. There are other clearly visible distinctions between how different durations are notated.

I like it.
posted by John Cohen at 3:16 PM on April 19, 2013


It reminds me of guitar tablature, actually, which can be easier to read than traditional notation if you already know the song, but more difficult if you don't know the song and you're actually trying to read off the page.
posted by speicus at 3:16 PM on April 19, 2013 [2 favorites]


> It reminds me of guitar tablature, actually, which can be easier to read than traditional
> notation if you already know the song, but more difficult if you don't know the song and
> you're actually trying to read off the page.

Guitar tab certainly doesn't show the rise and fall of the melody very well, does it? But it has its uses and isn't just a crutch or make-do. Standard notation does almost nothing to display fingering, which is an issue for guitarists (or lutenists or citternists I guess) because many notes can be played at two or even three different places on the fingerboard, differing only in timbre.


> As if reading music is what makes someone able to write good songs.

There aren't many non-readers writing good symphonies, though, not ever. A method of concentrated symbolic representation is what allows you to take bigger bites. Humongous bytes, as a symphony is to a song.

PS John and Paul maybe couldn't read but George Martin read and wrote standard musical notation just fine. Which is what allowed him (not John or Paul) to do stuff such as putting that string quartet bit into Eleanor Rigby.
posted by jfuller at 3:30 PM on April 19, 2013 [1 favorite]


Perhaps that's what amazes them - they don't know that Paul had George Martin between him and the string quartet on Elanor Rigby
posted by thelonius at 3:36 PM on April 19, 2013


thelonius: “As if reading music is what makes someone able to write good songs.”

jfuller: “There aren't many non-readers writing good symphonies, though, not ever. A method of concentrated symbolic representation is what allows you to take bigger bites. Humongous bytes, as a symphony is to a song.”

But that's not a correct comparison at all, really. I mean, "writing symphonies" means putting notes down on paper, so of course people who can't read notes on paper aren't writing them down.

Take a parallel example: I could say that literacy, being able to read written language, is what enables one to compose great literary works. "Look at the famous novels," I'd say. "All of them were written down by literate people." But it's clearly not true that being able to read written language is a necessary prerequisite for composing great literary works; all of the Odyssey and the Iliad were composed by people who were completely illiterate, as were the bardic traditional poems from a dozen various cultures.

Music is much the same. I mean, if it were acceptable and made possible by the structure of the music world, you bet people who can't read music would be sitting down with symphony orchestras and hammering out some neat pieces note by note. And some of them might be genuinely brilliant. We don't know, because that's not the symphony tradition; that's fine, but the tradition doesn't indicate anything about the natural limits of musical ability.

As I said above, take Errol Garner, a non-reader who was capable of composing brilliant works of great genius on the fly, works that demonstrated lyricism and depth and an extraordinary synthesis of musical theory and an interpretation and reaction to the streams of big band and bop music. This is music that is, quite frankly, often much more complex than a symphony. Or if you don't like Errol Garner, take Art Tatum, who is almost unquestionably the most virtuosic and capable pianist ever recorded, and who couldn't read music – indeed, it wouldn't have been much good to him if he had, given the fact that he was blind. But he was, in fact, classically trained in music theory at a school for the blind. He, like so many of the great piano players, learned what he learned from player pianos, not from sheet music.

We're at the point where the capabilities and contributions of jazz can't be ignored; and that means we can't really use the ability to write symphonies as the benchmark for capable musicianship anymore, as fine a thing as it may be.
posted by koeselitz at 3:51 PM on April 19, 2013 [3 favorites]


As a person going on maybe 4 months of beginning piano instruction, I instantly loved this because it addresses a lot of things I think of as stupid in regards to traditional music notation. A lot of time I'm reading musical notation in my piano instruction book and I can tell a lot of shortcuts and shorthand notation was done to save ink on sheet music 400 years ago and it would be nice if we could revisit that without any of the limitations of the past.

The main winner for me is the identifiable notes no matter where they are on the staff. Looking at any of these examples I can spot a G or a C or an E anywhere it shows up about 10x faster than I can using standard methods. Also with standard notation I end up memorizing what finger does what instead of what key my finger should be on, which I know is a bad habit that new piano players do.

I'm not sure I like the way they represent time but I really, really enjoy how they represent notes and flats/sharps.
posted by mathowie at 3:56 PM on April 19, 2013 [6 favorites]


I might add that the people who (I think) are scared off from even trying to learn an instrument because they are intimidated by music notation aren't typically people who aspire to write symphonies. They want to play some pop hits and Christmas songs, usually.
posted by thelonius at 3:57 PM on April 19, 2013


I wonder if this would be better suited for say, beginner piano players, i.e. where music notation for two staffs are simultaneously used. I learned the staffs for the treble and bass clefs each separately, for different instruments. I think the concentrated time spent with each clef helped because, years later, I started learning how to play piano and I felt pretty comfortable with the dual staff notation.
posted by mayurasana at 4:05 PM on April 19, 2013


This is dreadful.

Sure, lots of things in traditional music notation seem insane at the beginning.

Lots of things in music, full stop, seem insane at the beginning.

Take the way the piano keyboard is laid out. The division of the 12 notes in the octave into sharps and flats. Why isn't there a black note between E and F? And why not one between B and C?

Take the standard guitar tuning - E, A, D, G, B, E. Why are the strings tuned in intervals of a fourth above the one below, except the B string, which is a major third? And why E? Four sharps? What?

Just look at a diagram of a saxophone. Or a clarinet. Or, heaven forfend, a bassoon. These instruments, it will seem immediately clear, were not designed by sane people, to the extent that 'design' is even a reasonable word to describe the way they evolved into the form we now have. The sax is insane, and that's really just a simplified clarinet, sort of. I have no idea what the hell is going on with bassoons (would love to find out), but the fingering diagrams are from outer space.

But the same is true of maths, of chess and of computer programming. And of languages in general. At the beginning there is a whole bunch of completely insane stuff that you just have to accept. It is like this because. Because what? Because. Because there is no way to explain to you why it is like this until you have learned a whole bunch more stuff which - once you have learned it - will make it clear to you how and why the just because stuff is the way it is. And if you refuse to accept the because stuff, you will never get as far as you could with the rest of it.

Notation is essentially trivial and arbitrary. It's not where the thing of it is. It's just a way of communicating it. The thing of it is somewhere else - what you do with that communication, how you parse it and reproduce it and start to make your own constructions within that space created by the (seemingly) arbitrary weird rules. At the beginning it's all baby steps with lots of painful stumbling, but at a certain point you suddenly stop fighting the insanity, accept (and have somehow learned) the weird stuff and boom - you're away and operating within that space.

In music you can get very far indeed without learning to read music, because it isn't essential, just really useful. Nevertheless, learning to read music never hurt anyone, even if it isn't so easy (and heaven knows I wish I were a better reader than I am). But it's just a form of communication designed over centuries, which is now more or less complete - including the all important gap between what is on the page and what you are supposed to play, some of which may not be notated. A lot of jazz melodies, for example, are written out in straight quavers but that certainly isn't how you are supposed to play them. You just have to know - this music is swung. You swing the quavers. Every pair of quavers is a triplet with the first two tied. Sort of. Including rests. That makes no sense, until you hear it, until you sit down with the Real Book and try it. Then it just becomes trivial and you never worry about it again.

In the end, no-one cares how well you can read what is on the page so long as you play what you are supposed to play. But the page helps you. Both take work. The work is essential.

In particular, learning to read any system of notation is hard, just as learning to play an instrument is hard. Replacing standard notation with Hummingbird isn't like training wheels on a bicycle. It's like giving someone who wants to learn to ride a bicycle a scooter instead and telling them its a bicycle. Not going to help. Still going to need to learn to ride that bicycle one day.
posted by motty at 5:08 PM on April 19, 2013 [21 favorites]


The Mnemonic stuff is silly and completely anti-esperanto: if you call your notes do-ré-mi-fa-sol-la-si-do, it's not so mnemonic anymore. Same if you call them ABCDEFG but speak Spanish.
posted by Monday, stony Monday at 5:38 PM on April 19, 2013


This feels like we're reviewing training wheels on a bike with "it will slow experienced riders down" and "how will those things stay on when I mountain bike offroads?"

No, it's like we're reviewing training wheels on a bike and saying 'Tell me again why they're square?'
posted by obiwanwasabi at 5:38 PM on April 19, 2013 [2 favorites]


Take the standard guitar tuning - E, A, D, G, B, E. Why are the strings tuned in intervals of a fourth above the one below, except the B string, which is a major third?

You know, I never really thought much about that when I first tried to learn guitar. I just accepted that the gods had handed it down thus.

The only reason I can think of is, it's so convenient to have that moveable A major chord shape, made from the triad that the D,G,B open strings give, but that seems like a bit of an ad hoc explanation.

But there may be something to it. Why aren't guitars tuned in fifths, like a violin? Maybe that tuning is good for a melodic instrument, which needs to make big intervallic leaps often, and on which you can now make those leaps without shifting position so much, but not very good for an instrument that is used to strum chords to accompany a singer. If the guitar adapted to its state as we know it in a way designed to make it better to play chords on, then the idea that you should have that major triad just by barreing 3 strings would be consistent.
posted by thelonius at 6:24 PM on April 19, 2013


Also, the mnemonics: "D" is "down"

Uh, no, D is Dot.
posted by Saxon Kane at 7:20 PM on April 19, 2013


motty: “Just look at a diagram of a saxophone. Or a clarinet. Or, heaven forfend, a bassoon. These instruments, it will seem immediately clear, were not designed by sane people, to the extent that 'design' is even a reasonable word to describe the way they evolved into the form we now have. The sax is insane, and that's really just a simplified clarinet, sort of. I have no idea what the hell is going on with bassoons (would love to find out), but the fingering diagrams are from outer space.”

Not even just fingerings, honestly. I guess I'm biased, since I'm not a sax player, I just have to write charts for my sax player, but – sax music is totally messed up. Same with all wind instrument music, basically. Flute music, sax music, trumpet music, you name it.

For the uninitiated: the problem is that the trumpet is a B♭ instrument, and the saxophone is (mostly) an E♭ instrument, as are (I think?) flutes. What does that mean? That means that in trumpet music, you write B♭ as though it were a C in piano music – and on saxophone music (most saxophones, anyway) you write an E♭ as though it were a C. Like: if you have sheet music, and you put a note on the bottom line of the staff, that's an "E" on a piano, but it's a "D" on an alto saxophone.

This is utterly stupid. Why? Because if you hand a piano player and a trumpet player the exact same music, they won't play the same notes. It'll be different! So I can't just make a bunch of charts and print them out for my band. They all need to be different, because if we all play the exact same sheet of music, we'll be playing different things. For someone who leads a band, this can be incredibly annoying, because it means providing extra copies of everything instead of just having everybody look at the same thing.

It took me a long time to come to know and accept why exactly this is. Here's the reason: It's so that someone who plays an alto saxophone (for example) can pick up a tenor saxophone, or even a clarinet or a flute, and have the same fingerings. On an alto saxophone, the root fingering is an E♭ – but on a tenor saxophone, the root fingering is a B♭. The different types of notation ensure that, no matter what fingering you're using, that root fingering is the bottom note on the staff, the "C" of the music you're playing. That way, you can pick up any instrument and the corresponding sheet music and use the same fingering.

But – that's complicated. And believe me, if I were Adolph Sax I'd make them all C instruments. Since he didn't do that, we have to cope with the weirdness. And I have to make sure I put together three charts every week instead of one. (Well, four – we have a bass player and a trombone, and they want everything in bass clef.)
posted by koeselitz at 7:28 PM on April 19, 2013 [2 favorites]


Yes! The fingering thing on sax....learning about that ended long years of puzzlement about the Eb and Bb sax business, for me. The best idea I had was, it has to be that way because of the coiled tubes being different lengths...which may figure in to it somehow, I guess...but it's hand-waving.

It was a lot like when I found somewhere in a book that explained exactly WHY division by zero is undefined. I was about 30....I had just accepted that you can't do it. (Basically, allowing it breaks the way that you need multiplication to work, and then it spoils everything else too)
posted by thelonius at 7:37 PM on April 19, 2013


And Beethoven would most likely SUCK at jazz.

Beethoven liked to riff. He also liked improv.

(He didn't really do syncopation or blue notes, but if you asked him to...)
posted by ovvl at 8:26 PM on April 19, 2013 [1 favorite]


Awful. Not invented by musicians because they are very concerned with absolute pitch whereas when you play an instrument you're also interested in relative pitch - you learn specific patterns, and then you re-use them up and down the octave...

It preserves the staff and doesn't deal with ANY of the issues of the staff, they being:

1. The same note appears alternately as a line and a space in alternating octaves.
2. The same note appear in different positions on different clefs.

What that means is that as you transpose the same pattern up and down it looks quite different - a bad feature.

Lots of people tune their guitars in fourths - like Stanley Jordan, for example. If I were at all serious about the guitar, I'd do that - and it means that any pattern you learn works both side to side and up and down on the neck, fantastic!

The reason for the weird tuning on a regular is simply to get those two open Es.

Now, this notation is even worse than standard notation - because the "same" lick has completely different looking geometric symbols!

And, why do they have both staves AND note images? It makes things worse, not better.

The issue of notes with two names is even greater with this - there are literally two images, BB and A#.

And it's built around the diatonic scale, i.e. "Western classical music". There are tons of tonal traditions that use an even-tempered scale but don't use the diatonic scale, and there are tons that don't use even-tempered, but here's another notation that appeals to exactly the same group that classical notation does.

DO NOT WANT.
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 9:05 PM on April 19, 2013


On the topic of Beethoven, this is kind of a derail, but I post it here because it's one of the funniest fucking things in the music history literature and I think everyone should see it, from Romain Rolland's exquisitely overwrought Beethoven The Creator:
"A picture of energy," wrote Seyfried. And so he remained to the last years, until that pistol shot of the nephew that struck him to the heart.[*] Reichardt and Benedict describe him as "cyclopean"; others invoke Hercules. He is one of the hard, knotty, pitted fruits of the age that produced a Mirabeau, a Danton, a Napoleon. He sustains this strength of his by means of vigorous ablutions with cold water, a scrupulous regard for personal cleanliness, and daily walks immediately after the midday meal, walks that lasted the entire afternoon and often extended into the night; then a sleep so sound and long that he thanklessly complained against it! His way of living is substantial but simple. Nothing to excess; he is no glutton, no drinker (in the evil sense of the word) as some have wrongfully described him. Like a good Rhinelander he loved wine, but he never abused it except for a short period (1825-1826) with Holz, when he was badly shaken. He was fonder of fish than of meat; fish was his great treat. But his fare was rough and countrified: delicate stomachs could not endure it. [Emphasis mine for hilarity]
* This one is a bit insider baseball, but it's darkly amusing because by all accounts Beethoven was a monstrous asshole to his nephew, who came under Beethoven's care after Beethoven fought a protracted court battle for custody against his sister-in-law after his brother died because he thought her an unfit guardian on account of her having had an illegitimate child by another man before marrying Beethoven's brother, and that nephew was so overwhelmed by Beethoven's domineering nature that he attempted suicide and then joined the army. So that gives you a bit of insight, if you couldn't already tell, into how slanted this particular account of Beethoven's personality, first published in 1928, really is.
posted by invitapriore at 9:09 PM on April 19, 2013 [2 favorites]


Uh, no, D is Dot.

Right... that comment got kind of messed up in the passage from my head to my fingers. A is above and B is below and that will mess with people's heads as they attempt to go up and down the scale.
posted by Jahaza at 9:13 PM on April 19, 2013


Just give me a midi piano roll and guitar tab...
posted by littlejohnnyjewel at 10:02 PM on April 19, 2013 [1 favorite]


I thought this would be cool, because I remember when I was learning to read music, I felt like key signatures and knowing where each note was on the staff was kinda annoying.

But dear god. Seeing this made me grateful for the current system. When they said that people find it confusing to know durations, I felt like I was watching an infomercial where they're like, "Man, sandwiches are so hard to make," and it shows some guy tearing open a bag of bread in frustration and it flies everywhere. Like, where you just see/hear that and it doesn't apply to anyone you've ever known.

Durations are really simple. In my music classes, that was the one thing people didn't seem to have much problem reading. Duration in the Hummingbird system looks like some runes you'd find in a sorcerer's spellbook. I can't even imagine what it would look like for complicated chords. If you tried to play Rachmaninoff you'd probably end up raising R'lyeh.
posted by Nattie at 10:07 PM on April 19, 2013 [6 favorites]


The demo videos would have been a lot more interesting if they had music in them.

At the very least I got sidetracked by the openculture link to this cool visualization of a Bach canon.
posted by lowest east side at 10:25 PM on April 19, 2013


"If you learned to play a musical instrument as a kid, you likely remember your first encounter with traditional music notation. You remember being baffled by the symbols denoting quarter notes, eighth notes, sixteenth notes. Or the difficulty of reading notes located above or below the staff.

Actually no - when I first started learning an instrument it took a little time before we started to get into smaller divisions of note length and higher and lower than the stave.

Also not once did I ever hear (in 13 years of tuition) fellow students complain about reading notation. They sometimes complained about the level of physicality required to play more demanding parts, but we all knew that was just fixed by practicing more.
posted by awfurby at 10:36 PM on April 19, 2013


this looks realllllly unpopular
posted by flyinghamster at 1:30 AM on April 20, 2013


This is a terrible system and improves nothing. I feel sorry for anyone who is made to learn it, they will figure out they were duped if they ever try to go beyond it.
posted by midnightscout at 3:44 AM on April 20, 2013


Redundancy is actually a good thing, for readability.
posted by empath at 4:34 AM on April 20, 2013


A picture of the waveform should be enough for anyone.
posted by blue_beetle at 5:25 AM on April 20, 2013


Ok, I skipped over some extremely lengthy treatises, but here's my thoughts:

It may be that the redundancy in pitch symbology serves a useful purpose for raw beginners. But I believe any real "revolution" in musical notation needs to serve the needs of all levels of musicians. If this notation fails to be useful for the intermediate/advanced musician, then you're just going to have to learn regular notation at some point anyhow. The fact that their supposed "late intermediate" selections on their websites are actually highly simplified arrangements that are still beginner level is telling in that regard.

So then I think about the thing that trips up most students who are past the beginner level when it comes to sight reading and interpreting notation in general, and it's not reading pitches that is the hardest part (except for notes far off the staff). It's reading complex rhythms and not playing over the god-damn rests. And I think this notation would make it a lot harder to "see" the rhythmic relationships of notes because there's the dual notation for pitch taking up more bandwidth on the visual input channel.

I think White Hat also makes a good point about "seeing" intervals being critical to music reading: again, once you're past a certain level, a well-trained musician who's sight reading is (I think) not so much identifying "this is an F and that's a C" but rather identifying intervals/chords/scales in the context of the key, then figuring in accidentals. Any aspect to the notation that makes a 3-note tonic arpeggio (for example) look different depending on which note it starts on (here, because the infill of the notes would be different) is going to make it harder once you get to that stage.
posted by drlith at 5:32 AM on April 20, 2013 [1 favorite]


Musical notation was created before sound recording was invented to allow musicians to learn pieces of western music on their own. This had the effect of internalizing the western system of music in musicians that read that way, guiding them, but also locking them in. It also creates a layer of indirection — many of them, including me, tend to think of notes, chords, keys, and modes when composing or playing rather than just evaluating sound directly.

Now that sound recording and playback is abundantly available, I wonder if it is not better to not start by teaching new musicians to map visual graphs to sound and vice versa, but rather to have some pedagogical method that maps hearing to fingers or what have you. Sort of like playing by ear, but with more detailed intermediate steps than "here's some hot licks — now play 'em!" (Naturally, I can't really tell you what the details of such a method would be.)

I'd hope that this would get new musicians to value more than just discrete pitch and rhythm, that traditional notation are most biased toward, and to the key of C and divisions of a beat in powers of 2, to go even further. And maybe to get new composers to write stuff that looks stupid or weird on a staff more often.
posted by ignignokt at 6:49 AM on April 20, 2013 [1 favorite]


Just look at a diagram of a saxophone. Or a clarinet. Or, heaven forfend, a bassoon. These instruments, it will seem immediately clear, were not designed by sane people, to the extent that 'design' is even a reasonable word to describe the way they evolved into the form we now have. The sax is insane, and that's really just a simplified clarinet, sort of. I have no idea what the hell is going on with bassoons (would love to find out), but the fingering diagrams are from outer space.

I presume you mean fingering diagrams like this one?

As someone who played bassoon for six years, I can confirm that bassoon fingering is complicated. The only way to play it is to have each note so well buried in muscle memory that you never have to think about the mechanics of what your hands are doing. If you stop at any point to think about what you're actually doing to produce a given note, you will immediately develop four thumbs and drop it.

The reason bassoons are so complicated is because they're big. To make the notes sound right, the holes have to be so large and so widely spaced apart, that it's not humanly possible to use fingers to cover them. So instead there's pads and levers all over the place, similar to what you find on a sax or a flute, but much bigger.

The reason the charts look so terrifying is because they only make sense in three dimensions. The fingering chart is drawn so that it shows you what a bassoon would look like if you unpeel it lengthwise (the centreline being the line that runds lengthwise under the arch between your right thumb and forefinger when you hold a bassoon to play it.

Your right hand sits flat across the bottom half of the diagram, with your thumb handling the keys on the bottom-left side, and your fingers covering the holes and keys on the bottom-right. Your fingertips therefore point from the centreline out towards the edges of the diagram. Because your left hand cradles the underside of the basson, the curve of your left palm fits around the (unseen) back of the diagram. Your left thumb handles the upper-left portion and your left fingers handle the upper-right, so that your fingertips point from the edges towards the centreline of the diagram.
posted by talitha_kumi at 6:57 AM on April 20, 2013 [3 favorites]


koeselitz: It took me a long time to come to know and accept why exactly this is.

Actually, that's only part of the reasons we still deal with transposition. As you mention, in the sax family consistent notation has to do mostly with consistent fingerings across instruments. But those saxophones have fundamentals of B-flat and E-flat not because Adolph Sax was a sadist but because having those instruments with a C fundamental works less well, they play more out of tune and generally sound worse. Wind instruments have particular fundamentals (E-flat saxophone, F horn, B-flat trumpet) because those fundamentals/overtone series work best for the physics of that particular instrument. And of course, there are many variations: while a B-flat trumpet is very common in jazz and concert bands, C trumpets are much more common in orchestras (for a couple of important reasons).

But the tradition of notating each instrument's fundamental as a 'do' or 'C' on the staff (thus causing a difference between written and sounding pitches) actually goes back to early brass instruments, which didn't have valves at all and were pitched in the key of the piece (like, horns literally changed tube length--crooks--to change the key of the instrument itself, even during a piece). For consistency, the parts are always notated as if they are in C, and the key of the instrument was indicated on the part. When wind instruments evolved and added valves and started using fixed fundamentals, this tradition remained (with the added bonus of greater facility for players switching instruments within a family, as you mentioned).

So transposition is one of those things like musical notation: Hummingbird may be wonderful but we're never going to find a way to simply hit the reset button and make things more simple and logical globally. Sure, it would make a lot more sense to notate a B-flat trumpet as it sounds and just have the players learn the new fingerings, but when are you going to force all trumpet players all over the world to relearn a basic component of their technique, and more importantly, how are you going to pursuade publishers, who make no money these days anyway, to massively reinvest in creating new parts for all printed music?

This is why to me Hummingbird is maybe interesting in some ways, perhaps useful to explore notational concepts or beginning musical pedagogy, but as a system to replace traditional notation? I'll read the plan for that once someone figures out how to get the U.S. to switch to the metric system.
posted by LooseFilter at 7:32 AM on April 20, 2013 [2 favorites]


Also, thinking about all the comments in this thread about how so many struggled with notation: as a life-long teacher of music, I do not think notation is particularly difficult to learn nor to teach. In my experience, it is simply taught very poorly: the concepts are not sequenced well, the notational concepts are rarely presented as concepts but rather as specific sets of contextual-less facts a child must somehow master and make sense of. (And the most sophisticated concepts, like key signature, are just thrown out there right at the beginning and we somehow expect kids to accept it like a just-so story!)

After my first year of teaching instrumental music many years ago, I was very unsatisfied with how my beginners had progressed, especially conceptually, and so threw out the methodologies I was trained to use and started from scratch. I came up with a way to present notation that, in a nutshell, put symbol and name very last in the learning process, and it was powerfully effective. (In a small town in Louisiana I had first-year beginners playing independently and comfortably in just about all common meters, including asymmetrical ones like 5/8, though with basic rhythms. Which left us a lot of time and mental energy to focus on things like listening to one another and how to make sound expressive and all those things that musicing is actually about, it was wonderful. I still use many of those ideas these days in helping undergraduate music majors get their reading skills up to snuff.)

So I guess I agree with the thread consensus: this is a solution in search of a problem.
posted by LooseFilter at 7:56 AM on April 20, 2013 [7 favorites]


LooseFilter: “Actually, that's only part of the reasons we still deal with transposition. As you mention, in the sax family consistent notation has to do mostly with consistent fingerings across instruments. But those saxophones have fundamentals of B-flat and E-flat not because Adolph Sax was a sadist but because having those instruments with a C fundamental works less well, they play more out of tune and generally sound worse. Wind instruments have particular fundamentals (E-flat saxophone, F horn, B-flat trumpet) because those fundamentals/overtone series work best for the physics of that particular instrument. And of course, there are many variations: while a B-flat trumpet is very common in jazz and concert bands, C trumpets are much more common in orchestras (for a couple of important reasons).”

I've heard that – and it's even true of (for instance) the soprano saxophone, which has always been slightly less popular because it pulls sharp a lot. But that doesn't really matter in any way at all, as far as I can tell. You can have an instrument with an "E♭ Fundamental" and write the music in C if you want to. There's no really good reason I can think of to have the fundamental correspond always and everywhere to the bottom note of the staff unless you're trying to make fingerings match up. The only reason people can give me is "so that the music doesn't spill off the staff too much" – I guess that, as a piano player, I'm probably not as sympathetic to that as I should be; however, both E♭ and B♭ are pretty close to the bottom of the concert C staff, so I don't see any huge problems.

The saxophone family could easily have a range of many different instruments with many different fundamental pitches that all used music written in C. The only real price anyone would pay for this is that they'd find themselves confused when switching instruments, and alto sax players generally could not play baritones or sopranos.

In any case, I refuse to have any of it myself, when I can help it anyway. I'm a trumpet player, too, but I will not play B♭ music, because B♭ music is stupid. I play concert C music, and I do just fine. Sometimes I wonder why more musicians don't just simplify like this, but it's probably because they play more sheet music in more formal situations where it wouldn't work to say "please write this in C for me instead."
posted by koeselitz at 5:37 PM on April 20, 2013


For what it's worth, though, I don't think Adolph Sax was a sadist. I understand (I think) why he made the saxophones with various different pitches – because, as an instrument inventor, he wanted musicians to be able to easily pick up and try different instruments in the same family, because that would be conducive to the spread of the instruments. The best way to do this was to make sure the fingering always matched the written music – and the best way to do that was to write the music in different keys. It seems like it was something like that, anyway.
posted by koeselitz at 5:43 PM on April 20, 2013


Koeselitz - the thing of it for me is that I don't think being forced to transpose is a bad thing in any way.

I'm not one of those guys who can play everything in any key, but I'd like to be. Mark Levine in his excellent Jazz Piano book recommends working on this by taking simpler tunes and taking them through every key. I'm nowhere near being able to do this with most stuff, but I have for some time now been doing an exercise involving 12 bars of 12-bar in each key (I usually step up a semitone at the end of each but you can do it however you like) - after that it's a lot less daunting to try and do the same with the rhythm changes or whathaveyou.

There's a guitarist in a band I'm in who notates everything in terms of I, IV, V, Vi chords etc - he's in a few function bands many of whom play the same tunes but in different keys, and his system means he only needs to remember which key each band plays each tune in. Of course, transposing on the guitar is often a lot easier, but that's guitars for you.
posted by motty at 6:35 PM on April 20, 2013 [1 favorite]


Speaking as someone who has tried about 5 times since age 10 while learning to play two different instruments and still hasn't learned to read sheet music...

Hummingbird is worse.

They kept the parts that trip me up (the staff, the notes that are constantly 3 or 5 steps above or below the staff, the treble and bass clefs with different note positions, key signatures) and ruined the one thing I never had any trouble with (quavers indicating note duration).

I do have to admit I like the little dot/empty/full/above/etc symbols that tell you which note each one is. I can imagine using those (but with normal duration symbols) to help learn note positions.

Incidentally, guitar sheet music is often transposed too. For starters, all guitar music is transposed an octave, so if you hand a guitarist and a pianist the same music they'll be playing an octave apart. Second, in rock/blues music it's very common for music to be notated in EADGBE tuning but meant to be played a semitone or tone flat.
posted by mmoncur at 9:36 PM on April 20, 2013


motty: “... the thing of it for me is that I don't think being forced to transpose is a bad thing in any way. I'm not one of those guys who can play everything in any key, but I'd like to be. Mark Levine in his excellent Jazz Piano book recommends working on this by taking simpler tunes and taking them through every key. I'm nowhere near being able to do this with most stuff, but I have for some time now been doing an exercise involving 12 bars of 12-bar in each key (I usually step up a semitone at the end of each but you can do it however you like) - after that it's a lot less daunting to try and do the same with the rhythm changes or whathaveyou.”

Man, isn't that Mark Levine book fantastic? I feel like I learned like at least 50% of everything I know about the piano just from that one book. And I think he's totally right – I tried for years to avoid it, paying attention to everything else in that book and hoping that would get me through, but his dictum – "learn to play everything in every key" – is, I am now convinced, a really good thing to aim for if nothing else. It turns out there's history behind it, too; I don't think Levine mentions this, but Charlie Parker always claimed that his great revelations came after he hid out in a cabin in upstate New York for a whole summer and forced himself to get equally proficient in every key.

That's not to say that I'm very great at it just yet. But I'm trying. One of my twice-daily exercises is to stride rhythm changes with my left hand in all 12 keys (circling the fifths as I'm doing it); somehow just pounding through all the different chords helps me a lot in kind of visualizing them. At this point I've tried to learn three simple formations in every key – rhythm changes, what I call "Misty" changes (shared with "Four" and "Cherokee" and a few others), and what I call Ellington changes (same basic A section for "Solitude," "Take The A Train," and other stuff like "See What Happens" and the B section to "Cherokee"). I can play changes in all those keys; my huge weakness right now is melody lines, which oddly I'm not nearly as good at transposing. I guess that makes sense, since they are of course much more complicated than bare changes. And moreover I think maybe the melody line is more important than the changes anyway.

(Apparently Monk used to do this thing that annoyed musicians immensely – he'd outright refuse to give them the changes for tunes they were doing. He'd just give them the melody and say "it's all there. Just solo off of that." Ha.)

So that's really what I want to focus on next, personally: taking a set of ten of the more common standards (probably the top ten here) and learning them inside out, melodies as well as changes, in every key. But, heh, I've been saying that for months; here's hoping I actually get myself to do it one of these days.

“There's a guitarist in a band I'm in who notates everything in terms of I, IV, V, Vi chords etc - he's in a few function bands many of whom play the same tunes but in different keys, and his system means he only needs to remember which key each band plays each tune in. Of course, transposing on the guitar is often a lot easier, but that's guitars for you.”

There are times when I think that might be an awesome idea! If it helps a person, it probably is. I get the feeling it'd be more helpful to a guitarist just because, as you say, transposing on the guitar is just a lot easier, so he can learn a set of forms for I, IV, V, etc and just use those at a particular barre no matter what key he's in. (I think... I'm not a very good guitar player.) But I don't do it mostly because one of my goals is to try to get this stuff in my head; I'd really like to get to the point where I don't need real books as much. What I'd really like is to be able to look at a piece in the real book and do that in my head, transposing on the fly – but I'm miles away from that so far.

And, well, on trumpet? On trumpet I can't do any of this crap, heh. I should get myself to practice trumpet more.
posted by koeselitz at 9:43 PM on April 20, 2013 [2 favorites]


That sounds like it has to benefit you as a practice regime, koeselitz. Stay the course!

Have you ever heard of Alvin Batiste's "Root Progression Method"? It's a system for systematically practicing moving melodic phrases around, and it's supposed to help you be able to transpose and play strongly in any key. I'm finding it a little difficult to find out exactly what the prescribed sequence of intervals in the method is, though.
posted by thelonius at 2:13 AM on April 21, 2013 [2 favorites]


> I mean, "writing symphonies" means putting notes down on paper

Goes beyond "needlessly literal" and gets over into "wrong." If t'were true then "writing songs" would also mean putting notes down on paper, and John and Paul and a zillion other great ones couldn't be called songwriters. "Writing symphonies" means composing them, however you manage it.
posted by jfuller at 2:39 AM on April 21, 2013 [1 favorite]


jfuller: “Goes beyond 'needlessly literal' and gets over into 'wrong.' If t'were true then 'writing songs' would also mean putting notes down on paper, and John and Paul and a zillion other great ones couldn't be called songwriters. 'Writing symphonies' means composing them, however you manage it.”

Well, if that's the case, then it feels like there are probably a lot of people over the past century who have put together symphonic music without writing it down or being readers. For one thing, in the past twenty years it's become quite easy to use a computer to compose music with many different parts without having to know how to write down a single note. And I feel like there's a nonzero number of people who have taken that pretty far. I would agree if you asserted that few of them are having their stuff played by symphony orchestras really, I guess, although some of them are.

Actually, it'd be interesting to think a bit about other examples of people who have done this kind of thing. Frank Zappa obviously could read music, but I've heard he had a sort of improvisational technique he worked up where there were hand signals for various melodic parts that he'd use when conducting a symphony orchestra. There have been a lot of people stretching the boundaries of what was done within the tradition of the symphony in the past century.
posted by koeselitz at 11:06 AM on April 21, 2013


I look at this and it's no better. It's different. You can teach it as effectively as you can teach regular notation or solfege. I think Kodaly really got it in terms of how do we get kids making music and learning what music is. Kodaly is a series of steps to get you to understand rhythm and pitch before you start really hitting solid notation, but when you're ready for notation, you're already there because it maps very nicely.

No discussion of notation's pros and cons can go without some history. Modern notation came from neumes, which was a monastic interpretation of how notes work out. Guitar tablature came from Renaissance lute music. You can see the roots of modern notation in neumes. Most of the changes are in the name of pragmatics and accuracy.

And there is the problem right there. You need to be pragmatic - you need to be able to notate something so that someone else can pick it up and read it and play it back more or less as it was intended. So you run into human factors like a 16 bar strain of off-beat peck notes. You don't effing write that out because every player with then scribble counts over the top of each bar so they don't have to watch the music while their eyes glaze over. You write one bar and the symbology to repeat the previous bar 15 times - that's pragmatic. Then there are cases when you get someone who is overly pragmatic in trying to compress notation so that an entire march fits onto a half sheet that will fit onto a lyre and now it's either unreadable because the notes are tiny and munged together or you have to stop rehearsal a half dozen times to explain that when you take the DS, you don't take the repeat but instead take skip over the first and second endings and take the segno ending which will then jump to the coda. And this travesty was done to avoid having to write out 16 bars of recapitulation.

Then you have the accuracy problem. For example, Bela Bartok went out and recorded and transcribed folk music for posterity and he'd notate how much each note was out of "tune" and had to extend existing notation quite a bit. I have a transcription of a Joe Satriani piece that includes some oddball notation with the words "lizard down the throat" and that had a footnote with a full paragraph describing how to do it, which is understandable when you're face with the task of writing this down for posterity.

Now take into account the instruments - a trumpet is basically seven bugles latched together with plumbing, but there's a sweet spot for design of the instrument. I've played A♭, B♭, C, D, E♭, G, and B♭ piccolo trumpets and honestly, B♭ is a sweet spot for the instrument. You start going up or down and you see the trade-offs. My E♭/D horn is super bright, but the range is limited. It gets harder to play beyond a certain high range than my B♭ horn and the low range is physics limited (and my pedal tones suck), but it turns out to make several pieces in the repertoire sound effing awesome - but it's not the jack-of-all-trades that my B♭ is. The G horn I played was a one-off prototype made by Schilke that I saw in a collection of an antique horn dealer. I found out why - it was the second most difficult horn I've ever played and apparently, I was one of only a small handful of players who could get something approaching music out of it. Horrible range for that instrument.

If you look at flutes, you have to remember that they came from blowing through bones or willow sticks and the initial fingerings came from pure physics. If you wanted anything beyond a diatonic, you had to learn to half-hole and/or roll the instrument while you were playing it. So yay for Boehm for bringing some sanity to the instrument.

So there's also a big deal about performance practices. Should we play the Brandenburg #2 on period instruments or on modern ones? There is greater warmth to some of the older instruments, but the (un)natural trumpet grates on my ears - the intonation is off and I can hear overtones that I'd rather not and to a certain degree, the trills are like watching a dancing bear. It doesn't hurt that Maurice Andre had magic lungs, but that is a fantastic performance. I couldn't find him playing the 1st movement, but this is a cool historical instrument performance just for the contrast of the woman who is totally playing the living shit out of that recorder but the guy on the natural trumpet is totally stone faced. I mean, you can see him raise an eyebrow on the high note around 1:26 so you know that he's actually working.
posted by plinth at 7:58 AM on May 7, 2013


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