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I have just started learning about music from the internet. I have learned how to play the piano, but I don't have a real piano so I am playing a virtual piano. In my opinion, the notation which is used for music is very complicated. It has many disadvantages. For example, it is difficult to read. It needs special software to type it, etc. Why do we not use a simple notation like this:

    Key signature: F#
                                                     ---     ---

(Where + means long; and --- below notes means short notes.)

This will be much easier to read, it doesn't require special software, it takes less space, etc.

So why do we still use the old notation?

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@WheatWilliams jTab grabbed the F# and made it a barre chord. We really need a fix for it. – Dom Mar 6 '14 at 16:15
Might as well complain that there are too many symbols in Abstract Algebra: music can get complicated, and we're fortunate that there really is a single world-wide set of symbols which everyone interprets identically! – Carl Witthoft Mar 6 '14 at 20:45
On what basis do you assert that "this will be [much] easier to read"? Staff notation allows you to very quickly and easily see the relative pitches of notes (i.e. how much higher or lower subsequent notes are); your system, however, requires memorizing which arbitrary symbols go with which pitches. (The other weaknesses of your proposal have been fairly well characterized in some of the answers.) – Kyle Strand Mar 7 '14 at 1:48
By the way, if you want to see what's required to turn something like Kartik's proposal into something that's actually practical -- though still limited -- websearch for the definition of ABC Notation. There are tools which will convert between ABC, MIDI, and sheet music. ABC has the additional features needed to handle a lot of the things folks have pointed out as missing from Kartik's sketch... and becomes a lot less readable when you actually want to use them. Its big advantage was that, as text, it could be pasted directly into e-mail. Some folk-music sites still use it. – keshlam Mar 7 '14 at 3:43
You could say the same thing about English notation: it's complicated, it has many disadvantages and it's hard to learn. First off, a written word is a series of letters that represent its sound instead of something more obvious, like a picture of the thing. Why should "bird" be the word for bird instead of a picture of a bird? Even worse, there are 40 sounds in English but only 26 letters, and a bunch of those letters are redundant, like "c" sounds like both "s" and "k". But when you learn it, it becomes easy. Music notation is the same. – Eric Lippert Mar 7 '14 at 16:59

10 Answers 10

up vote 31 down vote accepted

Your notation may work for a free form melody, but that's it.

How will you notate several notes played at once? How will you notate exact rhythms if you don't split up a bar into beats and subbeats and give each note an exact duration? Which octaves are those notes?

I agree that standard notation (common music notation) is complicated, but there are pretty good reasons for it being that way. My personal project is to make easier notation, though. Starting with pianoroll notation (and all it's deficiencies), I'm adding the things that make standard notation better than it, TO it... See my website for some examples: (oh dear, I'll have to take some new screen shots. Those are out of date.)

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Actually, from a melody point of view, I think the proposition weaker. The usual notation has a visual aspect (higher pitches are written higher on the score) which I find very important when following a score. His proposal has not. – Édouard Mar 6 '14 at 17:20
I would even add that I barely look at the notes when playing some pieces. I almost only look at the "curve" made by the changes in the melody pitch. – Morwenn Mar 6 '14 at 23:23
well, i wasn't saying that his notation was GOOD for melody, just that it could only possibly show melody. Not chords, etc. – Stephen Hazel Mar 6 '14 at 23:37
@Édouard me too. Triplets, ritard, dynamics, etc make it inexact and obscure, at least to me. Piano roll should remain confined to computers. – Cheezey Mar 8 '14 at 19:01
I disagree that standard notation is complicated. Compared to natural languages it is almost ridiculously simple. What makes it complicated is what is not there, i.e. interpretation stuff. What is written is unambiguous and sequential. You don't need to read ahead to understand what is written. (Though it is certainly necessary for 'interpretation stuff'.) – 11684 Mar 9 '14 at 15:50

Everyone, when they first begin to learn to read music notation, is puzzled by all the complexities and nuances.

Music notation is the way that it is because it works well. You know so little about playing music at this point that you cannot fully appreciate all that is involved. The more you learn, the more sense it will make to you.

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Short answer: Yes you are right, but classic pianoforte notation is too common to be avoided, your best bet is to try to find either another notation that is also common like MIDI or Tablature, or either find a ressembling notation system that is easy to convert back and forth with the classical one like the Simplified Music Notation.

Long answer: You are totally right, one can use any notation one wants.

From Wikipedia:

In linguistics and semiotics, a notation is a system of graphic or symbols, characters and abbreviated expressions, used in artistic and scientific disciplines to represent technical facts and quantities by convention. Therefore, a notation is a collection of related symbols that are each given an arbitrary meaning, created to facilitate structured communication within a domain knowledge or field of study.

Thus there's no reason why you should not use your own notation system, as long as it can represent what you want to express. So why was the piano notation become so widespread?

As its name implies, it's because it's directly inspired by a piano rotated vertically (see the correspondances between the left and middle part):

enter image description here (Courtesy of Ken Rushton aka MusicScienceGuy)

So as you can see, the primary reason for making this notation was not because of expressiveness or any other artistically elevated concept, but because of practicality: piano was the most used instrument historically in occident and this was a kinda straight way to represent a score to play on this instrument.

And this historical relationship directly influenced the notation a lot further: at first, pianos didn't have accidentals (the black keys) but only the white keys, and thus that's why they are not represented on the notation. Accidentals came later, and to accomodate this evolution, the notation was "tweaked" to be able to represent them. But it's hardly a perfect fit if you see what I mean...

Another historical anecdote: piano was initially made primarily to play in the C key (since C was and still is the most used key), hence why chords are so easy to play in C, but so weird and hard in other keys. Some attempts were made to fix that which are called isomorphic keyboards, with a common mapping being the Wicki-Hayden/Jammer used on concertinas, and an easy accessible mapping being the colored traditional keyboard.

About expressiveness, in fact, MIDI is the most expressive standardized notation, and is a superset of standard piano forte notation (and you can often find a "convert midi to notation" option in softwares, but the other way is much more hard because notation lacks informations that can be encoded in midi, so to do that softwares must rely on AI algorithms or just on the user to fix stuff).

But even with midi, after using it for a while, you will soon come to the conclusion that it's not nearly expressive enough to convey and reproduce all the expressions you may want. There are more expressive specifications in various softwares but these internal notations systems are not considered standard (since most are closed source anyway).

Other solutions exists, and a lot of alternative notations have been made over the centuries. You can find a good list with critical reviews at and a historical review here.

On the simplicity side, one of the most common but simple notation is the tablature, which is quite widespread for guitar songs.

As you can see, you have a wide range of possibilities, and can easily imagine anything between tablature simplicity and midi expressiveness, or maybe even beyond or combining both.

Why then use such an old, deprecated musical notation system that can't even account elegantly for accidentals nor the latest findings in musical theory like microtonality?

Answer: because it's popular and culturally anchored.

Pianoforte notation is the defacto choice for teachers in musical schools. Furthermore, nearly all scores use this notation, thus if you want to use another notation, you will have the double burden to first learn the pianoforte notation and then learn how to convert it into your own notation of choice. But if you learn pianoforte, there's not much incentive to then convert to another notation...

In fact, that's not quite true. Since, as I demonstrated above, pianoforte is not the graal of expressiveness, a lot of experimental music composers and some contemporary classical composers use their own notation system, sometimes just twists on the classic pianoforte, others making a whole new notation system.

So in the end, it's up to you to choose the musical notation system you prefer, but you should not only choose it because you feel comfortable with it: it should also be expressive enough for your needs, and most important easily convertible back and forth with the classical piano notation, or sooner or later you will get tired of using your notation.

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Staff notation evolved out of notations, primarily for vocal music, that preceded the use of piano-style keyboards; stating that keyboards are the driving force behind staff notation is inaccurate. – Dave Mar 12 '14 at 20:40
@Dave I need to find the ref that made me write that (and the layout of the staff notation is so similar to one of a keyboard that it just seems logical), but you are welcome to provide one for your statement, I am greatly interested. – gaborous Mar 12 '14 at 23:25
Early vocal notation, neume that influenced later staff notation. – Dave Mar 13 '14 at 3:47
Also note that varieties of C clefs (instead of just G and F) were used for much early music; for example, they're referred to in Gradus ad Parnassum. – Dave Mar 13 '14 at 3:55

In short, musical notation is complex because the music it notates is complex.

For example, your proposed notation has + and - symbols to denote long and short notes. But what if you have a song that requires half, quarter, eighth, sixteenth, and “sixth” and “twelfth” (triplet) notes? You'll have to distinguish all of those lengths somehow. (The QBASIC PLAY command solved this problem with notations such as C8 C4 E16 E16 or L8 CBCC#).

Other issues to consider are:

  • What about harmony? How do you denote multiple notes being played at one time?
  • How do you denote rests?
  • Which octave are your notes in?
  • How do you denote ties and slurs?
  • How do you indicate how loudly/softly the music should be played?

That being said, there have been many alternative notations proposed, including the ASCII-based ABC notation (similar to yours, but more developed), and various systems listed at The Music Notation Project based on the chromatic scale.

Traditional notation did evolve rather haphazardly, and so suffers from a few flaws, mostly in the non-isomorphic positioning of pitches. However, it remains popular for the same reason that the QWERTY keyboard layout does: People use it because it's what everybody else already knows.

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The notation you suggest is too simple for real scores, or on the contrary hand it would be nearly impossible to read.

Try to translate this into your notation:

enter image description here

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It'd be notated with a picture of a dinosaur: – Alexander Troup Mar 13 '14 at 16:32

After the language, notation, encoding or other similar communication standard becomes widespread, a popularity becomes its major positive side (net effect). It is good to know and use because everyone around knows and uses it. The standard can only slowly evolve, adding new possibilities to the existing base.

The new standard can only emerge and become more popular if significant problems have been discovered with the current one. I think, maybe the current notation is actually not so bad and this is the reason why it does not change.

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The short answer to this question is that musical notation evolved over centuries in a relatively haphazard way. Many aspects of it are optimized for situations that no longer exist, or assume limitations on musical conduct that we no longer respect. A lot of it is arbitrary (why five lines on a staff?).

To take a most obvious example: the clefs that we all know (treble, bass, maybe alto and tenor if you play viola or cello) are simply a small subset of a much larger, complete set of clefs that used to be used. Soprano and baritone clefs were once pretty common, and, in fact, it is theoretically possible to put a "C," "F," or "G" clef on any staff line.

So, originally, the system was super logical and super flexible: figure out which clef on which line would allow you to write the melody you wanted to write down on the five-line staff you had.

"Ledger lines"? Never heard of 'em. They were invented later.

And so on... :)

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For some interesting background on the development of musical notation, see and – BobRodes Mar 7 '14 at 16:00
Also, from : Although ledger lines are found occasionally in manuscripts of plainchant and early polyphony, it was only in the early 16th century in keyboard music that their use became at all extensive (Anon. 2001). Even then printers had an aversion to ledger lines which caused difficulties in setting type, wasting space on the page and causing a messy appearance. Vocal music employed a variety of different clefs to keep the range of the part on the staff as much as possible... (Godwin 1974, 16–17) – BobRodes Mar 7 '14 at 16:15

I agree. Personally, I prefer MIDI notation. Composing music in a MIDI editor, with rows representing pitches and columns representing notes/durations, makes much more sense to me.

MIDI editors will generally allow compositions to be exported in standard musical notation, too, so nothing is lost. Plus, the MIDI editor will show up for band practice. ;-)

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Easier to compose in, I agree. Hard to play, though! :) – BobRodes Mar 7 '14 at 16:01
MIDI editors are sure able to generate sheet music for trivial e.g. chord sequences or melodies within a single key, but as soon as you have any modulations in there, want to express ornamentation or other expressive marks, or simply don't have a suitable raster (as soon as there's changes of tempo and / or time signature, that's rather infeasible), then you're in for a horrible jumble of awkward quantisation artifacts and mischosen accidentals. Also, MIDI editors give you way less of a useful overview about motif recurrence etc., fine intervals, and articulation (at least without zooming in). – leftaroundabout Mar 7 '14 at 23:57
IMO, one should think about MIDI as a intermediate form between performance instructions (such as sheet music) and audible result, not as an alternative form of the latter. Composer -Sheet-Music-> Performer -MIDI-> Instrument -Audio-> Listener. The backwards way is possible: you can transcribe a musical piece from hearing it, and you can (more easily) transcribe a MIDI file, but neither is trivial or desirable as a default. – leftaroundabout Mar 8 '14 at 0:00

We most commonly use staff notation because it is a good compromise between expressiveness and readability for a wide range of music. There are alternatives, however these alternatives are specialized in one dimension or another, and thus, in a sense, less expressive than standard staff notation.

The overall problems relate to the fundamental issues in trying to represent "produce this specific sound" via some glyphs, and having something that someone can read at speed.

Staff notation has evolved, in the context of western tonal music, as an effective means of representing almost all of the salient performance features of many types of music, in a compact, instrument independent, format that is reasonably easy to use for sight-reading.

There are other representations of music, usually referred to as "tablulature" (or tab); guitar tab is the most common, but other instruments, e.g. harmonicas also use a form of tabulature. The main difference between tabs and staff music is that the tab notation is intimately tied to a specific instrument.

More recently, in order to support transmission of music via ASCII ABC notation was developed; this seems to have the features you deem desirable. However, ABC is not able to express the full range of features, like appogiatura, trills, slurs etc., features that can be easily represented in standard notation.

It is my understanding that only a very small proportion of people can sight-read from tabulature or ABC, while every professional classical musician is able to sight read for at least one instrument.

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Not only are the tabs tied to some instruments, but they generally fail to tell the rythm. You have to already know the rythm of the melody or to complete the tablature with a standard notation. – Morwenn Mar 6 '14 at 23:28
@Morwenn ... Specific example of the problem: Rise Up Singing gets 1200 songs into a convenient-sized book by giving only lyrics and rough chord changes. Fine if you already know how the song is supposed to go, non-starter if you don't. – keshlam Mar 7 '14 at 3:38
"in the context of western tonal music..." one of the most amazing things about staff notation is actually that it readily generalises even quite a way beyond the western music it was invented for. You can easily apply it to alternative tuning systems where MIDI would fail horribly, incorporate a lot of microtonality without much hassle or danger of confusing the performer. There's even a system for writing Bohlen-Pierce–scale music in staffs, which one could think would be totally uncompatible. – leftaroundabout Mar 8 '14 at 0:08

There are many reason we use the notation we do. Lets just look at a short piano piece as an example.

As you can see in this simple example there is a lot of information. The first is the clefs (the treble and the bass) that tell you exactly what notes to play and in what octave. It is very common for piano music to have a treble and a bass clef on the grand staff, but there are exceptions.

The next is the key signature which tells you what notes are in the key. In this case we are in the key of F where the only accidental is Bb.

Next comes the time signature where the "C" stands for common time (4/4) which tells us there are four quarter notes in a measure.

Now we get to the notes themselves which along with the clef and the key signature tell us exactly what note to play and how long. Then we have accidentals marked as necessary and also expressions marked as necessary (such as the fermata in measure 10 and the retardando starting in measure 7) that give a better understanding of how to play.

There is a lot of information compact into a language that musicians can easily understand. Sure it is not the easiest to a beginner, but it is rich with information that just can't be replicated with the notation you suggested.

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"Love me tender" is copyrighted by Elvis Presley, so it's a bad idea to post a score under this name (similarly to how "Happy Birthday" is copyrighted in the U.S.A. because of its lyrics while "Good morning to all" or whatever it was isn't). When stating "Trad. melody" as a defense, one should state which melody. It's "Nora Lee". Under that name, the copyright hawks would have a hard time striking. They'll still try, but at least one can then fight back with a good chance at success. – User8773 Mar 6 '14 at 18:23
Well, if we now all agree that the title of that score must be some unfathomable mistake and since there are no printed lyrics and that the song really is "Nora Lee", we should be able to just wait and see whether anybody will complain before taking action. At least that would be my guess. – User8773 Mar 6 '14 at 19:35
@David that's "Aura Lea" actually. See – BobRodes Mar 7 '14 at 15:50
Copyright in the U.S. lasts for whatever is needed to keep Mickey Mouse out of the Public Domain as the lawmakers receive a significant part of their income from large corporations (the laws are retroactively extended, with the only ones profiting from that being heirs and corporations since the respective authors are dead). The current rules are and the recent "trade" treaties supposed to be pressed onto Europe soon will extend even those and put them into national laws. – User8773 Mar 8 '14 at 7:59
@Tim: I suspect that, say, a Beethoven Sonata would run to 100 pages instead of 20 or so, using that notation. There is a whole lot of information packed into each note in musical notation. – BobRodes Mar 10 '14 at 4:48

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