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To start out: I am more-or-less familiar with all the standard musical clef notations, including F, C, and G clefs; as well as the fact that clefs can be movable (tenor clef, french violin clef...) and have octave displacements (8va/8vb). I'm also aware of the unpitched percussion clef. With the exception of the later, these are all ways to map staff positions to absolute pitches. (I should also mention that in the case of transposing instruments, like Clarinets or Horns, this absolute pitch may not be the pitch it first appears to be.)

My question is whether anyone has ever seen a clef that maps staff positions to relative pitches (i.e. scale degrees) rather than absolute pitches. I realize this would be of limited use, especially for performers, who need to know which note on their instrument to play. But I could see such a system being useful in certain harmonic or analytical contexts, where the absolute pitch is unimportant (for example, notating chord progressions, or melodic motifs, irrespective of key). I could also see it being used for initial steps of transcriptions done by-ear, where the key isn't immediately important.

The "work around" is just to pick some specific key (which may or may not be correct, and which may often end up being 'C'), and just notate in that key. That works fine, I suppose, but it makes an explicit statement about key which may not be accurate or relevant. Of course, there are also numbers and solfege symbols which can be used, but these use alphanumeric characters, rather than standard music notes, and thus lose rhythmic information. One similar thing I've seen is shape-notes, in which the shape of note heads indicate scale degree. But this is non-standard notation practice (thankfully!), and it still uses normal clefs to indicate absolute pitches. I suppose transposing instruments are probably closest to what I'm looking for, if they were notated without a specific transposition in mind.

I have not been able to find any information on Google about the existence of such a clef, so I presume it doesn't exist, but I might not be using the right keywords, or it might be very obscure, so I'm wondering if anyone else has ever come across something like this? I'd be mildly surprised if no music theoretician anywhere has ever proposed some such system.

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The system you're describing is the "movable do" or Solfege system. (Without the clef and notes, though...!) –  Bob Broadley May 28 at 23:57
    
Yeah, I mentioned solfege. It's specifically the clef and notes that I'm hoping to have! –  Caleb Hines May 29 at 0:13
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Have you checked musicnotation.org? –  dan04 May 29 at 0:41
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+1 What a deeply fabulous question. –  Codeswitcher May 29 at 4:16
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This is a great question (+1). So far it appears that this form of notation is either so obscure that it is not easily found or begs to be developed and nurtured. This might be like cosmologists trying to define dark matter, ok that's a bit of a stretch. However, if no one here can find an answer, we then should turn to you to develop this new system which as you have pointed out could be a very useful to define analytical contexts. Have you looked into speech cognition, or speech therapy to see if there are tools like this? –  filzilla May 29 at 15:42

2 Answers 2

In western staff notation every clef represent fixed set of notes so the what is written can easily be conveyed to any musician without much knowledge of the theory behind the notes just the knowledge of this is X note. Also note the key signatures themselves are set in a fixed pattern to simplify the reading for musicians. Even in the more loosely defined percussion (or neutral) clef, there is an understanding that the first space is for bass drum, the third space is for snare, and the space above the staff is for some kind of cymbal. The notation is meant for precision and not for theory and relativity.

There are analysis techniques that can reduce harmony (chords) into relative ideas. The most widely used analysis is Roman Numeral Analysis and it's modern form the Nashville number system. These are extremely useful for chords and making them relative to any key, but it's not for melodies.

There is a numbered musical notation popular in Asian countries. The basic idea is that the key is given and the notes are all numbers based on the scale degree. There is no clef because we are dealing with numbers instead notes on a staff. Here is the Wikipedia entry for the kind of notation.

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Really useful link, Dom. I have seen quite a bit of this notation in guitar books some pupils have brought to me. I answered a question about this recently; if you don't mind I'll add your Wikipedia link. –  Bob Broadley May 29 at 0:59
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@BobBroadley go ahead. –  Dom May 29 at 1:01
    
You might want to mention figured bass notation as it's kind of a compromise between using a conventional staff and Roman numeral notation. Good answer! –  Bradd Szonye May 29 at 17:45
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@BraddSzonye - I completely disagree with you here. Figured bass is not a compromise - it was a short-hand used primarily in the Baroque period for the continuo to realize the harmony to support the melody. If anything, it may be considered a predecessor of macro-analytical notation used in lead sheets and jazz charts used by contemporary musicians. –  jjmusicnotes May 29 at 21:06
    
@jj And it also expresses harmony in terms of abstract intervals rather than specific notes for each voice, much like the question asks for. Perhaps compromise is the wrong word for it, but it does seem to be partly in the spirit of what the OP wants. –  Bradd Szonye May 29 at 21:21

I encountered the same question when I started playing the jammer (in the form of the Hexiano Android app). Due to its isomorphic keyboard layout (and thus ease of transposition), this instrument lends itself very well to a relative-pitch notation.

Eventually, I developed my own system of jammer tablature. Of course, it suffers from a lack of musical scores written in it, and for that reason may not be a suitable answer for your question. But just in case anyone here is curious, here's what it looks like.

Pitch Notation

Notes are written on a vertical staff consisting of 4 lines and 3 spaces. The spaces correspond to the “root row” (do-re-mi) on the jammer keyboard, and the lines correspond to the “dominant row” (fa-so-la-ti) above.

  do
fa  so  la  ti
  do  re  mi

Notes of the major scale

│ │
├─┼─┬─┐
│●│ │ │ do
│ │●│ │ re
│ │ │●│ mi
● │ │ │ fa
│ ● │ │ so
│ │ ● │ la
│ │ │ ● ti
│▲│ │ │ do
└─┴─┴─┘

Notes of the minor scale

Uses the same root and dominant rows of the relative major, but starts on “la” of the row below.

    │
┌─┬─┼─┐
│ │ ▼ │ la
│ │ │ ▼ ti
│●│ │ │ do
│ │●│ │ re
│ │ │●│ mi
● │ │ │ fa
│ ● │ │ so
│ │ ● │ la
└─┴─┴─┘

Chromatic notes

continue the same jammer keyboard-based arrangement.

  C♭  D♭  E♭  F   G   A   B   C♯  D♯  E♯
F♭  G♭  A♭  B♭  C   D   E   F♯  G♯  A♯  B♯
  C♭  D♭  E♭  F   G   A   B   C♯  D♯  E♯
F♭  G♭  A♭  B♭  C   D   E   F♯  G♯  A♯  B♯
  C♭  D♭  E♭  F   G   A   B   C♯  D♯  E♯
F♭  G♭  A♭  B♭  C   D   E   F♯  G♯  A♯  B♯

Ledger lines are added as necessary.

Here's an ascending melodic minor scale:

    │
┌─┬─┼─┐
│ │ ▼ │     la
│ │ │ ▼     ti
│●│ │ │     do
│ │●│ │     re
│ │ │●│     mi
│ │ │ │●    fi
│ │ │ │ │●  si
│ │ ● │     la
└─┴─┴─┘

Octaves

The “main” octave uses circular (●) noteheads. The octave above it uses upward-pointing triangles (▲), and the octave below it uses downward-pointing triangles (▼). Pieces that span 3 or more octaves need to use “8va” notation.

Chords

Multiple notes played together are written in the same horizontal row. Here are the triads within the major scale:

┌─┬─┬─┐
│●● │●│ I
● │●● │ ii
│ ● │●● iii
●▲│ ● │ IV
│ ●▲│ ● V
│▲│ ●▲│ vi
▲ │▲│ ● vii°
└─┴─┴─┘

Key signatures

Because jammer tablature is a relative-pitch notation, these are optional!

Major key

Above the staff, write the tonic (“do”) on the first space.

 C
│ │
├─┼─┬─┐
│●│ │ │
│ │●│ │
│ │ │●│
...

Minor key

Above the staff, write the tonic (“la”) on the third line.

    A
    │
┌─┬─┼─┐
│ │ ▼ │
│ │ │ ▼
│●│ │ │
...

Note length

Notehead colors

  • ▽ ○ △ = whole note (4 beats unless otherwise specified)
  • = half note (2 beats)
  • ▼ ● ▲ = quarter note
  • X = quarter rest (longer rests are written as a sequence of multiple X's)

Length modifiers

Placed to the right of the note, chord, or rest.

  • / = multiply by 1/2 (thus ●/ = 8th note, ●// = 16th note, etc.)
  • 3 = multiply by 1/3
  • · = multiply by 3/2

Example

The melody to “Frère Jacques

│ │
├─┼─┬─┐
│●│ │ │
│ │●│ │
│ │ │●│
│●│ │ │
├─┼─┼─┤
│●│ │ │
│ │●│ │
│ │ │●│
│●│ │ │
├─┼─┼─┤
│ │ │●│
● │ │ │
│ ∅ │ │
├─┼─┼─┤
│ │ │●│
● │ │ │
│ ∅ │ │
├─┼─┼─┤
│ ●/│ │
│ │ ●/│
│ ●/│ │
●/│ │ │
│ │ │●│
│●│ │ │
├─┼─┼─┤
│ ●/│ │
│ │ ●/│
│ ●/│ │
●/│ │ │
│ │ │●│
│●│ │ │
├─┼─┼─┤
│●│ │ │
│ ▼ │ │
│∅│ │ │
├─┼─┼─┤
│●│ │ │
│ ▼ │ │
│∅│ │ │
└─┴─┴─┘
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