# What if we had six note names in notation instead of seven? [closed]

I have a naïve question, but this has been bothering me for a while now. Wouldn't it be simpler and more convenient to have 6 note names instead of 7?

So we basically have the same 12 notes but renamed using six note names.
Chromatic scale:
BEFORE: A A# B C C# D D# E F F# G G#
AFTER: A A# B B# C C# D D# E E# F F#

C major (W W H W W W H) became: C D E E# F# A# B# C
The whole tone scale became: C D E F A B

The benefits of not having note names that differ by a semitone come when you want to understand what notes a chord may consist of. For example, we have a major seventh chord, which consists of a major third (4 semitones), a perfect fifth (7 semitones), and a major seventh (11 semitones). If we want to know notes in Cmaj7 and we think like this:

1. we got each second note: C E A C
2. we put accidentals: C E (no accidental as in tonic, because 4 semitones is even) Ab (7 is odd and less than 8 which is A), Cb (11 is odd and less than 12 which is C).
3. So it is C E Ab Cb notes.

I saw Why does the scale have seven (or five) notes? Why not six? question and I understand why we have the current notation for historical reasons and many things already be on top of it, but I wonder if we would make notation from scratch and can we reduce complexity using only 6 notes or am I missing the bigger picture here?

• In one example, you use sharps, in another, you use flats. How do you consider they will be related in your new system? And think about portraying notes on staves. That would have to be re-hashed too. – Tim Dec 20 '20 at 10:42
• > Would you expect the layout of the ubiquitous piano to be changed to reflect any logic in your system? Piano will have black-white-balck-white for whole keyboard. Guitar should change only names of strings. – l0ki Dec 20 '20 at 12:17
• My first thought was: "if you consider changing it, wouldn't extending it to 12 letters be even MORE convenient?". I can't see why "6 with modifiers" would be better than "7 with modifiers", when you can have "12 without modifiers"? IT guy, sorry. – Willem van Rumpt Dec 20 '20 at 17:32
• This feels like a very discussion based "what if" question rather than an actual Q&A question. What problem are you actually encountering with 7 notes that having 6 notes would solve? I feel like that's the real question you want to be asking over proposing a new system. – Dom Dec 21 '20 at 15:12
• @Dom it's not subjective that having a separate name for each degree of a diatonic 7-note scale makes it easier to handle things happening inside a diatonic 7-note scale. The piano keyboard layout is a consequence of that fact. Thinking about what-ifs and different ways of organizing things is important to thinking and understanding. Many people who only speak languages of a single language family, assume that all languages are structured similarly and that translation is mostly a simple matter of word-for-word table lookup. – piiperi Reinstate Monica Dec 21 '20 at 15:36

Your system makes it simpler and more convenient to write music in the whole-tone scale, which is very rarely used in actual music. But commonly used diatonic music is more difficult to write with your system, because so many accidentals are needed all the time even for the most trivial melodies and chords, regardless of the key. All keys have accidentals!? No easy C major or A minor for anyone ha ha ha haaa! Sounds like the plan of an evil doctor from a silly B movie.

Look at how much diatonic stuff there is in existing music. With the key signature you define a set of seven diatonic notes, and having to use accidentals to denote temporary changes to that default set is an exception. In case of a modulation i.e. key change, a new key signature is written. Your system of six note names would create a lot more exceptions. And how would you write a key signature? You would have to write a table like this:

• 1st note : "C"
• 2nd note : "D"
• 3rd note : "E"
• 4th note : "E#"
• 5th note : "F#"
• 6th note : "A#"
• 7th note : "B#"

So that would be your key signature for "C major". If that's C major, then I'd prefer to start writing things using the easy non-convoluted names on the LEFT side, i.e. the numbers, because the so-called note names on the right side are so awkward.

EDIT: As noted in other comments, there are already note-name-agnostic systems that use semitones. I have used semitone offsets for teaching chord geometry to guitar, bass and even keyboard players, and they haven't had any problems with it. The formula for a basic major triad is: "0 4 7", a minor chord is "0 3 7" and a diminished chord is "0 3 6". Dim7 is "0 3 6 9". This is actually helpful even for keyboard players after showing how to count semitone intervals (which is not self-evident, as incredible as it may seem). For other systems, various "tracker" music programs use hexadecimal numbers 0123456789ABCDEF, which can cover over one octave with a single character position. For example 047 is a major triad, 05A is a 7 sus4, 47B is a rootless maj7, the same as 037 with an offset +4.

• > No easy C major or A minor for anyone ha ha ha haaa! Sounds like the plan of an evil doctor from a silly B movie. >> Does having this easyness for two scales is such important in pratice, while other scales have accidentals anyway? Is it only piano-related? Because C major not easier on guitar than B major, thought latter has lot of sharps. – l0ki Dec 20 '20 at 12:56
• I fell that i lack practice and knowledge with key signatures to deeply discuss this, but shouldn't table, that matches key with number of accidentals (an what notes has them) be memorised anyway? – l0ki Dec 20 '20 at 13:00
• Having something that's easy and simple is great for getting started. Guitar and piano are different instruments when it comes to seeing the forest for the trees. Or think about a music theory 101 class, if you couldn't talk about basically anything at all, not even stuff inside a single key, without having cumbersome names pop up right from the get-go. Learning always builds on something. You first get familiar with something small, and only after you feel like you master that, can you build more complex things on top of that. – piiperi Reinstate Monica Dec 20 '20 at 14:43

As piiperi says, "commonly used diatonic music is more difficult to write with your system". Further to their point (viz a fair few accidentals needed, whichever key you write in), I see another problem: lack of consistency.

Among intervals that are narrower than an octave, the most important is the perfect fifth. In your system, the perfect fifth above A is D#, that is, you go forward three letters and add a #, and the perfect fifth above A# is E, that is, you go forward four letters and remove a #. Your system doesn't enable you to notate these two equal intervals using the same offset in letter-names.

• Not sure i understand. In current system perfect fiths is: A — E A# — E# or A# — F. In my system: A — D# or A — Eb A# — E. – l0ki Dec 20 '20 at 19:10
• @l0ki in the current system, A sharp to F is a diminished sixth, not a perfect fifth. – phoog Dec 20 '20 at 21:42
• Not sure i understand you, as far i understand, this is different names for same 7 semitones interval – l0ki Dec 21 '20 at 18:40

Every system of notation/note naming is going to relate to a particular perspective from which music can be looked at.

The standard 7-note system relates to the idea that we are going to see the music as using (or sticking close to) the diatonic scale. The sharps and flats indicate notes that are alterations - either due to the basic diatonic scale used being other than 'the white keys' (i.e. a key signature other than C Major / A minor), or because a composer has chosen to use a non-diatonic note.

Sometimes it might not be useful to assume that a piece of music sticks to the diatonic scale. In these cases, people sometimes do use a notation relating to the 12-tone (or chromatic) scale, using the numbers 1 to 11 - see http://musictheory.pugetsound.edu/mt21c/SetTheorySection.html.

Your idea of 6 evenly-spaced notes might be useful in a musical culture that wrote a lot of music in the whole-tone scale, with 6 evenly spaced notes per octave. I think the use of # or b symbols might be confusing, as they wouldn't mean quite the same things as they do in standard notation.

In the real world in which we live, I'm not aware of a lot of music based around the whole-tone scale. Certainly in Western music, it tends to be used as a kind of occasional special effect.

I wonder if we would make notation from scratch can we reduce complexity using only 6 notes or am I missing bigger picture here?

I think the bigger picture is that every system of notation is a tool that has advantages and disadvantages for a particular job. Your idea would make sense in some contexts but would create problems in a lot of common contexts in which people want to use notation.

• I don't compose music, so this might be reason that i do not see convenience of existing notation for diatonic scales. Sure, i understand that C major and A minor conveniently "white", but major and minor scales from other keys have alterations. And other scales like Dorian or Lydian also have alterations. What am i missing here? Is number of alterations in scale is really such important and does existing system really helps to reduce alterations count in average case? Or maybe having such simple case for only C major and A minor is so convenient so it beats inconveniences for other scales? – l0ki Dec 20 '20 at 12:40
• @l0ki I think what you are missing is how key signatures are used. By choosing the appropriate key signature with the right sharps or flats, you don't have to write any accidentals with the notes as long as the music is diatonic. That's true whether the piece is C major, D Major, E major... or any minor... or Dorian or Lydian. Now of course that does mean that players have to learn how to "automatically" apply the key signature to the notes they see, but it's a fairly straightforward thing for most people to learn. – topo Reinstate Monica Dec 20 '20 at 14:00
• thanks, i know roughly how key signature works, but i guess i should give it more attention, so i can more deeply understand convenience for 7-note scales. – l0ki Dec 20 '20 at 19:01

A 7-name system means each note of a scale gets a unique name (and a modifying flat, sharp, or often-implicit natural). Traditional notation ("sheet music"), solfege, Nashville, and other systems are based around the idea of uniquely representing scale degrees. As other comments have pointed out, this is a significant advantage when reading music based around 7-note scales. Even if you don't use such a system, you will almost certainly have to talk to musicians who do.

This name-per-scale-degree convention is why we count intervals according to letter names, and your example of a C major scale vs. C major chord demonstrates the problem perfectly. Under your system, you cannot construct diatonic tertian chords on a scale. Climbing the traditional C major scale in thirds, we get a diatonic chord built on the first scale degree, a C major triad/seventh/ninth/etc.. We can do the same thing on a D major scale without thinking, because the scale has already accounted for the necessary sharps. Under your system, key signatures have no practical value, because writing a scalic melody and writing a chord require different accidentals (as demonstrated in your post, where the fifth scale degree is F#, but the fifth of the tonic chord is A♭). You could abandon the constraint that we spell chords in thirds, and instead just go with C-E-F#-B# as your Cmaj7 spelling, preserving the usefulness of key signatures; but this just shunts the difficulty of remembering which note names are a semitone apart over to the difficulty of remembering which chords in a key are tertian.

Concepts like the circle of fifths are also much more difficult to talk about/think in in your system. Again, we count intervals according to letter names; there is no such consistency in your system, instead of [C-G-D-A...] we get [C-F#-D-A#...]. This could be fixed in a 12-name system, with a "circle of eighths", [C-J-E-L...], but you wouldn't be able to do this with it:

In a sense, the current system does not require you remember anything beyond how to count. You can construct any major/minor key simply by going up/down fifths from C, adding a sharp/flat in ascending/descending fifths each time (with the possible gotcha that when moving a fifth, you need to bear your current key signature in mind), and from there you can construct any diatonic chord. Of course, this does eventually need to become memory, but it's a very useful crutch which both your 6-name system and even a 12-name system lack.

The drawback of your system is that it is much too complex for what it offers.

The system you describe has all the complexity of differentiating between diatonic and chromatic (there's both D and D#), but does not actually differentiate between them.

If you don't care about treating diatonic pitches differently than chromatic, just use numbers or letters. Both: 0,1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9,10,11 and a,b,c,d,e,f,g,h,i,j,k is simpler, and the first one is actually useful (and used). Actually, there's plenty of alternative systems for describing chords and pitches. The problem with your idea is that the only resource it saves are the letters of the alphabet - and we have plenty of those.

• What do you mean by "differentiating between diatonic and chromatic [...] but does not actually differentiate"? Do you mean that accidentals normally differentiate between diatonic and chromatic (thus making the use of accidentals complex), yet in the asker's system, accidentals don't necessarily differentiate between diatonic and chromatic? – awe lotta Dec 22 '20 at 23:40
• @awe lotta: Yes, this is what I meant. The point of separating "base" and "modifier" is so that knowing the scale you can tell - just from the note name - the role of the note. When you see Db in C, you suspect it will move down to B. When you see the same sound spelled C#, you expect it to go up to D. The "spelling" is more complex, but tells us about the author's intentions. If we optimize our system for the simplest possible spelling, there's no point in using sharps or flats - we just have 11 notes. – fdreger Dec 23 '20 at 0:05