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This question Is there a color code for notes? includes a few standards for colouring notes, to make it easier and faster for our brains to tell the difference between notes.

For example: C = blue, D = green, E = yellow, etc.

This would obviously help children learn to sight read faster, and increase the speed at which they can sight read thereafter. In fact, it seems unlikely it won't help adults - even experienced musicians.

Once a standard is settled on, some instruments can adopt the colours too, e.g.: learner piano keyboards can colour their keys.

Historically colour hasn't been practical for all paper sheet music. But paper sheet music is slowly dying, to be replaced sooner or later with digital displays (tablets, etc).

But I'm not seeing colour being used like this much yet.

Is it just us old musicians underestimating how important this would be to young musicians? Or is there some actual reason not to colour code all notes in digital sheet music?

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    "To make it easier and faster for our brains to tell the difference between notes" - is there any research that shows that it does make it easier, for musicians of any level? I can easily imagine that it's useful to start children off with notation when using an instrument that actually has the note colours marked on it. Beyond that, the fact that 1 in 12 men are colourblind is probably enough reason not to do this unless there are some genuine 'findings' that it does make things easier. Commented Mar 10, 2021 at 9:31
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    Is the music really digital, if the music display software cannot read the music and play it? And if it can, couldn't it colorize the notes too? Or maybe display ads on top of it, if the digital rights holders want. Commented Mar 10, 2021 at 9:31
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    Just to continue from my previous point - we could colour-code the numbers 1-9 in maths books. But I doubt it would be a useful aid to recognition. I could be wrong though! Commented Mar 10, 2021 at 9:35
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    Please explain or link why it is "obvious" that this would help. Additionally, the most suitable digital display for music, e-paper, is still largely black and white. Commented Mar 10, 2021 at 20:02
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    This was closed as a duplicate but I don't think it is a duplicate of that question. There's an obvious similarity in color corresponding to notes, but the actual question is different.
    – Edward
    Commented Mar 11, 2021 at 5:42

8 Answers 8

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It's unnecessary, the benefits would mostly be confined to children, musicians would find it just ugly, and it would be a mayhem for anybody with synesthesia that happens to assign different colours. For them, it would be like saying out loud the colours (not words!) in this chart

Colours and word-meanings scrambled

Likewise, even for those without synesthesia it would only work if there was actually a uniform standard. But there is no single governing body of music that could hope to establish such a standard – even if there was broad agreement that a colour code were a good idea, people wouldn't be able to agree on which one it should be.

And even these difficulties aside, I'm not convinced that this would really help in anything but simple child's tunes. In such simple tunes, half-way experienced musicians have no difficulty anyway, in black&white, whereas in complex ones the colours would just mash together. Colour vision is great for picking out single features from a differently-coloured background, but for understanding fine details we mostly rely on only brightness (luma).

Finally, if scores were colour-drenched then this would preclude using colour for other, domain specific purposes – highlighting specific notes independent of their pitch.

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If this were a good idea, wouldn't there be any reason not to just always colour-code letters in printed texts?

No, it would be a terrible idea, for many reasons, including but not limited to:

  • The colours you mention are harder to make out against the white background -- yellow, especially. Trying to make out symbols which have a poor contrast with their background is needless hard and takes more time. The performer sight-reading at speed cannot spare that time.
  • The colours would distract the performer.
  • There is no way in which colours would help. Performers can read notes perfectly well without the need for colours.
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One reason is that this would exclude people with color vision deficiencies.

Since this a comparably frequent condition, color-coding notes at default would make sheet reading much more difficult for a rather high number of musicians or people who want to become musicians.

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    How would it prevent people with color blindness from reading the pitch based on the note position on the staff? It would be wrong to use color exclusively, but this is not what OP proposes. Commented Mar 10, 2021 at 22:27
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    Well, written scores have been excluding blind people from music for the last centuries - although previously popular music was a common professional choice for blind people. However, that's a reason to adapt scores to blind people, not to stop using scores. If coloring notes were a useful feature in scores, the existence of color blind people would be a reason to adapt it to them, not to stop using colors.
    – Pere
    Commented Jun 21, 2021 at 12:12
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Good sight readers will be anticipating a measure ahead easily. That means making use of peripheral vision. Peripheral vision has very little color discrimination. So this will end up an impediment comparatively fast once you make it past the phase where you are extremely focused on the current point of musical time in the score.

In particular keyboard and guitar notes tend to have chords read functionally by the shape of a chord's note stacks rather than note-by-note. A garish mixture of colors that is totally different for every different root note will be an utter distraction for discriminating a particular chord type.

Colors as pitch-markers are used as learning aids for pre-school music education. There is a reason that this practice is not continued beyond simple songs.

To compound matters, the better readability of high contrast displays means that professional electronic score sheets can be of the electronic paper variety. Color displays tend to provide significantly lower contrast than their black&white counterparts.

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  • I’m not sure that ‘reading ahead’ implies using peripheral vision. I think I actually do READ ahead, not just glance ahead sideways!
    – Laurence
    Commented Jan 10, 2023 at 0:19
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If all the notes are shown by color, why use staff at all?

The main problem I can see is that it would make transposition nearly impossible. Each musical key has certain relationships that are normalized with key signatures. But how do you go from key of green to key of yellow?

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There is some evidence for colour helping in the early stages of learning to read notation. (But there's also a chaotic history of 'introductory' reading systems - anyone remember ITA, the Initial Teaching Alphabet?)

But an experienced reader soon stops using letter names as an intermediary between 'see that mark on the paper' and 'produce that note'. We don't 'spell it out' any more than we spell out 'C,A,T' when reading the word 'cat'. To be any real use, there would have to be a different colour for every note in your instrument's range!

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  • Yes, I remember, and rue, the introduction of ITA - it should have been confined to a tv station!. Having taught reading for years in primary, I still couldn't get my head round why kids didn't pronounce CAT as ke-a-te...
    – Tim
    Commented Jan 9, 2023 at 12:53
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I actually believe the use of color, or at least color scale (even greyscale) would be useful in sheet music for composers to convey relative note intensity/volume. Not necessarily for tone values (like C = red, D = blue or something like that).

I write arrangements for piano with the intention of incorporating as many voices of the original piece as possible. With currently accepted standards of scoring, I am usually forced to write with 3 or more staves because I cannot otherwise convey the necessary distinction between voices. Yes, beaming voices separately can help, but with one staff, it's very hard to say "this voice quiet, and this voice soft". It can get really ugly fast. I personally believe that if I had two voices stacked on each other, and one was more greyish than the other, it would be easy to distinguish that voice from the other AND know that it should be played more quietly. I would of course have some sort of legend at the top of my score that shows grey = quiet, black = loud or something to that effect. I am likely going to adopt this method anyway, even if it's not the standard.

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    If your performer is a human then a multiple staves is the way to go, precisely because it keeps the lines distinct. I play in a UK brass band and the typesetting convention is to write the flugel horn and repieno cornet parts on a single stave, expecting the players to be able to distinguish between sticks up and sticks down. It is really hard to read this type of part. I think trying to apply a mental colour filter to music notation when you're performing it would be equally tricky. Commented Jan 3, 2023 at 12:44
  • I think the only advantage of colour music is that you could incorporate the security coloured-dot pattern from a banknote into your scores so that colour photocopiers would refuse to copy them. Commented Jan 3, 2023 at 12:46
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Maybe colors for pitch would help. Or, maybe it would be distracting to read.

The idea is similar to solfege and shape notes. Shape notes is a fairly obvious way to distinguish pitches in black and white print in lieu of using color.

There is a lot of shape note music available, but I've seen it only in choral genres. Whatever its merits it did not revolutionize notation.

One thing I think you overlook about reading music is the importance of reading relative changes to pitch. Your color system is just a variation on reading the staff like "G clef, third space is C, next play the fourth space which is E..." But, better reading is more like seeing the relative distance between dots, lines and spaces and then treating it like "play an ascending major third."

I sometimes use colors in musical diagrams. I'll do things like use blue for the tonic and red for the dominant. But I try to keep that very limited. In my opinion too many colors creates confusion. Also, in visual art there is the topic of color theory and colors can express moods. I would find it strange and distracting to have something like a fast major key Mozart piano movement and a slow minor Chopin prelude to use the same rainbow color notation.

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