Does anyone recognize this musical notation? It looks like a bunch of vertical bars. Is it supposed to be read by a machine? It was found in an issue of Scientific American from 1846. I'm guessing the "C" at the beginning means common time, as it usually does. The music notation

  • 3
    I'll search a bit. However, I did figure out that it's probably not a vertical arrangement of morse code. The letters W R N didn't seem to make much sense. It would help to have an exact date and the name of the paper.
    – ttw
    May 31, 2021 at 15:59
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    I’ve looked and looked and I still think it’s a form of clarinet tablature or some other keyed wind instrument. The bottom of this page seems similar: lsr.di.unimi.it/LSR/Item?id=615 May 31, 2021 at 19:05
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    Fairly certain the source is Scientific American Vol. 1 Issue 27 (March 19, 1864), "The Sciences: Music". It's at this link, but requires a subscription to view (which I don't have, so can't confirm). (@phoog FYI)
    – Aaron
    Jun 1, 2021 at 6:29
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    @Aaron Indeed that's the source! But the date is 1846.
    – Tom
    Jun 1, 2021 at 7:40
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    FWIW, Princeton University wasn't named as such until 1896 and wasn't located in Princeton, NJ until 1856 Wikipedia; there was an American revolutionary war Battle of Princeton in 1777 Wikipedia (@Tom Thanks for correcting my typo!)
    – Aaron
    Jun 1, 2021 at 10:51

3 Answers 3


It is "a new system of music" that was set forth in the same periodical, Scientific American, in a subsequent issue, that of March 26, 1846.

The image in the question was taken from the March 19th issue.

enter image description here

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    Unfortunately they fail to explain why they thought this was an improvement on standard notation.
    – PiedPiper
    Jun 1, 2021 at 15:07
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    @Aaron I just figured that it was something specific to Scientific American, since that seemed likely given the character of the magazine, and I looked at a few other issues from around the same time. I was lucky that the third one I looked at was the one with the key.
    – phoog
    Jun 1, 2021 at 15:57
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    @PiedPiper: I'm going to guess that the idea was to make music publishing easier by using a notation that was easy to typeset, as opposed to the laborious plate engraving that was standard in those days. Jun 1, 2021 at 17:39
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    @PiedPiper I guess that depends if you are the typesetter or the musician. Presumably the astute reader could transcribe the music onto paper in the traditional way from the source in the newspaper. The newspaper here would serve only as a medium to transmit the music, not necessarily the medium from which you would play it. In the time before the internet we had to be creative about how we transmitted information since there was no other way to do it. This takes up minimal space in a newspaper column and can fit quite a lot of music.
    – J...
    Jun 1, 2021 at 18:23
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    Computer magazines used to have programs in hex (including checksums) that readers could copy.
    – Carsten S
    Jun 4, 2021 at 12:33

I find this absolutely fascinating, so I decided to use phoog's terrific answer to figure out how this march sounded. So, I present the "Princeton Hill March"!

enter image description here

I won't pretend that this is without error. It's an exceedingly cumbersome notational system, and even slight aberrations in printing can ruin the notation. (For instance, some of the early pitches are unclear: are they Es or F-sharps?) Furthermore, I've found a few errors in the notation, two of which I've marked with asterisks in the above score:

  • The first asterisk (the B in m. 5) is technically an octave lower, as is the following D. But then the very next measure jumps up an octave to the written D. This seems odd, so I evened it out here.
  • The penultimate A in m. 14 is technically written as just a quarter note, and written one octave lower. But this destroys not only the melodic line, it also results in a measure with one eighth note too few. This pitch is the first glyph on the bottom line of the notational excerpt; the pitch comprises the skinny long-short line, the thick long-short line, and then the notch in the lower half. This notch moves it down an octave (to below middle C), but I'm guessing it's a misprint, and it should be a longer notch in the top half, which both keeps the A in the main register and makes it a dotted quarter instead of just a quarter.

So I'm happy to hear if anyone has any corrections, but really I was just curious to try out this system.

(...I don't recommend it.)

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    Did you spot the error in the key for the New System? (minim F5) Jun 1, 2021 at 18:35
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    Thanks. I was hoping someone would do this so I wouldn't have to! :-)
    – phoog
    Jun 1, 2021 at 20:23
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    I'm going to have to start answering questions around here to earn enough rep to bounty this answer, if only for "I don't recommend it." Not that it wasn't obviously painful on spec, but I might have been tempted to try to transcribe something, just to see how bad it actually is....
    – nitsua60
    Jun 1, 2021 at 23:04
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    @ElementsinSpace Good eye! I didn't catch that, but I certainly see it now.
    – Richard
    Jun 2, 2021 at 6:52

That looks like the control sheet for a barrel organ or hurdy-gurdy.

enter image description here

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    Is there a way for a newspaper reader to transcribe from the image in the question to a barrel organ control sheet? May 31, 2021 at 17:19
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    That would be even harder than today's occasional newsprint-rendered http://example.com/two-and-a-half-column-inches/of/random-letters. Jun 1, 2021 at 20:48

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