Looking for a simplified notation for piano that is 1) key agnostic but 2) chord and voicing specific. Here's kind of what I'm going for:

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The chord and extensions are expressed to the left, and the left and right hands are spelled out to the right of the chord. The music is read from left to right, top to bottom. It would be a new form of lead sheet.

The notes being horizontal kind of more line up with the way the hands are on the keyboard of course, which would likely lead to easier reading and being able to mentally connect the notation with physical note locations.

I want something less specific than traditional staff notation that can be more easily transposed on the fly but that also describes a sophisticated sound.

(In a sense this looks a bit like numbered notation, but it is more generic)

For me, thinking about note numbers (and chord degrees) is more intuitive than trying to transpose chords from staff notation on the fly. It will also train my brain to think about the note numbers associated with the chord symbol while playing at full speed.

If it remains key agnostic, I can more efficiently practice the piece in all keys without having to transpose and write out the sheets in traditional notation.

This kind of notation doesn't specify block chords or arpeggios either... it's just the general hand shapes that should be made.

The issue is the changing of keys... as you see in the above example. What would the fourth chord be? In "Autumn Leaves" it would be a fifth below the I Maj7... but should it be called a IV chord? (Probably not)

The fifth chord of the sequence of course starts a minor ii-v-i... but again in relation to a different resolution chord (i).

My question is... does a similar notation already exist, or how might I finish this notation so that it makes sense.....given that keys change constantly? (I don't want to specify a starting key. I want to keep the music key agnostic)

(it would be kind of like a hybrid of a numbered notation and lead sheet--the chords displayed horizontally to line up with how the hands are actually positioned--without the rhythm specifications)

Thanks! C

  • 2
    NNS works in a similar way, although I prefer m rather than - for minor, and Roman numerals rather than numbers. You already have the chord names, which specify which notes will be played. I think most players would want to voice each chord themselves, rather than be told. This seems a bit like tab, where there is little room for individual thought and choice. It really doesn't need prescriptive notes for each hand, in my opinion.
    – Tim
    Commented May 8, 2016 at 7:11
  • Thanks Tim. You have a point about the prescriptive nature of it. It would be used more like a training tool when working on new or unfamiliar voicings Commented May 8, 2016 at 9:23
  • @ChadLehman, what you're describing is almost identical to what I think about when I practice new piano voicings by taking them through all 12 keys. It's not often that I write out piano voicings for an entire song, and if you're doing that, I applaud you! I'm more likely to practice new voicings over a ii-V-I in all 12 keys, & so I don't often encounter scenarios like you've described with key changes. But when I do practice voicings over a full song (moving it through all 12 keys), I think about key changes in terms of the old and new tonics (e.g., B♭ to Gmin is down a minor third).
    – jdjazz
    Commented Jun 15, 2017 at 2:00

4 Answers 4


I'm not a fan of the term "Key-agnostic" as it doesn't seem apt for your musical goals? Also not interested in getting mired down in semantics, but I think it's worth revisiting your nomenclature.

Some people here have been suggesting roman numerals. While admirable, it doesn't solve your problem as roman numerals illustrate key-relationships, more specifically, the relation of a certain scale degree in relation to the key. This is not helpful if your harmony is non-functional. No, you need a mix of Macro-Analytical Notation and Figured Bass

You won't really use either outright, but a mix of the two should help you.

The first will help you notate the root / quality of each chord. The key doesn't matter, since you're focusing on the root.

The second will help you voice each chord. It only specifies the inversion of the chord, but the actual voicing is up to you.

Figured Bass was used by keyboardists for many many years as a short-hand. Even though it was "classical" music, they read off lead-sheets the same way jazz guys do now. While it's good for voicing, it's not ideal for showing chord-quality. The notation used to show alterations to intervals isn't ideal for the type of playing you probably do, which is why I suggest a mix.

Thus, a chord like C°4/3 tells you that it's a C diminished chord in 2nd-inversion.

Give it a whirl, see if it sticks.


Playing from a score using such notation entails working out what pitches to play, from the key, and from your notation which specifies pitches relative to the tonic. This requires as much skill as transposing at sight. If a pianist can't transpose at sight, they're not going to be able to read your notation at sight. If they can, why not just use existing sheet music notation?


You could add another column to the left of these three in which you list any key changes. The leftmost margin would be empty in most cases. But whenever there's a key change (like when you reach the minor iiø7 V7alt i–7, the leftmost margin would read either ↓3 (to represent a key change down three half steps from B♭ Maj down to G min) or ↓ m3 to represent a key change down a minor third. As another example, shifting the key up a major fourth could be ↑ M4.

This might work for a song like Autumn Leaves. Using some really simple Bud Powell-esque voicings, this could look something like:

___ ii–7 1--7 3--5

___ V7 1--3 7--9

___ I∆7 1--7 3--13

___ IV∆7(♯11) 1--3 7--9

↓m3 iiø7 1--5 7--3

___ V7(♭13) 1--3 13-7

___ i–7 1--7 3--5

But if you try to write out Giant Steps or Countdown, it might get too complex.

  • For an intermediate student like me, this is perfect for voicing training. I will start using it right away :-)
    – Fred Guth
    Commented May 14, 2021 at 14:09

I'm an atheist myself, but one way of dealing with the plethora of ii V Is in jazz might be to add something like (of V), (of IV), (of bVII) etc. and then re-set to the original using (orig).

ii m7b5 (of iii)

iim9 (orig)

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