Is it possible to have a piece which can't be notated using the musical notes we currently have?

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    Very tempted to just answer 'no'... I attended a lecture given by Harrison Birtwistle some time ago where he opined that Western Classical notation is so versatile as to be practically limitless. Also, the way that it can incorporate new elements as required means it is somewhat 'future-proof'. This question might perhaps be too broad for here? Commented Jun 9, 2016 at 20:41
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    @ChristopheLynch I will check out that link and Zeugitai's (which appeared since my comment). With regard to electronic music that is not performed by a human from a score, I suppose you could think of patch sheets, MIDI files, programmatic code (e.g. C++ or CSound), and even PCM data as kinds of notation, depending on your definitions. Commented Jun 10, 2016 at 8:29
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    Can you clarify what you mean by "the notes we currently have"? Who is "we" and what do you mean by "have"? Do you mean the 12 notes of equal tempered western tuning? Because there has been much music composed and written outside of that. I've never heard music that couldn't be written down in some way, so the thing you need to clarify about your question is, what notation methods are you including in your question? If I invent a notation system just for one melody and include an explanation of the system with the notated melody, have I not notated the melody? Commented Jun 10, 2016 at 12:49
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    Voting to close as unclear -- you need to specify what is in/out of "the musical notes we currently have" -- the answer depends on this detail.
    – Dave
    Commented Jun 10, 2016 at 13:55
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    Interesting use of the word "write" in the title of the question, which makes it paradoxical. Did you mean "compose"? Commented Jun 10, 2016 at 17:44

9 Answers 9


If you mean can one compose a melody using notes that are not defined in any recognized form of musical notation - then the answer is certainly!

And if you compose a musical work that uses tones that are not defined in say 12 Tone Equal Temperament or other common tuning or notation system, there is no universally accepted way to transcribe those tones into a written representation that others could follow.

According to Wikipedia Article on Microtonal Music

Microtonal music or microtonality is the use in music of microtones—intervals smaller than a semitone, which are also called "microintervals". It may also be extended to include any music using intervals not found in the customary Western tuning of twelve equal intervals per octave.

The advent of technology of the type that is used to create Electronic Dance Music (EDM) is capable of instructing (through computer code) a MIDI capable instrument to play an infinite number of notes that lie between any two notes that are in common use. There is a limit to how many different notes our ears can distinguish as unique sounds however. But it's safe to say there might be ten or more distinguishable unique tones between any two common notes.

Also many instruments can easily play the notes between the ones that are commonly used. Any fretless stringed instrument such as a violin or fretless bass, a trombone (through slide position), woodwinds like clarinet and saxophone via embouchure, or even a fretted guitar through the use of string bending can play notes that we have no way to notate using standard notation systems that are universally understood.

Before computers and the ability to record music, transcribing a musical work on paper into a recognizable form of written musical notation was the best way a composer could communicate his musical creation to others.

Today it is very simple to memorialize a musical composition through a digital recording which can then be disseminated to the entire world with a few clicks of a mouse on your computer. This fact, along with the technology that facilitate the creation of electronic music, is giving momentum to a trend towards composing microtonal music. And given that it's easier to record it than transcribe it, and given that a computer can convert the recording to code, it is unlikely that we will ever see a new system of notation for music that uses notes that are not already defined in existing music notation systems.

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    Possibly worth making it more clear that the use of microtones is not restricted to electronic instruments -- you can do it on more or less anything. Eg trombone can just do it by slide position, and things like clarinet and saxophone via embouchure and "undocumented fingerings". At least that is my understanding, I'm certainly no expert. Commented Jun 10, 2016 at 2:08
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    I'm under the impression that there are widely accepted ways of notating microtonal music. Commented Jun 10, 2016 at 12:46
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    I mean... you can always just draw the waveform on a very long piece of paper... Commented Jun 10, 2016 at 16:27
  • @Oxinabox You make a good point. I added your observations to the answer to improve the content because often comments are purged. Thanks for your suggestions. Commented Jun 10, 2016 at 17:27
  • @ToddWilcox The question asked "using 'notes' we currently have?" I am not familiar with the widely accepted ways of notating microtonal music but my point was that it is possible to produce tones that perhaps nobody in your city, state or even country has ever heard before - so why would we currently have a way to notate such a tone "using 'notes' we currently have"? When the OP says "notes we currently have" the word notes refers to a way to notate not the actual tone. And very likely OP meant one of the notes that exists in standard Western Music 12 tone ET notation. Commented Jun 10, 2016 at 17:51

It could be argued that any digital recording of the melody in question is a notation of that particular performance:

  • It's something that can be followed to reproduce the original performance.
  • It can be written down (any digital recording is made of bits that can be encoded as ink on paper, if need be).
  • Anyone with the right training and equipment can use that notation to recreate the melody.
  • The music can be 'reinterpreted' by, say, playing it at a higher speed, adding special effects, or any of the thousands of other ways DJs remix recordings.

A particularly picky person might claim that digital encoding of a recording doesn't contain all of the sounds from the original, due to finite bandwidth, but that's true of old-fashioned classical musical notation too: "Largo" or "piano" are very approximate terms.

It's actually quite difficult to come up with a distinguishing feature that separates a digital recording from classical musical notation.

Finally, note that "classical notation" is very flexible in that composers often make up new symbols and markings, which are usually described in a foreword for the score. Sometimes these markings become popular enough that they become part of standard classical notation - which is how the classical notation that we use came about in the first place. You can see some particularly wacky examples here.

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    I like this answer a lot. It cuts to the heart of what's really going on in the question: "What do we consider to be notation?" Commented Jun 10, 2016 at 12:55
  • I like the answer too for its informative and provocative content, but I don't agree with the proposition. A notation (if it makes some kind of sense) is a synthetic representation that allows reproduction by human or human intermediated means (i.e., a performance), within certain tolerance limits, provided one knows the convention being used. A recording per se only in very limited circumstances allows that, so in general it is just that, a (not notated ) recording. Commented Jun 10, 2016 at 22:20
  • Classical musical notation is far more compressed than digital recordings usually are. :)
    – Yakk
    Commented Jun 12, 2016 at 1:28

Sure. Here are some examples of scores by John Cage, Steve Reich, Brian Eno, Krzysztof Penderecki, and Cornelius Cardew - all recognized "mainstream" 20th century composers.


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    Funny, I see these pieces as evidence that anything can be notated, since.. well, they are notated! Are they not? Commented Jun 10, 2016 at 12:56
  • Well, I don't know if the question was updated since the above comment, but the question asks about "the notes we currently have" which I don't think includes experimental / graphic notation.
    – awe lotta
    Commented Feb 20, 2020 at 13:59

The melodies of Turkish classical, Arabic, and Hindustani have all come to terms with various means of notating their microtonal and non-Western tones and intervals, the Turkish Makams being, probably, one of the best of such systems. Still, all notation is just a guideline. Instruments that play glissandos by sliding on strings or by any other means obviously smoothly cross between discrete tones, and although rough means of representing these transits exist in all systems of notation, listen to a master playing the indian sarangi and tell me if that can be notated. The Turkish Ney or Arabic Nay not only play non-Western tones and glissandos but can be under- and overblown to render various transients and harmonic spectrums in conjunction with nameable notes much like Hendrix did with feedback. As others have pointed out, "melodies" if recognizable as such should be subject to some form of notation. "Music," however, is a more broadly understood concept than melody, and almost any kind of sound can become an element of music. Instead of notation, some kinds of "music" might only be communicable as live performances, recordings, or verbal descriptions.

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    All notation is just a guideline. Commented Jun 10, 2016 at 12:54
  • hendrix did it with pitch too, listen to him playing born under a bad sign, completely microtonal (unnotateable in any system I know of too)
    – Some_Guy
    Commented Apr 20, 2017 at 11:01

Certainly current musical notation is incapable of handling note durations that aren't rational multiples of each other. For instance if you had a melody where one of the long tones was pi times the duration of one of the short tones then there is no way to explicitly notate this (it is possible to get as close an approximation as is desired though).

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    There's no way to perform it exactly, either, so this is kind of pointless. Commented Jun 10, 2016 at 12:24
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    There are pieces notated where note durations are specified in actual time duration (e.g. number of seconds), so this goes back to what the asker means by "notation". Commented Jun 10, 2016 at 12:51
  • @CarlWitthoft There is no way to perform any varying rhythm exactly either. You could be playing straight eight notes and in some perspective, you are playing every square root of two beats. Commented Jun 11, 2016 at 2:04

I don't have any examples, but there are melodies (possibly stretching the definition of "music" a bit) composed mostly or solely of "effects", like "a crashing glass", "a gunshot", "a ringing telephone", "a low moan", "the sound of a cat" etc. You could adapt standard notation for it, but a great part of your music would be in the "legend" (which effect corresponds to which "percussion instrument").

Also, in such melodies, you could use digital distortion of the "effects", like pitch shift (for extra effects, make the pitch go down until it reaches below 20 Hz), reverse playback, creative amplitude modulation, etc.

If you make it sufficiently complex, only a digital recording (or a live performance) can represent it.

  • Those aren't tones: they are timbres or sonorities. A C# played on a piano, oboe, and tuba will sound completely different, but it's still notated as a C# Commented Jun 10, 2016 at 12:23
  • Any sound effect/sample could just be notated using a percussion staff with a guide at the beginning explaining which line/space and notehead combination indicates which sample to be played at that time. I've seen this exact thing before in scores for modern musicals, where the licensed music even includes floppy disks that contain actual samples and patch programming for various compatible synths/software. Commented Jun 10, 2016 at 12:53

Not really, because notation systems have always evolved to accommodate the music composers are writing. Baroque composers, particularly French ones, came up with all kinds of weird notation, some of it unique to the composer.

An example: La Sylva by Forqueray (pg. 37 of this document), written in the 18th century. The information about what the odd notation means is in the preface.

Similarly, if you compose music and then come up with additional notation in our current system to help indicate your intent, you have participated in that evolution.


I'm not sure about "can't" be notated, but if you take the question to be "is there music for which a notation system does not exist, then certainly. The answer is yes, and not just obscure music, or "world" music, or even high-brow music. In this answer I'm going to use the example of Elvis Presley, believe it or not.

Other answers have pointed out that hindustani music, turkish music and persian music for example all follow different divisions of the octave which can't be notated in western notation: listen to singers from any of these traditions and you will hear melodies that you can't find on a piano. That's because, by western divisions, they are "microtonal", that is to say they use note distinctions smaller than a semitone.

However, there are examples which are much closer to home. Blues music at its roots contains melodies which are fundamentally microtonal. Often this is described in the sense that the blues adds "bent notes" or "blue notes" to the traditional western palette. However, often these "blue notes" are so fundamental to the melody itself, that it's not so much that the music is based around a western scale with additional "bent notes", and more that the western scale is completely absent. People obviously attempt to analyse it using familiar terms, but when projecting the notes A, Bb, B, C ... etc. onto the music, the result is something which, with its "nearest available note" resolution, loses the melody altogether.

Having said that, blues music, which originated as in unaccompanied work songs and field hollers, was then played on western instruments. Mostly these instruments can play outside of the 12 note scale, but have to be wrangled into doing so (like the guitar and the harmonica), and so this becomes increasingly influential on how blues music develops (along with the other musical traditions surrounding the blues of course).

Blues, and later jazz music runs the whole gamut from music completely unnotatable in western notation, through music with a non-microtonal skeleton over which more microtonal melodies are sung, to music which has microtonal inflections in the melodies here and there, but those melodies are very music within the 12-note western scale.

For example, this louis armstrong tune plays around with microtonal bent notes here and there, but is fundamentally "in key". You could absolutely write this down, leave the bent notes to largely to performance practice, and give it to 10 different players who had never heard the record and end up with something decent played every time.

Smokestack Lightnin' - Howling wolf. This is much more microtonal, but still an argument could be make that this is still fundamentally notateable. You could put some annotations about bent notes here and there and argue you have fairly represented the original.

But there is plenty where you couldn't argue that with a straight face. For example, unaccompanied flied hollers and blues records like roll and tumble blues (1929).

However, because of the pervasive influence the blues had on western music, there are some pretty "mainstream" melodies that are pretty damn microtonal; Listen to Jailhouse Rock with honest ears, and you will find its melody completely outside the traditional western scale. Some people will write that off as somehow not a "serious" way to look at the music as if it's just stylistic variation and ornamentation on a melody which is really made up of "normal" notes. But anyone who sings jailhouse rock to themselves, or covers it, sings a melody with pretty much the same shape as the original; a shape which falls completely outside of western notation. Notably it spends most of it's time somewhere between a second and a third (as in between D and E when playing in C), with a couple of different distinctive (and unnotatable) patterns in that space. You can probably sing "jailhouse rock" from memory, but you couldn't play what you just sang on a piano.


There are number of things that can't be explained with the help of the notations, it just explains only the basic structure of the song or musical composition.Specially if I talk about the indian classical or isntrumental compositions which is totally based on the improvisation of the ragas, or raga based compositions,there are things used like microtones and gliding of notes(meend),microtonal gamakams, oranmentations in which one note is sung in number of different ways,passive notes with main note with specific amount of weightage,complex sargams (like solfa singing) and intricate taans which can't be notated.

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