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Old 08-15-2019, 12:13 PM   #1
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Join Date: Jul 2019
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Default How to revamp the ancient music notation and music theory system which is flawed?

Music notation is terrible to understand and confusing (eight note names A,B,C,..., sharps, flats, use of roman numerals in capitals and lowercase, numerals 1,2,3,.. for scale degree and/or chord number). It seems to exist in its present state because musicians themselves are too overwhelmed with practice & performance to improve the system. The current notation system overtook the few competing systems pretty much because other cultures didn't write music down and then through the western church which destroyed everything else. Music theory is limited to describing music within the outmoded notation system, so music theory is terrible too. It's no wonder that most musicians choose to remain musically illiterate, it's easier to play "what sounds good" than try to understand the terrible system.

* Note I'm completely ignoring staff notation because that is a whole other set of pictograph problems in time (how to indicate simultaneous notes and how to indicate rhythm). When I say music notation, I'm just talking about written notation for theory and composition, I'm not talking about notation for real-time reading during a performance, although there is some overlap of usage, since charts contain both staff music and chord names, etc.

In software languages and software notation (aka markup), there have been hundreds of languages and language systems, it is a constant state of improvement, the language systems have unique benefits and drawbacks and those systems which have more drawbacks than benefits are quickly abandoned, with the benefits morphed into the next new language. Imagine if everyone were forced to program in original IBM BASIC for the entire duration of humanity. Yuck. This is really, really obvious problem to computer programmers who immediately fix the problem by creating new systems to fit the purpose (Microcode to Assembly to BASIC to PASCAL to C to NextStep Objective C to Java to Python etc etc, plus on the scientific side, LISP to MATLAB to R etc, etc, plus on the engineering side, various CAD basic-like script, boolean languages ABEL, VHDL, etc etc). One test of the usefulness of a software language being: can a compiler be developed in the language and then compile itself. Another test of the usefulness of a software language being: how does it physically look, how simple, how elegant is it, to write the most basic program which simply prints "hello world" on the screen, does it take a million confusing symbols or does it only take four short human-readable lines.

In music notation, the current system developed for church music, with only two modes (major and minor), is now extended to jazz and modal music so my charts are a mess of "EbMajb5#11/B" or something - what the actual?? If there were ever a sign that a system should be discarded, that is it ! Why wouldn't this chord be indicated with a single letter or digit and a single token modifier, if the notation system were sound and free of most exceptions, for example: "9w"

The idea that the music notation is terrible seems horrifying to musicians (who say either, "meh who cares I just play what sounds good," or, "Don't mess with what I have because it took me 4 years to learn this and I don't want to change my charts") and entrenched academics (who say, "don't you dare threaten my elitism by proposing something more understandable by the public where I can't continue to pretend to be the rare in-demand expert"). "Don't mess with tradition!" Therefore the result is a non-productive flamewar circular argument which goes nowhere. I am not much interested in nonsensical arguments on why a malfunctioning system should be kept. The current western music system for 99% of the music made today is dramatically flawed. If you don't like the discussion then opt out of it. It's also not productive to bring up edge cases like microtones which the majority of musicians don't use today and 99% of music theory is not concerned with.

At rehearsal, the musician says, "Play the five." That is really ambiguous and depends on a lot of context. Does it mean the fifth note in the scale? Or does it mean the fifth chord in the scale, and if so, what mode of the chord, what form of the chord? So the musician says, "I mean, play the dominant." That's not much better. Then the musician says, "I mean, play the second inversion F major no five." Wait, play the five but play no five? It's no wonder that musicians completely give up on verbally describing anything about music in the broken system: "Shuddup and play, you'll hear it."

What are the replacements to current musical notation? Here are a few alternates but they are not complete systems either. What are the others? Who is working on this?

1. ABC notation. This was developed on USENET decades ago for typing and sharing non-copyright melodies, archiving them, transposing them, and running computer analysis on them. It uses note letters and apostrophies for octave (a''', b''', ..., a', b', ... A, B, C, ...). The language is strict and has software error correction. It is compilable. The drawback is that it still uses base-8 (8 letter names). I dont believe this system has chords. It is for single-line melodies only.

2. Dozenal. There are 12 notes so the notation system should use 12 unique tokens (not just 8 like A,B,C..). There are base-12 notations very loosely discussed. Consider how well hexadecimal math works with computers which are base-2 extended to base-16 (0 1..9 A B C D E F). Music using base-12 would use twelve tokens (0 1..9 T Q) to represent the 12 notes in music. What remains is how to describe chords, scale degrees, etc.

3. MIDI note numbers & messages. This isnt great for humans. But all notes are given their own digits, with middle C being 60, so sharps and flats are eliminated. This isn't great for readability since humans reading or writing a string of multiple digits is difficult ("60 62 65 67"). No musician is going to say, "The melody goes, sixty sixty-seven sixty-two sixty-five sixty".

4. There's some neo-musical methods from the 50s onward using graphical techniques and matrixes (tone rows etc). I have seen a little of this but don't know much about these - other than they can be very fast to write new music after choosing the desired scale, etc. The trouble with using a matrix or diagram is that it is hard to quickly talk about. The difficulty could be compared to describing how to play a Novation matrix instrument.

5. Solfege - is a system used by vocalists for scale degrees of melody, often as the primary music theory known by a vocalist; in these cases there's no "A, B, C, .." only the solfege syllables, of which there are two incompatible subsystems used in different "schools of music", relative pitch and fixed pitch.

6. Nashville Number System - is a popular chord charting system which allows easy transposition and does not rely on the traditional note alphabet nor does it use fixed pitch. For example, "C=1, D=2, E=3, F=4, G=5, A=6, B=7. In the key of B♭, the numbers would be B♭=1, C=2, D=3, E♭=4, F=5, G=6, A=7." As this is an industry-used system (vs. academic/theorist-made system), it has minor variations to it, although it sounds like it has become more standardized over time. Most importantly it does use relative pitches successfully and specific players seem to prefer it. But as far as I know this is not a complete music system, it is intended for chord charts similar to jazz charts, not complex harmony description etc.

What others are there? It is surprisingly rare to find alternative systems.

Personally I have thought that a truly great system would incorporate both the musical note tuning ratios as well as use base-12, while still allowing a single token (letter or number) to be used for chord names and a single other token for a modifier (mode type or etc).

Great composers have proposed some systems since about the 1950's, such as the below.

Music set theory with 12-tone integer notation

Last edited by; 08-21-2019 at 06:45 PM. Reason: add solfege system, add nashville system, 12 tone text is offline   Reply With Quote