The recording and transcribing of music has greatly impact the culture of the world. Before people figured out a simple and uniform way to write music, songs were passed down aurally, resulting in many being lost to time. Nowadays, almost all musicians use the modern five line-staff notation that anybody who takes a music class learn. But, there are other obscure modern notations from people who tried to invent ways to write the music that we love. This was an article that I was trying to write for Listverse, but it just didn’t pan out.
Hummingbird is a modern attempt to simplify music notation to make it easier to learn and more intuitive. The designers of Hummingbird want to allow more people to learn how to read music by creating their simple notation. At its core, Hummingbird swaps out the standard notes and five-line music staff for a more intuitive symbolic notation. To this end, the designers of Hummingbird assigned each of the seven notes their own specific symbol. A writer writing in Hummingbird would not need to worry about placing the notes in their place on the music staff, rather they would just draw in the symbol.
The notation also looks to make rhythms more intuitive. Instead of having the standard filled in or empty notes symbolizing note length, Hummingbird assigns each note length a certain symbol that is longer depending on how long the note is. For example, a whole note will have a longer tail behind it than a quarter note, demonstrating that the first note must be held out longer.
Although the makers of Hummingbird advertise their music notation as easier to learn, there are still some issues with the notation. First of all, it completely gets rid of stems on the notes, which takes away the subtlety of some scores. Also, Hummingbird does not work effectively for complex polyrhythmic or polyphonic pieces which make up most of classical music. As it stands, Hummingbird works really well for simple music, but will need more work before it completely replaces the standard music notation.
Post-war classical music saw a resurgence in avant-garde techniques that eventually went far beyond the experimental atonal music that characterized the prewar era. With musicians experimenting with non-standard structure, calculated silence and deterministic writing techniques, many of the cutting edge musicians experimented with writing music using graphic notation. Each composer used a different technique, and created amazing sheet music at the intersection of art and utility.
The key to graphic notation is that it allows the musician more freedom in playing than standard five staff music. John Cage, a key proponent of graphic notation, states that this type of notation increases the creative aspect of music playing. By forcing a musician to adapt to new notation, the score allows him or her to play less mechanically and more artistically. For other composers like Gyorgy Ligeti and Krzysztof Penderecki the complexity of their compositions need alternate notation to accurately convey what the music should sound like.
Avant-garde notation has created a variety of beautiful and perplexing scores that produce fascinating classical music. For some artists, the score itself is the art piece, and the music is secondary to the visual image of the score, leading to graphical notated music being on display in art galleries completely redefining what it means to write music. Beyond the world of avant-garde art, graphic notation is also used by cutting edge electronic artists like Aphex Twin and DJ Spooky who have no formal classical training.
Coding music into a computer system is one of the most interesting problems in modern music theory. A leading system for encoding music is the Parsons Code developed by musicologist and computer programmer Denys Parson. The Parsons Code relies on the shape of the melody to encode a piece and not the actual notes, reminiscent of the Znammeny chant notation above. In this way, the Parsons code is much simpler to work with than the complexity of encoding the actual musical notes.
The Parsons code is so simple because it only has three different characters. If the starting notes repeats itself, then it is encoded as “r”. If it goes up, it is encoded as “u”, if down as “d”. With this code the opening few notes of “Ode To Joy” are written as *ruurdddd. While it may seem like that string of code could apply to any song it is highly unlikely. Just randomly selecting 17 notes, for example, gives 43,046,721 possible Parsons codes, meaning that it is highly unlikely that any two pieces of music will have the same Parsons code as the permutations pile up.
A few music search websites use the Parsons Code to create a database of known tunes. The code system has not caught on as well as Denys Parson would have liked, but it provides an intriguing possibility for making a searchable database of melodies.
Written Music Notation
Closely related to graphic notation is the trend among avant-garde composers of using written music notation. Minimalist experimental composers like Steve Reich and John Cage favor this type of notation. For some of their scripts, these artists will just have a written set of instructions for the musicians to do during the performance. These scores eschew standard notes and structures and instead allow the artists to follow their creative impulses. Or, in some cases, it allows the artists to effectively set up avant-garde compositions and drone music.
A classic example is Steve Reich’s Pendulum Music. In this score, the performers are instructed to hang microphones from the ceiling and start them swinging. Then, they are supposed to tune the amplifiers so that feedback occurs when a microphone is directly over the amplifier. Once this is done, the performers are asked to sit down with the audience and watch the performance unfold.This is one of Steve Reich’s most interesting pieces and has even been performed by the rock band Sonic Youth.
Other examples include Jennifer Walshe’s This is why people OD on pills/And jump off the Golden Gate Bridge. In this piece the performers are given a set of instructions not directly related to music until the end and are expected to play whatever sounds or rhythms they feel would express the instructions. Each performance is completely different. Another classic example is John Cages 4’33” which simply instructs the performers to not make a sound during the duration of the piece, creating silence in the concert hall.