How did notation get so weird?

(Nov 30, 2018)

Notation is complicated and confusing to beginners…

View or Download
31 Ways for 12 Keys

As pianists or keyboard players we know that in each octave there are seven white keys and five black keys, so 12 in each octave. We also know that a lot of talented young musicians learn to make interesting sounds just by experimenting, and some of them grow up to be players and composers such as Paul McCartney (and all the Beatles), Dave Brubeck, Eric Clapton, Slash, Michael Jackson, Lionel Richie, Eddie Van Halen, Jimi Hendrix, Elvis Presley and finally Irving Berlin, one of the very few song writers who wrote his own words and music and without doubt one of the most successful composers of popular songs who has ever lived.

So, what do all of these famous musicians above have in common?

Answer: None of them learned to read music.

Think about that:  The composer of countless beloved standards and show tunes including  “Alexander’s Ragtime Band,” “White Christmas,” and “God Bless America” neither read nor wrote music. Musical illiteracy was not rare in Berlin’s day and is no less rare today. But why? Why is reading and writing music so hard?

We need 31 out of the 35 possibilities…

It turns out that of the 12 keys we have in each octave on the piano, there are 35 ways to notate them. The full story is a bit more nuanced, because four of these ways barely exist, and I’ve never seen them, but the other 31 are all over the place in famous music, and we need all of those 31 to make music look right, using our existing notation system.

This way of reading and writing music is a lot like our English spelling.  Reading and writing English is not only a huge problem for natives who don’t have a good memory and have trouble spelling – and I am one such person – it is also a nightmare for people learning our language. I pity any foreigner who has to learn words such as: “rhythm”, “eighth”, “gauge”, “pneumonia,” “rhapsody”, “hymn”, “island”, “paradigm”, “lieutenant”, “plague”,  “solemn”, “lasagna”, “myrrh”, “pseudonym”, “gnome”, “hors d’oeuvre”, “paradigm”, “plague “, “indict”, “rheumatic” and “chauffeur”.

Even so, many of our words are not terribly hard to read or spell. There are countless simple words like “cat”, “bird”, “run” and “man”, and generally they are used more frequently than more difficult words.

But in musical notation even fairly simple music has some amount of sharps and flats, and for novices just deciphering somewhat sophisticated music becomes a nightmare. In short, if you do not begin learning musical notation as a child, it becomes increasingly unlikely that you will ever overcome this barrier. Musical notation is as difficult as Chinese characters, and there is no support system in our schools for learning it, so reading music has almost become a Dark Art.

How did things get so hard? How idea of writing down our musical thoughts become such a difficult challenge? How did the ability to read and writing music become a very rare thing in our society? Why is it so difficult to become musically literate?

Music used to be much simpler…

It was not always so. Once upon a time it was easy. Our present way of writing music is based on a basic system from long ago that was just about a perfect way to visually represent music. It was simple. It was clear. Essentially that notation system, the same one we still use, was based on a seven notes or pitches in an octave representing what we describe today with seven letters: A B C D E F G. On the modern keyboard they are represented with white keys. And you can play a lot of cool music just by using those white keys with a few black ones sprinkled in here and there, for flavor.

The hitch is that over time this seven note system expanded to a twelve note system, shown by the addition of black keys, and all those keys have equal importance and are used frequently today. This change from seven to 12 divisions in the octave made a once simple system horribly complicated, and that’s how we moved from seven notes on a page, in each octave, with seven symbols, to 12 notes with 35 symbols, 31 one of which are used and all of which are important.

Think about that: 12 notes, but 31 ways you will see them,on a page, in each octave. And, by the way, that doesn’t even touch the problem of key signatures, which is its own separate nightmare.

The problem is that there is no place in notation for the the other notes we added, black keys on the piano keyboard, and we even invented signs to adjust the old white notes in new ways. At any given moment the black keys are shown a letter with either a sharp or flat, moving left or right from the white keys on either side. Sharps and flats are direction markers, and there are double sharps and double flats just to make it more complicated. Think of these signs as basically telling you to start with white keys but then either stay there or move either one or two keys to the left or right.

This drives new students absolutely mad. Why in heaven’s name do we have E# instead of F? Why do we need Fx (F double sharp) instead of G? And so on…

So today every black key has two names, and white keys have – get this – THREE names. C is also B# and Dbb (D double flat), and these three ways of writing C are all used. It’s like that for every white key. Insane!

Things became very complicated a long time ago, and it has gotten worse and worse.

Why don’t we change to a simpler system?

Why doesn’t someone fix this problem? Why not invent a newer, clearer, better system to eliminate all these crazy complexities? Well, as you may have guessed, this would involve rewriting every piece of music ever written in two systems. one for old-timers, and one for younger, forward-thinking, adventurous people who embrace change. If someone wanted to play Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata, there would have to be two versions, one as he wrote it, the other modernizing the score, and we would have to do that for everything ever written.

As a free-thinker, I would be 100% behind this. I would support a new, better system, although I would have to use the old one because of a lifetime of experience. I would continue using the old system while teaching the new one.

So why are we not doing something like this? Because in all of history people have always resisted change, and a change to a newer notation system would make the change to metrics seem like an easy adjustment. There would be endless resistance, cries of musical heresy, and it would take a very long time for a new system to be accepted and mainlined. Could it happen? Just about anything could happen, but I would not bet money on it.

Bottom line: the old, complicated, insanely confusing notation system is here to stay, and we just have to deal with it. It is also the modern system only because the weight of tradition has blocked any attempts to reform it.


7 thoughts on “How did notation get so weird?

  1. I understand that the point of giving the keys so many names was to “adjust” them, but I don’t understand why they couldn’t have just created names for the black keys while leaving the white ones alone and then adjusted to that. It confuses me as to why they chose to make it more difficult for themselves, though they may not have thought that at the time- but I digress. I’m sure with time (and a bit of frustration) the basics of notation will be easier to comprehend.

    1. The system you have in mind would work pretty well for very easy keys. But it can’t work for keys with five or more sharps and flats, and advanced music in all styles is frequently in these more difficult keys. All beginning students want to eliminate things like E# and B#, also Fb and Cb. Later on they understand why this is not possible.

  2. I had known about octaves and symbols that make different notes, though I never tied them to the concept of notation. I found it to be simple, but I never knew how there actually 35 different symbols within an octave nor that there used to be only 7 white keys. It also surprised me to know that so many famous musicians never even learned the basic of how to read music.

    1. First of all, to find out why we need 31 or those 35 possibilities you have to play a lot of music. Gradually the ones you think are just ugly turn out to be 100% necessary. That’s a matter of experience. But why are there so many people who don’t learn to read music? The answer: because young people start out on their own, or in some cases not so young people, and there is no one around to guide them through the minefield that is traditional notation.

  3. I learned that people don’t learn to read or compose music because it is just too complicated and hard for them. They don’t have time to do that if they’re cranking out hits already.

    1. I’ve never met one musician who does not read music who didn’t say to me: “If only I had learned to read music…”

      So we can figure out from this that music reading is not very well taught, because obviously reading music is not more difficult than reading English!

Leave a Reply