Music Theory

Hummingbird and the Evolution of Music Notation

This post is a response to Hummingbird, a proposed new form of music notation that grabbed some attention on the Web a couple weeks ago. Hear thoughts from Dr. Kris Maloy, a professor of music theory and co-founder of Musivu, an online school for music.

Whether you’re a seasoned musician or someone who sees printed music as gibberish, most of us probably at least recognize that we are looking at musical symbols.  But what many of us probably DON’T know is that these symbols were never set in stone. Music has continued to evolve from its beginnings and is still evolving.

Just like written languages, music was passed along for tens of thousands of years orally (or aurally) before it was written.  When music began to be written, about 1200 years ago, musical notation was some basic graphic symbols for higher and lower notes that was simply a reminder of how a song went for someone who already knew the song—in other words, it was really not readable by anyone who didn’t know the song already! This evolved into notation in which there were symbols for long and short notes and some basic pitch as relative to the red line (as the location of the “key tone” on which the song was built).

Chant music (popularly known as “Gregorian Chant”) often used a 4-line staff to be a bit more precise with pitch but used the same durational symbols.

As rhythmic notation progressed to include more precise rhythms, the pitched staff took on its 5-line form we know now, but many systems continue to exist that use additional “coding” of notes to help untrained musicians.  One of the most popular and successful of these is “shape-note” notation, which confused me terribly when I sang in church choir! I later learned what this was for: It helped untrained musicians read 4-part harmony by understanding that shapes were scale degrees, so if you couldn’t read music well enough to tell that you’re in Ab Major, you would know that the 2nd-space note was the key tone (Ab) because it is an upward triangle.

Even into the modern day, there are notations that are uncommon or confusing to music readers like multiple dots (which are rare and have never completely “caught on”) and quarter-tone notation, used for playing notes in between, say, a C and C# (don’t try that on piano!  But for singers and string and wind instrument players, it’s possible).

It’s worth remembering that even things like key signatures and writing sharps and flats are essentially a “stretching” of the system of musical notation to include the possibility of playing in 12 different major or minor keys, which the writers of chant would never have thought of.  So even Mozart and Bach using, say, F, C, and G sharp to denote A Major requires a grafting of ideas onto the 5-note staff system that it was never intended for.  Even the use of ledger lines above and below the staff is a “stretch” that the staff was never made for!  6-and 7-line staves have been tried in the last 40 years to avoid ledger lines but were done away with because the eye
can’t readily handle more than 5 lines with 4 spaces in between.  (“What about guitar tablature?  That’s a 6-line staff!” some of you might be saying, but we don’t have to read spaces in tablature—when you do, the eye can’t focus on that central space:  It needs a central line for your mind to gain its bearings, so that didn’t work out.)

Modern music and contemporary composers often need their printed music to convey information that’s quite off the beaten path of the usual staff.  See the following for a performance of Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima by the composer Krzysztof Penderecki from 1960. Whatever you think of the sound of it—and most people find it pretty grating—you have to admire the fact that he’s composing with unusual sounds that he had to devise a notational key for and a new way to write the score in such a way that the 90 or so players in an orchestra as well as their conductor can stay coordinated and play it accurately!

In a certain sense, anyone who’s used ProTools or GarageBand with MIDI has seen yet another notational system:  A piano keyboard vertically along the left hand with rhythm notated at the appropriate pitch point lasting as long as the note lasts in bars and beats or in seconds.

So, Hummingbird:  An interesting combination of traditional staff writing and shape-note concepts combined with an evolution of how to notate rhythm.  Will it catch on?  Who’s to say? Get back to me in 2050 and we’ll see.

Dr. Kris Maloy is the co-founder and instructor of Musivu, an online music school making true musician training available for everyone. Learn about our students’ successes.