The Etude
Name the Composer . Etude Magazine Covers . Etude Magazine Ads & Images . Selected Etude Magazine Stories . About . Donate .


Wanted--A New System of Musical Notation.

BY C. L. CAPEN.

Few musicians are to any extent reconciled to the prevailing system of musical notation. It is a system no less complex than incongruous against which a true indictment of many counts might be drawn; yet, while a reform involving possibly an utter abolition of this system is demanded, and will eventually take place, there can be no such reform or abolition made permanent, until it is made clear that a simpler and more practical system has been invented.

The present system had its origin in the dark ages. Not even in this nineteenth century is it in such an improved, clear, and intelligible condition as to meet with anything more than the restless and dissatisfied acceptance of musicians.

Our first count in the indictment against the present staff system is, that each of the 12 tones in general use may have three different names.

Next, we have an indefinite number of clefs, though not so many as formerly, and each line and space in the staff bears a different name in each of the different clefs.

Thirdly, there is a regular succession of lines and spaces in the staff which are supposed to afford a representation of the pitch of tones. They do nothing of the kind. On the contrary, the distance from a line to a space, or from a space to a line, is sometimes a half, and sometimes a whole step.

Fourthly, as many as five different tones, G, G sharp, G double sharp, G flat, and G double flat, for example, may be written on a single line or space. How is it possible, therefore, for the identity of an interval, or even of a tone, to be pictorially represented on the modern staff.

Fifthly, the names G, G sharp, and G flat would indicate a close relationship, whereas these three tones are about as antithetic and entirely foreign to each other as any three tones possibly could be.

Sixthly, the piano has a compass of 7-1/3 octaves, while the piano score, combining the G and F clefs, has a compass of only three octaves.

Seventhly, the two clefs forming the piano score really form one grand staff with the middle line omitted.

Eighthly, custom has sanctioned the use of any number of lines between the clefs, although only one line can be logically and properly used.

Ninthly, the key signature does not determine the key of a composition, but the music itself must be consulted in order to discover whether it is major or minor.

Tenthly, as regards our time notation, the whole note is called a unit, yet this is only true of four-pulse and two-pulse measure.

So then there are units and units; but it would appear to be the isolated distinction of musical art, that it is the unique possessor of a unit (?) that is not a unit.

Eleventhly, the mathematician appears on the scene and is surprised to find in music a quarter equal to either two or three eighths, four, five, six, or seven sixteenths; eight, nine, ten, or eleven thirty-seconds. Verily, may he wonder, if by the musical art as at present notated it cannot be proven conclusively that three and two make four. Nearly everything is paradoxical and involved, while there is little indeed worthy to be preserved in our modern staff system. A half note is shorter in a tempo marked Presto, than an eighth note in a tempo marked Lento.

Notes of embellishment are not given any time value, although it is evident that it takes time to play them. The measure line represents a principal grammatical accent; but in syncopation the accent is removed, while the line is not; and a prelude (Op. 28, No 1) of Chopin’s is written in two-pulse but played throughout in three-pulse measure. The last note under a slur is given half the value of the note which precedes it, the apparent value of the note having nothing to do with its actual value.

A rest means silence, and yet several rests are frequently found following each other. The staccato and phrasing marks are simply indefinable. Why wonder that even among artists in the musical profession there are so many incompetent singers and players prima vista;—why marvel that to little children our musical nomenclature is as Greek; that to the mathematician it is an absurdity; that even the tonic-sol-fa system with all its imperfections and limitations is to a certain extent superior?

Now, what should be the attitude of the musical profession toward the nomenclature of the day? Surely this is not an era for idolizing any useless relics of the past.

It is an age for getting the best results by the most direct means. Our grandfathers used the bull-tongue plow, and in many of the farming sections of the South to-day this clumsy, worse than useless, old plow is still being employed, and the Southern farmer will tell, as his only argument in its behalf, that what was good enough for his grandfather is good enough for him. Now, the bull-tongue plow of the musical profession, to-day, is the present staff system.

What is wanted is a system that will form the soundest basis for advanced musical thought; that will diminish the labor of teachers and with far better results.

It is wholly irrelevant for teachers to say: “Come to my studio, and I will prove to you that music can be well taught by the staff system as it is.” If this proves anything it only proves they are good teachers.

Any new system of musical notation is bound to encounter just such bitter, persistent, and universal prejudice, as ages ago placed the Arabic figures on trial for more than half a century before they were accepted as substitutes for Roman numerals.

Now, in presenting a musical notation for the favorable consideration of musicians, I will state that I am not at liberty to give the inventor’s name, but that I believe in it, and that I desire no other weapons for its defense than such as may be authorized by a calm and unbiassed investigation of the subject,—not simply of what this notation claims to be, but more particularly what it is. The first condition of its success must be an honest receptivity on the investigator’s part, a sympathetic and sincere conviction, and a willingness to abandon any bull-tongue plow notions, however cherished, if they violate the cause of progress.

The modern staff had its origin in a pictorial reproduction of the most ancient of musical instruments.

In the proposed Musical Notation there is a pictorial basis in the tablature of a modern instrument. There is a line or space for each one of the 12 tones of the octave. The distance between the staff degrees is always a half step, and every tone has a home of its own. Therefore, all intervals and tones are perfectly represented. As the grouping of the lines and spaces forms a pictorial tablature of the black and white keys of the piano or organ key-board, names can be dispensed with, and facile reading attained simply by the pictorial effect of the staff. A measure is the time unit. Heavy vertical lines represent the principal grammatical (measure) accents, and light vertical lines the secondary grammatical accents.

The duration of time in a pulse or beat is represented by the space between the lines, and smaller metric divisions by the placing of a symbol of tone. There is one symbol for tone and one for silence. This system of notation can be thoroughly understood in less than thirty minutes by a child of ordinary intelligence. In the staff there are five lines and seven spaces, within, above, and below the line to represent the 12 notes in the octave. Lines are identified by being grouped in threes and twos, and spaces by their relative locality as regards the lines. No time-names have to be learned, for, as has been shown, the key to be either struck or sung is pictured by a line or space. For other instruments than the piano, and for the voice, the lines and spaces are just as clearly identified by being consecutively numbered from 1 to 12. The pitch is shown by a Roman numeral placed before the stave. The music is notated by a regular succession of measures. A measure by the proposed system is a rhythmical arrangement of pulses. A pulse is the duration of time between two grammatical accents. The grammatical accents are principal and secondary. The heavy, vertical line indicates the principal (measure) grammatical accent; and the light vertical line, the secondary grammatical accent. For the pianist there are two symbols of sound, one indicating tones to be played by the left hand, and the other all other tones. There is but one symbol for silence.

A sound is to be continued until followed by the symbol of another sound, or the symbol of silence in the same part or voice.

This system of notation has been frankly presented with whatsoever imperfections it possesses, and with little, if any, argument in behalf of its merits. It speaks for itself. Personally, I believe it to be the broadest and most practical basis for that reform so greatly needed. Finally, as regards this proposed notation, it would seem that necessity, the mother of invention, has in this instance borne an offspring so sound that a perpetual longevity may reasonably be anticipated for it.

Boston, December, 1896.

<< That First Lesson.     The Musical Listener. >>

Monthly Archives

The Publisher of The Etude Will Supply Anything In Music