Searching for the Ideal
Music Notation

Finding the "ideal" music notation is an unwieldy task.   And so the organization developed a strategy.  They divided the task into four steps:

STEP ONE:  Collect notation systems, new and old, established or proposed, from all around the world. (This step has been completed.  Some 500 of these notations are presented in the book: Directory of Music Notation Proposals by Thomas Reed.)

STEP TWO:  Apply a set of 11 criteria (called "screens") to the collected notation systems.  These 11 screens establish minimum standards that the notation systems must meet in order to merit further consideration. (This step has been completed. 45 notation systems passed successfully through the screens.)

STEP THREE:  Apply 6 additional screens to the remaining notation systems.  These 6 screens are more subjective and detailed.  (This step has been completed.  37 notation systems passed successfully through the screens.)

STEP FOUR:  Apply a series of empirical, pragmatic testing exercises by trained musicians on the remaining notations systems in hopes of finding the "ideal" music notation.

Listed below are the 11 screens that were used in "Step Two" to winnow hundreds of notation systems into a manageable number (45):

  1. The notation is convenient for a human writer (as contrasted with a machine) to express musical ideas.  The notation is convenient for a human performer to recreate those musical ideas.

  2. The notation can be written conveniently and quickly with nothing more than a writing tool (such as a pencil) without the absolute necessity of a ruler or other drawing aids or specially prepared paper.  In other words, a plain piece of paper and a pencil, or a chalkboard and chalk should be sufficient for quickly notating music in the notation if desired.

  3. The notation is independent of all musical instruments for intelligibility so that the notation is readily adaptable to all instruments including the human voice.

  4. The notation can express music of all reasonable degrees of complexity - not only simple music.

  5. The notation is relatively simple so as to be practical for both children and adults.

  6. The music is flexible enough so as to be appropriate for the music of the past, present, and foreseeable future, as well as to music of various cultures, and to both solo and ensemble performance.

  7. The notation is writable using only a single color on a contrasting background (for example black on white) without shading or tinting.  Such a monochrome system offers the maximum in simplicity and convenience, and is considered essential, especially since many people have some degree of color-blindness.

  8. The notation possesses a fully proportional pitch coordinate, where each of the twelve common pitches is spaced in a graphic manner, so that progressively larger pitch intervals have progressively larger spacing on the coordinate, providing a visual representation of each interval that is exactly proportional to its actual sound.

  9. The staff, or graph, shows an octave cycling effect, or octave periodicity, so that each successive octave appears the same or substantially the same, making it possible to recognize notes in any register after learning one octave.

  10. No more than five identical, successive, and equidistant staff lines are shown, so that staff lines can be quickly identified without counting lines.

  11. Both the lines and spaces of a staff are used as positions for notes on the pitch coordinate in order to economize on paper space and therefore on eye movement.


Listed below are the 6 additional screens that were used in "Step Three" to winnow 45 notation systems down to 37:

  1. (12.) Adequate provision for voice leading (keeping multiple melodic lines distinct) is provided.

  2. (13.) The time coordinate must provide for proportional (or approximately proportional) graphic spacing of notes, rests, and other events, and must also provide for mathematically understood symbols for the divisions and multiples of time values, except optionally in children's music and situations where graphic representation of time values alone may be adequate.

  3. (14.) The notation is adaptable to a variety of microtonal systems.

  4. (15.) The notation system must allow the pitch axis to be uninterrupted (made continuous) so that the staff can encompass an arbitrary number of octaves while preserving proportionality of pitch.  In addition, the notation system must allow the pitch axis to be interrupted (made discontinuous) at convenient points in order to provide separate staves for specific instruments or voices in an ensemble, or to separate the two hands in keyboard music, when desired.  Both options (continuous and discontinuous) must be available.

  5. (16.) The notation provides for the convenient addition of optional or supplementary kinds of information, which may or may not be necessary or desired in some music (for example, information about dynamics, expression, tonality, choice of instruments, tone color, lyrics, etc).

  6. (17.) Frequently used symbols must be at least as convenient to write in longhand as are the corresponding symbols of traditional notation.  For example, if the noteheads are all rectangular, or require unusually precise drawing, they take an unacceptably long time to draw.  Exceptions are allowed for symbols that provide some benefit missing from the traditional system, as long as the overall amount of time to write a typical piece of music is not noticeably longer than in traditional notation.


The final screening process (Step Four) was completed by a group of trained musicians.  They assessed the 37 remaining notation systems by:

  1. (18.-22.) Reading a chromatic scale for each system and grading each system according to 5 criteria (ease of identifying staff lines and spaces, ease of writing a note a Major 3rd above the top line of the staff and below the bottom line, ease of reading a piano staff version, ease of recognizing noteheads, ease of reading successive octaves)

  2. (23.-27)  Writing out a G-minor scale for selected systems and grading each according to 5 criteria (ease of writing noteheads, ease of writing 3-octave range, ease of recognizing it as a melodic minor scale - as opposed to harmonic minor, pure minor, or major scale, ease of writing the time system, ease of selecting the best type of manuscript paper)

  3. (28.-32.) Writing out last 4 measures of a fugue (Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D minor for organ, BWV 565) and grading selected systems according to 5 criteria (ease of selecting manuscript paper, ease of using voice leading indications - showing which notes belong to which voice even when crossing, ease of using "tie" symbols, ease of use by an organist, ease of designating use of left or right hand)

  4. (33.-38.) Writing out first 4 measures of Ravel's D'anne qui me jecta de la neige (from Deux Epigrammes de Clement Marot for voice and piano) and grading selected systems according to 6 criteria (adequate expression of pitch information, adequate expression of time and note duration, ease for soloist and pianist, adequate expression of ornaments, ease of writing, adequate readability)

  5. (39.-44.) Writing out a specific measure from an orchestral work (measure 2 of rehearsal #161 from the Sacrificial Dance of Igor Stravinsky's Rite of Spring, Dover edition), and grading selected systems according to 6 criteria (adequate accommodation for 30 staves, ease of fitting the parts on the staves without using numerous leger lines, degree of freedom from octave register changes or clef changes, legibility if photographically reduced, legibility of symbols, legibility of expression marks in blank paper space)

This massive research project has spanned many years.  The final results can be found in the 2nd Quarter 2000 issue of "Music Notation News"  (click here to read an excerpt).  Although the results were not as conclusive as had been hoped, much was learned from the study.  There were two systems that were clearly the most highly rated:

  1. Tom Reed's Twinline (a variant of de Vries's Chromatic Twinline Notation) and

  2. Parncutt's All-White Tetragram, considered jointly with Brennink's Chromatic Notation, of which it is a minor variant.

The results of the study will be published in greater detail in the future, including individual examiners' answers to each test question and illustrations of their transcriptions.  And so the research project continues.

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