Music notation modernization

Wednesday 5 January 2005This is over 18 years old. Be careful.

Last Sunday’s investigation into musical navigation demonstrated to me once again just what an ad-hoc hodge-podge music notation is. It’s developed over centuries, with odd symbols mixed together with abbreviations of Italian words, and so on. But even with its flaws, it’s so well established that no one would propose changing it, right? Wrong.

The Music Notation Modernization Association is proposing exactly that. They have a set of detailed criteria that they used to evaluate over 500 different proposals, winnowing them down to a few dozen.

These notations have merit, but let’s get serious here: there’s no way music notation is going to change. There’s just too much music already out there, with too many people already trained on the current system. If we can’t manage to change English spelling, we aren’t going to be able to change music notation.

On the same topic, it had to be out there, but I had never seen it: MusicXML.


Well... most if not all guitarists will have come across tab, which has resulted in more playable music for popular songs being online than I'd ever think possible with conventional notation. Tab is simple, representable in plain-text files and probably the dominant way that music for guitars is seen by the majority of players. So there's an example where notation has changed :)
I find it rather disappointing that this modernization effort focuses principally on new layouts for notating pitch without comprehensively addressing other major notational issues, rhythmic notation, especially. Even with regard to pitch, their proposals do not deal with other tuning systems, which clearly do require new notational strategies. The backwards compatibility of their notations is also poor; in tonal music, losing a visual distinction between enharmonically equivalent pitches is a real loss of information (not to mention key signatures!). So, since these proposals don't work well for older music and are adequate only for new music that can be notated easily and uncontroversially with conventional notation, I don't see much value here.
The notation system really does need an updating, though.

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