Staff notation is kind of bad - notational perspective


Really good points about assumptions around quantization in there (and why they exist).

Excellent points about why other notation systems can be better or more appropriate as well, and how the limitations on what staff notation effectively communicates can strongly bias the composer towards certain musical styles and traditions.


There’s a very strong body of evidence that the language you speak influences how you voice your thoughts, ad consequently how you think, because you think in terms of that language as well. Now, it’s not a directly causative, deterministic thing, but there is definitely an influence or bias therein.

It doesn’t surprise me at all that this should be true of musical notation as well.


That’s a great video, I enjoyed it thanks @sshoihet. That said even this video is taken out of context, lol. Traditional instrument from other cultures have there own way of keeping records.

I grew up in Thailand I’ve seen many different notations for different native instrument and thought at the time why they are not “Universal” like the staff notation, but that’s how knowledge hands to the next generation.

Staff notation is not Universal, it’s like saying using English to sound all of the words from every languages. Your ears are the most universal,lol.


This makes LOTS of sense!


Yes, but if you’re taught music here, you get to think it is!


A few thoughts that might be right on track or way off base…

  • Staff notation was developed for music that was played exactly as written, which it does very well because that is what it was intended for. All the more modern or other culture music that did not exist then, or was not known or was not considered, are using it as a base and tweaking it as best they can. It is a borrowed foundation vs. building something totally new (like tab for guitar).

  • “Arrangement” is a thing, but can and does often come ‘off the page’ to become the final song. I liken this to a script of a movie, say. Words on a page do not convey the emotion and inflection and feel of a given actor’s performance, or director’s vision, etc.

  • Musicians that don’t read music are not encumbered by the lines of the staff but mainly come up with music that fits in a genre, society or culture, and I think are more inhibited (or the opposite) by that then how it is notated.

  • Is it me or does that guy hold his pen really wonky, and it looks like it hurts?


I think that’s just becaus he’s left handed and most left handers are taught to hold the pen in that “wonky” way in order not to overwrite on their own writing with their hand/wrist when they write from left to right as in most of alphabets.

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Yeah my friend writes exactly like this.

He draws right to left because of his handedness but still has to write English and music left to right; interestingly, this does fit in with the subject of this post… research has suggested that the directionality of a language can affect how people experience space/time. Old English was originally written right to left.

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That’s just like the Latin alphabet being adapted to denote phonemes in various languages, each with their own pronunciations, accents and flexion (or lack thereof). Sometimes it fails, such as in the case of the Eastern Slavic languages (Ukrainian, Russian, Belorussian, etc.) where the profusion of soft and hard accents (now reduced since some reforms) made both Latin and Greek scripts unwieldy. Hence the Cyrillic script was defined.

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Japanese is like this too. There is a romanized alphabet equivalent for all the Japanese phoenemes (using two separate systems, actually), but they don’t really accurately represent the language in isolation, because every textbook that claims Japanese is atonal is low-key lying to you, and in fact to be understood well, the emphasis and accenting natural to the spoken language is actually important. e.g:

saKE - booze
SAke - salmon

both just spelled sake (さけ) phonetically.

Then again none of the other Japanese writing systems reflect this either, so I guess it’s a wash.

And of course there is no actual standard for this; there are actually pitch dictionaries, but they vary by region. Swell. Oh and of you use an honorific it changes the emphasis and intonation as well. And… well, basically, FML, trying to learn languages using a rule-based system is a bad approach :rofl:


Maybe wonky is the way they all are taught nowadays, regardless of handedness. I’ve noticed people using that grip more often in the last ten years or so. I even see some right handers holding the pen/pencil that way, most often with people 35 and under, but have seen a few who do it who are older. I don’t think my 31 yr. old left handed son holds a pen that way, but will check next time I see him. My 29 yr. old right handed son does, and it looks awkward to me. But as long as they can write, if it works it works (and I mean write cursive, not just print).

BTW, as a lefty, no one taught me to hold the pen or pencil a certain way. I did have a person who was an SAT test monitor interrupt me while I was taking a timed SAT test, to show me how to angle my test paper as a left hander. I was not amused.

Yikes, what about when the ancient Greeks and earlier cultures used to write one line after the other in the opposite direction? I guess that would mess with your experience of space and time! :wink:

Trying to learn most things using a rule-based approach is almost always bad :slight_smile:

I’ve spent so many hours on language forums explaining why things work the way that they do and you should just forget it and learn how things sound. I hate telling people it works like that “because” but sometimes you just have to learn what and then later you can come back and learn why. :slight_smile:

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I’m amused that one of the biggest discussion topics to come out of the video is that dude holds his pen weird :joy:

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Similarly, there’s evidence that the colours we see are determined by our language too.

I’m always amused that so many people think that we all experience the world in the same way, that what we hear, see and smell are exactly the same things… the more you study those things, the more you realize how different those things can be and it’s amazing that we can agree on anything :slight_smile:

If you haven’t seen the BBC Horizon documentary “Do you see what I see”, it’s pretty interesting.


Also it would be significantly more difficult to write for an orchestra (we know classical music is the only real music) if you had different types of notation for each instrument :slight_smile:

Of course many do have different transpositions so you kind of have to do this anyway :rofl:

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