Western Musical Notation—Page 2
specific western notation systems
As already noted, Western Modern notation (or simply modern notation) is a specific and particularly important
collection of closely related notation
systems that dominates Western music composition and performance today.
As we shall see below, although they share common characteristics, the
collection of notation systems that comprise Western notation is not monolithic;
each member of the collection is unique. Nevertheless, all are related to each other by the fact that they
contain many of the same musical elements, all of which are designed to enable Western musicians or laymen to write, play, or sing
The earliest form of musical notation can be found in a cuneiform tablet
that was created at Nippur, in Iraq in about 2000 B.C. Starting in classical
Greece, Western music notation has been evolving for as long as music has been played in
the Western world. Although there were a few early efforts, Western music
notation began in earnest in the Church with plainchant in the
13th century. Outside the Church, Western notation continued to evolve in
order to keep pace with innovation in secular Western music. For example, a
system resembling the present system of fixed note lengths arose in the 14th
century; and the modern five-line staff was first adopted in France and became
almost universal by the 16th century. And the use of regular measures (bars)
became commonplace by the end of the 17th century.
Western music evolved because it was a creative enterprise; new notation
systems were developed in order to keep pace. Scores of Western notation
systems have been devised or proposed over the last three hundred years, but
only a handful remain.
Most new notation systems have arisen and flourished for a while because
they were seen as aesthetically or technically superior when measured by one
or another musical criterion. Some fell because the notation needs of
Western music changed, rendering them obsolete (see Shape note notation,
below on this page).
A period of innovation began in the 1600s that was
particularly significant for the development of Western music and Western
music notation. This period, which music historians call the Common Practice Period,
comprises three vitally important musical styles and sub-periods in the history of
European classical music—the Baroque, Classical,
and Romantic—from about 1600 until about 1900.
The Common Practice Period is so-named because these newly-standardized music elements
were accepted and became forms of practice that were common to virtually all
Western musicians. Many of the most important ideas,
techniques, and instruments that make up Western classical music and
notation took shape, became standardized, and were codified during this
So-called modern Western notation, which was born during the
Common Practice Period, is the contemporary version of Western music
notation, the one that modern musicians adhere to today. It came as a
response to changes in the way secular Western music was played.
Although difficult to pinpoint, modern Western notation may be said to
have emerged during the 18th century, to have grown and developed during the
19th century, and to have stabilized in the later part of the 19th century
and the 20th century. Innovations during these eras were driven by European
musicians who keenly felt the urgent need for permanent records to take
account of the growing complexity of their work.
Throughout the many years of its evolution, the modern Western notation
system has remained the primary notation system for Western music; it has become the de facto standard notation system
in the Western world.
Modern Western notation represents the culmination of over 300 years of
advances. It has stimulated and incorporated more musical innovation than
any other Western notation system. It has absorbed or outlasted competing systems until changes in music rendered
The de facto status of modern Western notation means that it receives no
sanction from an official body; yet the de facto system and its predecessors
have met the needs of Western musicians and music for over 300 years. The current
notation system is not the same as it was in the 20th century and it
continues to evolve during the 21st century. These facts demonstrate that
modern Western notation has retained its earlier capacity for change.
Western music is a creative enterprise that continues to place new
demands on notation, just as it has in the past; and it's likely that new
notation systems will continue to be spawned in the West indefinitely. There's no reason to think that modern Western notation will not continue to
develop at a pace that keeps abreast of advances in modern music.
impact of New Music, playing techniques, and instruments on western
Why is Western Modern notation a collection of systems rather than a
single, monolithic system?
Western notation as evolved for a thousand years to meet the demands of
the way Western music has been played. Modern Western notation began
Music has been freed from the chains of historic convention since the mid-20th century;
new styles of music, new playing techniques, new music styles, and new instruments have been
devised. Some of these styles, techniques, and instruments are capable of
expressing sounds or musical passages never heard or dreamed of until modern
As a result, in some circumstances the conventional, historic Western notation system has
been strained beyond its limits; it has become necessary to revise and even
abandon it in some cases, lest the new music be ignored.
New symbols have been introduced to express flexible rhythmic values, pitches outside the normal chromatic scale,
clusters of adjacent notes, and other unconventional musical elements.
In some cases, composers have exchanged the conventional symbolic system for graphic signs,
especially in the notation of electronic music, which presents special
problems that often have nothing to do with the "normal" categorizations of
pitch and rhythm. Suggestive styles of notation have also been
used by composers not wishing to prescribe their music totally.
western music notation systems
Some new music notation systems are offered as alternatives to the de
facto standard Western notation system because they are thought to be more
suitable for some special or specific musical purpose. These kinds of systems
usually are not intended to
replace modern de facto Western notation, but rather to coexist and
supplement or extend it; they live side-by-side with it. Among these kinds of notation
systems are cipher, solfege, letter, tablature,
klavar, 12-note non-equal temperament, chromatic, graphic,
simplified, Parson's code, Braille, integer, turntablist, and
computer or MIDI.
A few notation systems in this purpose-built category are particularly important
and deserve mention here because they are in active use by a number of
professional or lay musicians. theyillustrate how and why new notations
systems come into being or disappear. theyare:
A type of musical notation that indicates notes to be played by
percussion instruments. As with other forms of musical notation, sounds are
represented by symbols which are usually written onto a musical staff or
- Figured bass (also called thoroughbass)
An integer musical notation
used to indicate intervals, chords, and non-chord tones in relation to a
bass note. Figured bass is closely associated with basso continuo
music, or music produced by a keyboard instrument that accompanies other
music, a style that appears in much Baroque period music but rarely in
- Lead sheet notation and fake books
Lead sheet notation is used to capture the
essential elements of a
popular song in a compact format without specifying how the song should be
arranged or performed. The melody is written in modern Western music
notation, the lyric is written as text below the staff, and the harmony is
specified with chord symbols above the staff.
lead sheet notation, lead sheet scores, and lead sheets
Lead sheet notation specifies only the melody, lyrics, and harmony of a
song, using one
chord symbols placed above and lyrics below.
What purpose does this serve? Lead sheet
notation is both economical and complete; it conveys the melody,
lyrics, and harmony, which together define all of a song's essential
elements, without adding anything extraneous. Lead sheet notation captures
only the music that makes a song unique.
A lead sheet score is a score written on a lead sheet in lead sheet notation. Professional
composers employ lead sheets to describe songs for legal purposes when they
apply for copyright protection. For example, a song submitted for an Academy Award
or a Grammy is written in the form of a lead sheet.
Lead sheet scoring is a bare bones way of recording a song on paper or
in a computer; it does not describe chord voicings, voice leading, bass
line or other elements of the accompaniment, vital aspects of a song that
can add a great deal to its sound, emotional content, interpretation, or
meaning. In contrast, conventional song scores, are also written in
traditional Western notation, but they contain all the extras needed to
round out a song and are usually written by a composer or arranger after a
song is initially composed, or they are improvised by a performer.
Below, the familiar Stephen Foster "traditional" melody, Oh Suzanna,
scored in lead sheet notation. Chord symbols, which signal the
chord that a musician should play at the point where they appear, are
marked in blue. Rehearsal markers are noted in red. A rehearsal marker
is a point on a score at which players can begin a practice session.
What is a fake book? It's a group of songs recorded and
published in lead sheet notation. Professional musicians call these books
fake books because they contain all the information
(and the minimum amount of information) a skilled musician
needs to fake—that is, to make up or improvise—a
complete song on the spur of the moment.
In a well-known story, a drunken lounge lizard asks a piano man, "Can you play my favorite song?" "No," replies the piano
"but if you hum a few bars I'll fake it." the musician in this
joke plans to take his cue from the tune that the lounge lizard hums in
the same way that any musician takes his cue from the notes in a fake book.
Since a song's accompaniment or arrangement can add so much that is
vital, the music specified in a fake book, which is in economical lead
sheet notation, cannot stand on its own when it comes time to perform; it
needs added appeal to make it into a complete song that the ear can
accept. This embellishment is usually supplied ad lib by the performer.
about Lead sheet notation and fake books
Fake books are collections of lead sheet scores written
on lead sheets. Despite their name, fake books are often unbound,
consisting of single sheets or of a thick stack of loose sheets.
Fake books are devices used by professional musicians
to allow them to play songs with little or no preparation.
few chords and a one-note melody line that a fake book contains will
an amateur musician to play a passable version of any song with relative ease,
but fake books are mainly intended for accomplished musicians.
Most professional musicians are well equipped to add the extra elements
to a song in a fake book that
make it complete. theycan do this without a moment's hesitation the
very first time they gaze on a song in a fake book. theycan add chord voicings, voice
leads, and bass lines or other essential elements of the accompaniment
without help from an arranger. In fact, they are so adept, they can add
these elements on the fly while they are performing and make the result
sound good. In effect, when a professional employs lead sheet notation in
a fake book to
sing or to play an instrument, he instantly becomes the arranger; he
tailor-makes the song to the occasion.
Fake books are a favorite of voice and instrumental soloists. They are popular
among soloists because they help them learn new songs on
the spur of the moment. That's possible only because fake book sheets are
written in lead sheet notation and lead sheet notation is a form of
shorthand. Because a lead sheet contains only the notation that's vital to
a song, lead sheet notation presents a concise, condensed musical language
that is without extraneous information that can easily be read and translated directly
into a satisfying musical performance by anyone proficient in reading and
They are especially popular in
the world of jazz because jazz is a medium where impromptu performance and
extemporaneous musical innovation are central. Because the melody, lyrics and harmony
fully define a song, a lead
sheet is usually all that a skilled jazz pianist needs to improvise an accompanyment
for a singer or
to play a piano solo; he can add and interpolate the rest.
Indeed, a lead sheet is the only form of written music needed by
a small jazz ensemble. In a typical jazz song, first one or more musicians play the
melody while the rest of the group improvises an accompaniment that is
based on the lead sheet's chord progressions and chord symbols. Later, a
soloist improvises a solo that is based on these chord progressions.
Fake books are not intended for novices. The reader of a musical score
printed in a fake book must be able to follow and interpret the scant
notation and it's necessary to have thorough familiarity with chords and
sheet music to be able to do this adeptly.
- Chord chart notation
A notation system that only specifies chords and
Jazz and pop musicians frequently accompany a soloist who is improvising.
This type of notation system is ideal for them because it contains just the
music they need for this task. It is primarily used by a band's
rhythm section (piano, guitar, bass, and drums) because in jazz and pop
music the rhythm section
does most of the work; it's their main
- Scores, Arrangements, and Band Charts
A score is a written or
printed piece of music with all the vocal and instrumental parts arranged
on staves, one under the other. A musical arrangement is the
adaptation of a composition to voices or instruments, or to a new purpose;
or it's a piece so adapted. A chart or, as it relates to band music,
a band chart, is a score that specifies such things as which
musicians play what instruments and when (instrumentation), pacing, special
effects (such as muffling trumpets), and the points at which improvised
solos may be inserted.
In popular music, such as big band music of the 30s and 40s, the terms
charts, band charts, or arrangements are
usually employed; in classical music, the terms score or
arrangement are usually employed. All these terms designate essentially
the same thing.
Don't confuse lead sheets, fake books, or chord charts, which appear in
popular music such as jazz or rock, with scores, band charts, or
arrangements, which appear in marching band music, big band music, and
Smaller groups such as jazz or rock bands tend to improvise; they create
music spontaneously. For them, fake books and chord charts fit right in.
But larger ensembles, such as marching bands, big bands, and classical
orchestras, must have music that's highly arranged or organized in advance;
otherwise, performers would be unable to mesh with each other and musical
effects and ideas intended by composers and arrangers would be lost. In the
scores, arrangements, and charts employed by larger groups, improvised
solos are allowed only at points specified in writing by the composer or
arranger; lead sheets, fake books, and chord charts just don't work.
a system for assigning linguistic syllables to the names of notes in the
Western musical scale; it's in widespread use today. Solfège, is the
French equivalent of the Italian word Solfeggio. The French borrowed
the term from the Italians, who originated it. Both terms have been
incorporated into Western music notation.
The word solfeggio is derived by combining the syllables sol
and fa to make sol-fa. It comes from the practice of
using the syllables sol and fa to
name or represent the tones of a melody or voice part, the tones of the
scale, or the notes of a particular series of notes, as the scale of C.
act, process, or system of using certain syllables, especially the
sol-fa syllables, to represent the tones of the scale is called
You may be unfamiliar with the terms solfège notation, solfeggio, or
solmization; nevertheless, you are likely to have encountered solmizarion
or even used it yourself, even if you don't recognize it by that name. Have you ever sounded
out the musical octave by saying or singing the syllables Do,
Re, Mi, Fa, Sol, La, Ti,
Do? Then you have used the solfège notation
Solfège is a common vocal exercise in which singers use the sol-fa syllables
to practice or warm up their vocal chords. When singers sing the scale—perform
solfège or solfeggio—they customarily sound the
notes of the scale in order of ascending pitch, starting from the lowest
note, do, followed by the note re, etc.
The idea of using phonemes and phonetic syllables as names for musical
notes was coined by Guido d'Arezzo (see
Guido d'Arezzo who invented the idea of using the musical staff, as cited
above on this page—when he assigned syllables
to the first six musical lines of the Latin hymn, Ut queant laxis.
Guido's original sequence was Ut-Re-Mi-Fa-Sol-La, where each verse
(line) would start a note higher.
Many other notational systems exploit Guido's idea. For example, the
equivalent syllables in Indian music are: Sa, Ri, Ga,
Ma, Pa, Dha, and Ni. Chinese say Qi instead
of Ti. Is it because they find the European Ti hard to pronounce?
Shape note notation (also informally called buckwheat note
or sol-fa syllables), is a notation system designed with the aim of
to read than Western notation for people with little or no musical training.
Shape notes are notes on the major scale designated by
various shapes rather than by the elliptically shaped note
head that is standard for Western music. They offer the significant advantage of being easier for
some people to recognize and decipher.
When a song is first read and sung by a shape
note church choral group, they initially sing the syllables (do, re, mi, fa, sol, la, ti, do)
as they encounter them in the form of shaped notes on the staff; they
judge by the shapes of the notes the syllables to use. Once they
learn the notes of a song, they sing the same notes to the words of the
Typically, shape note shapes have standard correspondences to solfège
syllables (see above). For instance, in one shape note system, known as the
four-shape tradition, the notes of a C major scale are represented on a
music staff and sung as follows:
One of the chief characteristics of a shape note system that makes it easier
for lay people to read compared with standard notation. The syllables and notes of a shape
note system are not tied to particular pitches (e.g. fa to C); rather, they
depend on the key of the piece, so that the tonic note of the key always
has the same syllable (here, fa), and similarly for the other notes of the
scale. Some musicians refer to this as a moveable do system.
After a singer becomes experienced in this shape note tradition, he has
established a facile triple mental association which links a note of the
scale, a shape, and a syllable. This association makes it easy to read
If at first the shaping of notes to represent music seems odd, consider
that the concept and use of note-shaping to write and read music goes back
a thousand years to the work of Guido of Arezzo (see
above). There must be something about note shaping that strikes
a chord in the musically untrained person and that makes shape notes seem
more natural to use than other kinds of notation.
Modern shape note notation systems such as those used in America today
trace their origins to the American 18th century. Although shape
notes are not in widespread use today, the shape note system is still found
in some church hymnals, sheet music, and song books, especially in the
Southern United States. Perhaps the system gradually fell into disuse in
the U.S. because greater numbers of people received formal musical
education as time went on.
more about modern western notation
This feature is continued on the next page.
- Visit the page that follows to further explore modern musical notation
of the Western Tradition and related subjects: