How could global notation be better?

The idea of designing a new notation system to notate any kind of music in the world is nothing new. Ethnomusicologist Mantle Hood called for such a system in his 1971 book The Ethnomusicologist. But as Hood said, “No one scholar, no one center or institution, can achieve this in isolation.” (See p. 119 in the 1982 edition.)

Building on the ideas of Hood and others, I’ve come up with a notation system that I think has some potential, and on this website I’ve tried to explain enough of it for others to get the idea of how it works and what it can do. I’m still a long way from covering every possible musical situation, and even what I have covered could probably be done better.

Here is where I need your help. If you think global notation could be useful, I’d love to know what you might use it for and how it could be improved to make it serve your purposes better. Any kind of comment that could lead to improvements is welcome, whether it’s a specific practical suggestion or just pointing out a problem.

Even better, you could try using global notation yourself and share your own examples!

Hoping to hear from you soon


14 comments on How could global notation be better?

  1. Just a thought about simplification, a line for each pitch used in a song seems like it could easily get out of hand, could a shorthand for harmonics of a certain note be useful? Finding a way to differentiate octaves or other simple ratios within the same line could really help readability, and notating simple ratios is an objective description of pitch that doesn’t really preference any musical system over any other. Octaves as chords might be a bit of an issue, but the 12tone video made it sound like chords are already a bit tricky in this system so I’m sure a simple solution is inevitable.

    Thank you for the work you’re doing, understanding musical traditions outside of the context of western music is extremely valuable. You’re helping progress sound as an art form while simultaneously finding a way to preserve past versions of it. That’s incredibly cool.

    1. Thanks for the suggestion – yes, the number of pitch lines in a score can become an issue if the music spans a range of more than a couple of octaves. I’ve been thinking about a way of marking sounds that are one or more octaves higher or lower than the pitch lines on which they appear, something like the way staff notation does with a bracket and “8va” marking. I’ll try and add something on that to the website soon.
      The idea of indicating other intervals/ratios in a similar way is intriguing. My initial thought is that this might be hard to read since the sounds in question will be of a different “pitch class”. But I’ll keep it in mind when I finally get to grips with the big challenge of chords and harmony, which will surely require a whole section of the website to itself.

  2. Your system, at least the step-like melodic aspect, reminds me of Jaime de Angulo’s notation of native Californian music a hundred or so years ago. If you aren’t familiar with his research/notation, you should check it out!

    I am curious how the system would handle additive rhythms like those of the Balkans, Middle East, and South Asia. Also, as an Irish fiddle player, how it might deal with grace notes and ornaments like the roll where the pitch change(s) is very, very quick and non-metric.

    Excellent work!

    1. Congratulations on being the first to post a comment on Global Notation!
      I’m working on additive meter right now and hope to add something soon in the Specified Onset Timing section. I’m thinking it will involve distinguishing “long” and “short” beats, normally consisting of 3 and 2 pulses respectively. How to indicate that clearly at the beginning of a score is the main issue at the moment.
      Grace notes and ornaments of any speed can be indicated with whatever degree of precision you want by using sound analysis software at least if you are dealing with an unaccompanied melody. (You may need to adjust the horizontal time-scale to show the level of detail you want.)
      I wasn’t familiar with Jaime de Angulo’s work, but I did find one of his articles that uses filled and open triangles that look a bit like mine, although he’s using them for vocal music with specified pitch and duration. It does seem a case of broadly similar goals leading to broadly similar solutions.

      1. Well, I’ve now added a page on additive meter! It proved a bit tricky to maintain the distinction between “beats” and “pulses” which I think is important, but I’ve found a solution that seems consistent with the way global notation handles other kinds of meter and rhythm. I’ll be interested to know what anyone thinks.

  3. Hello!

    Huge fan of this piece of research and I think it’s an absolutely brilliant end goal to try and universalise written music.

    One little tiny thing maybe worth being aware of is the system is culturally biased, because the system assumes that reading left to right is the easiest way to read.

    Having a way of perhaps making the system flexible (perhaps just having iterations which include right to left or up and down) might fix this

    Anyway, love this project and the purpose, keep up the good work!

    Regards and best.

    1. Thanks! You’re right about the cultural bias, of course. I made global notation read from left to right (by default) because that’s what I thought would be most intuitive for the majority of potential users, but there’s no reason why you shouldn’t write it from right to left if that comes more naturally to you and your readers.
      In fact, if you’re using graphics software, it’s easy to flip a piece of notation that has been written one way to make it read the other; you would just have to re-write any numbers and other textual elements such as song lyrics.
      Equally, you could make the notation read from bottom to top to line up with Labanotation for dance movement, or write it in a circle to represent cyclical patterns that repeat without a clear starting and ending point.
      I must add something about these options to the relevant web page!

  4. This is a very intriguing idea, but it’s hard to evaluate it without some examples of complete (if short) musical pieces. I wonder if it were possible to add one or two examples to this website.

    I am a bit worried about the notation usability for pieces that make use of many different pitches. Suppose you want to notate “Flight of the Bumblebee”. It uses all chromatic notes in the range of around 3 octaves. If every one of them has its own line, wouldn’t it look a bit unwieldy?

    1. I quite agree about the need to notate whole pieces in order to show what global notation can do. I’m working on it, but the nearest I’ve got at the moment is “Mary Had a Little Lamb” (see Scales and melody) and “When the Saints Go Marching In” (see Pitch bending).
      I also agree that a high number of pitch lines is a danger and sometimes it’s the price we pay for being able to notate any pitch and interval. However, global notation doesn’t actually require a pitch line for every pitch that’s used in a piece. The pitch lines are drawn only for the prevailing scale in a given passage, and pitches that fall outside of that scale can be drawn in the spaces: see Extra-scalar pitch. “The Flight of the Bumblebee,” for instance, may use many chromatic pitches in the melody, but it is still a tonal piece, and can be notated with just 7 lines per octave.
      Wide range of pitch is another issue, but as mentioned in response to another comment, I’m planning to provide space-efficient ways of indicating octave transposition. As it is, the pitch range provided in a given system need only be the range that is actually used in that part of the music: see the “Rhapsody in Blue” example at the beginning of Non-metrical onset timing with specified pitch.
      I would also point out that global notation is not the only system to be faced with this problem! MIDI notation, for instance, requires 12 lines per octave even when the music only uses 7 or fewer pitch classes.

    1. An interesting challenge! I don’t currently have a plan for this but possibly the notation could be combined with something like Allan F. Moore’s “soundbox” diagrams (in his books on popular music analysis) which indicate the spatial positioning of sound sources in a recording. Any suggestions welcome!

  5. Instead of the volume notation just being volume, you could generalize it to effects. Just name the effect you want.

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