Getting started with global notation

Any kind of music notation conveys information about sound in a visual form. But no notation tells us everything there is to know about the sounds. If it did, it would be so crammed with detail as to be impossible to read. Instead, notation presents a selection of information that the notator thinks will be wanted. To put it another way: notation provides a means of specifying certain things about a set of sounds.

For example, the composer of a classical piece usually specifies the pitch and duration of every note that should be played in a performance of that piece, but does not specify features like vibrato and rubato (small fluctuations of pitch and tempo respectively), which are left to the discretion of the performer. In contrast, jazz musicians, if they use notation at all, may only require a “lead sheet” that specifies the basic melody and chords, leaving them to improvise the rest. In either style, a theorist interested in analyzing the music as it actually sounds in performance might want a form of notation that gives more information than the ones used by performers. Thus, the features to specify depend on both the musical style and the purposes of the notation.

Existing notation systems are designed to specify some things and not others. A good example is conventional Western “sheet music” notation, which we will henceforth refer to as “staff notation” for brevity. Staff notation virtually forces the notator to specify rhythm using note values in simple mathematical proportions such as 2:1 (e.g. a half-note is twice as long as a quarter-note). In contrast, traditional notation for the Chinese qin zither specifies the exact techniques and fingers to be used in plucking and stopping the strings for each note, but does not specify rhythm, as it is considered acceptable and even desirable for the rhythm to vary somewhat between performances. To notate a qin piece in staff notation, one would have to choose a particular performance of the piece and specify the rhythm based on that.

Clearly, a form of notation that is intended to be used for any kind of music and any kind of purpose should allow notators to decide what they want to specify, and not force them to specify anything else. That is what global notation aims to do: to provide a consistent set of conventions for how to specify various features of musical sound, while leaving the notator free to decide what to specify.

The process of notating a piece of music in global notation therefore begins with making decisions as to what needs to be specified. This section of the website guides you through the basics of deciding what to specify and how to indicate it in the notation.

As far as possible, the principles of global notation are illustrated initially with examples from well-known pieces of music. As a result, you may not find a lot of what is usually thought of as “world music” in this part of the website. Nevertheless, it should become clear how, in leaving you free to choose what musical features to specify, global notation also leaves you free to notate any kind of music in accordance with the music’s own principles. The plan is to substantiate this claim with examples from a wide range of musical styles as the website grows.

Next: Sound sources