Why global notation?
Writing music down creates possibilities that don’t exist in a purely oral tradition, because it frees music from dependence on human memory or spontaneous creativity. To be able to preserve pieces of music without having to memorize them, to compose elaborate new works and teach them to performers, or to understand more clearly how the sounds of music are organized, many societies around the world have developed ways of representing the fluid and fleeting sounds of music in a static, visual form. But each of these visual notation systems is designed to represent some particular kind of music, and is naturally less effective when used for music based on different principles.
This is no less true of Western staff notation. Yet many musicians and musicologists notate non-Western music in some form of Western notation, a practice that often gives a misleading impression of the sound organization while requiring extensive training on the part of the reader.
Global notation, in contrast, has been designed from the outset to represent any kind of music equally well and to be accessible to those who don’t already “read music.” Such a notation seems increasingly needed in a world where music from all cultures circulates freely and inspires endless cross-cultural collaborations and fusion styles. A notation that can represent all this music on an equal basis should facilitate the exchange of musical ideas and promote a fuller appreciation of the world’s musical diversity.
Global notation was initially developed for teaching “world music” classes, where it provides a means of examining and comparing different musical styles without measuring them all in Western units. It is also intended to be useful for analytical purposes in ethnomusicological research, and for practical purposes among composers and performers wishing to work beyond the bounds of a single established tradition. While most existing notation systems essentially serve to tell performers what to do, global notation aims to go beyond that function by providing a more realistic picture of what listeners actually hear.
This website serves as a manual that explains how global notation works and how it can represent a wide range of different ways of organizing musical sounds. Assuming no prior knowledge of music theory, the manual starts from basic aspects of musical sound and develops a visual code that can be extended from these to any desired level of sonic complexity.
As far as possible, the principles of global notation are illustrated initially with examples from well-known pieces of music so that you don’t have to deal with new principles and unfamiliar music at the same time. As a result, a lot of the examples may not be what most people think of as “world music,” especially in the earlier sections of the manual. Nevertheless, it should become clear how the same principles can be applied to any kind of music, and the plan is to substantiate this claim with examples from a wide range of musical styles as the website grows.
Global notation can be written quickly by hand or neatly “typeset” using computer software. If you want to do the latter, you will need to have a graphics program and know how to use it. There are many suitable programs, some of them free, and this manual cannot cover how to make them produce graphics that look the way you want them to. What it does is offer guidelines as to how the finished notation should look.
Global notation is designed to be flexible and to continue evolving as new notational challenges and solutions are found. At present, the website covers basic principles for representing rhythm and melody which any user will probably need to know, and introduces a selection of more advanced options that should be useful in some situations. There is much work still to be done, both in representing further features of musical sound and (no doubt) in representing the basic elements more efficiently.
The website has been established, not because the notation system is now complete, but because it has reached a stage where potential users should be able to see what it has to offer and give input as to how it could be better. To that end, you are encouraged to submit feedback, suggestions, and examples of music in global notation. You can do that either by making comments on individual pages or by participating in the general blog discussion. (All comments and posts are moderated.)