Writing by hand

Although the examples on this website have been laid out using computer software for neatness, it is perfectly possible to write global notation by hand. One reason for doing so is that (with sufficient effort) you can get the notation looking exactly the way the want it, without having to worry about how to make your graphics program do that. If that’s your reason for writing by hand, this website can’t really help: you’ll just need to rely on your own drawing skills and perseverance. On this page, we’ll assume that you are writing by hand for a different reason: because you want to write something down quickly, or when you don’t have your computer with you.

To write global notation by hand, you’ll need two writing implements that produce lines of different strengths or thicknesses, such as a pen and a pencil, or a ball-point pen and a felt-tip or marker. It’s generally worth using a ruler to ensure that the lines that are meant to be straight are distinguishable from those that are not. It’s better to use plain paper rather than lined, so that your notation won’t be cluttered up with irrelevant lines.

When it comes to writing by hand, global notation does have a disadvantage compared to staff notation: there is no ready-made “manuscript paper.” You have to prepare your own grid of horizontal pitch/layer lines before you can notate a piece of music (see Unspecified pitch; Scales and melody). Doing this by hand can be something of a chore, but once you have prepared one page you can of course make photocopies for subsequent pages that use the same grid.

Once you have decided what layers and pitches you want to include, the lines for these are best drawn with a thin ink pen such as a ball-point. That way, they won’t be too prominent, and if your symbols for sounds are subsequently drawn in pencil, you can erase and correct them without having to re-draw the pitch/layer lines.

The vertical spacing of pitch lines should vary with the wider and narrower intervals between adjacent scale degrees, but it can be quite approximate, unless you are trying to represent extra-scalar pitches and pitch bends very precisely (in which case writing by hand may not be the best strategy anyway). After all, the exact intervals can be written in cents at the beginning as usual (see Relative pitch).

If your music has a regular meter and tempo, it is probably worth deciding on a horizontal scale of so-many millimeters per beat and drawing in the beat and bar lines before you start notating the music. You can also draw them in as you go along, but it may be more trouble in the long run.

You may recall that bar lines are supposed to be drawn thicker and longer than beat lines, and that the pitch line for the tonic or reference pitch should be thicker and longer than the other pitch lines (see Bars; Scales and melody). It’s more important, however, that all these grid lines should be thinner than the lines in the “rotated T” symbols with which melodies are mostly written (see Specified duration). When writing by hand, distinguishing more than two thicknesses of line may be too much trouble, so the bar lines and tonic/reference pitch lines can be the same thickness as the other grid lines, and distinguished from them just by being longer. A simple hand-drawn grid might then look something like this.

A melody can then be drawn into the grid using either a thicker pen or a soft pencil or crayon to permit erasures. For a smooth legato or “melismatic” melody, you might first draw a whole melodic phrase as a continuous line and then add any distinct “articulations” with short vertical lines (see Articulation and melisma). If the melody is more “syllabic” or has most or all of its notes distinctly articulated, it might be easier to mark the “onsets” first, each with a short vertical line across the relevant pitch line, then connect them up with a continuous melody line. If you are really in a hurry or don’t care whether the notes are distinctly articulated or not, you can just draw a melody line without the short vertical lines.

The above example also shows a way of saving time when notating sounds of unspecified duration (in this case hand-claps) by hand. The default symbol for these is a solid wedge, which can be quite time-consuming to draw if every one has to be filled in by hand. But other symbols can also be used for sounds of unspecified duration, for instance if we want to distinguish between strong- and weak-hand strokes on a drum, or obligatory and optional strokes in a variable pattern (see Specifying other information where duration is unspecified). If we don’t need to make such distinctions, any symbol can be used as the default one.

The quickest of these symbols to draw is the open wedge or triangle, since it requires only three straight lines which can be drawn without lifting the pen. Even better, if the stroke falls on a beat, the beat line itself can be used as the left-hand edge of the wedge, and only two short lines need be drawn: >. We could even reduce this to the lower of those two lines, an oblique stroke /, enabling us to write down rhythms in real time: one stroke of the pen for each note of the rhythm.

Like most ways of saving time and trouble, however, writing global notation by hand comes at a cost. Just as typed words are usually easier to read than handwritten ones, music notation is easier to read when it’s neatly presented, and trying to do this by hand can end up taking more time than using mechanical help.

Even if you are planning to notate the music by hand, it may be more efficient to use computer software to create your grid of pitch/layer and beat/bar lines. That way, once you have set up the grid for a single system, you can copy and paste it as many times as needed, or edit it if (for instance) the pitch range or meter changes in the course of the piece, then print off as many pages as you want. By letting the computer take care of the repetitive part, you’ll leave yourself free to concentrate on the more interesting task of writing down the actual music.

The same principle applies to notating the music itself, if you are going to use global notation for more than one or two simple pieces. Sooner or later you’ll find that it’s worth learning to use a graphics program, because it lets you edit what you’ve written and re-use it if notating another piece that has some similar features. Ultimately, using software will be quicker as well as neater than writing by hand. Just make sure you are making the software do what you want it to, not the other way around.

We’ve now covered the most essential aspects of global notation that any user will need to know. For more specialized purposes, you may wish to learn some of the more advanced features described on subsequent pages, starting with what happens when more than one pitch is sounding at a time.

Next: Pitch combinations

5 comments on Writing by hand

    1. Personally I use Corel Draw, but I’m sure there are any number of graphics programs (some of them free) that could do what’s needed. In the longer term I hope to work with technical specialists (which I’m not) in developing a bespoke software program for writing and playback of global notation. In the mean time, I would welcome suggestions from potential users as to what kind of templates would be useful, and for what program(s).

      1. I was thinking any vector-based graphics program is perfect (e.g. Illustrator); a raster-based graphics software may be more challenging when trying to make clean, quick edits (e.g. Photoshop).

        In reference to a software program, have you looked into the popular creative coding language, Processing (processing.org; openprocessing.org)? It supports multimedia applications and is a coding language created for designers and visual artists that is not overly complicated like some of the programming languages. You could use it as a sketching tool or rough draft in order to test how the plotting and playback of global notation would look like and operate, and then eventually bring in a programmer and have a software written in a robust language such as Python. Just a thought.

        All in all, I am pretty excited about this endeavour!

  1. Even if you aren’t able at this stage to create bespoke software for this purpose, the very first step should be to establish a plaintext standard for encoding Global Notation into a computer file — not as an image, but as a description.

    For example, a simple Global Notation text file might be something like: BEGIN GN VERSION 0.1; METRE 3/4 @ 100 Hz; BASE PITCH LINE APPROX C#; SOUND { PITCH C#; DURATION 1 S }; END

    (This is meant to be an illustrative example, but the actual format outlined there is quite flawed. For better inspiration look to JSON (for arbitrary data), DOT/graphviz (for network graphs); or just Google for existing plaintext musical formats — there are many, but to my knowledge none of them are domain-specific.)

    There are several advantages to creating such a file format: (1) it makes it simpler for anyone else to come along and write software that renders such a file to text, or to create a bespoke editor to create such files, and (2) it makes it easier to communicate or collaborate in Global Notation.

    The desiderata of such a format is that it be (a) unambiguous, so that computer software can understand it, (b) human readable, so that if need be a human can inspect the source file rather directly, and (c) not too verbose, so that humans can edit and create files by hand until better software arises. (Contrast with XML, a plaintext format which attempts to be about to store arbitrary days, which has fallen out of favour lately due to its inelegance and verbosity). Finally, (d) it ought to be as flexible and extensible as Global Notation requires; Global Notation is still in development, so the plaintext encoding might change. For this reason, a version number is important.

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