What are Alternative Notations and why are they needed?

Traditional sheet music notation has not changed significantly since the Middle Ages.  That does not mean it doesn’t work.  It does capture all the information needed for a musician to recreate a composer’s score centuries after it was written.  However, Traditional Notation has not evolved as the music theory behind it has.  In particular, its staves are still based on the original seven note diatonic scale even though Western music has expanded to a twelve note chromatic scale.  As a result, it presents three main challenges to beginning readers of sheet music:


Alternative Notations attempt to resolve or at least diminish these challenges.  Typically, these have a consistent line and space configuration for each octave and staff.  The need for key signatures is resolved by explicit definition of note types naturals, sharps, and flats.  This can be achieved with chromatic staves wherein all twelve degrees have their own position on the octave.  Or, it can also be achieved with diatonic staves by encoding the note type definition explicitly into the noteheads themselves.  Tempo definition can be improved by using visually intuitive graphic display techniques instead of using symbols that must be mentally translated.

These solutions greatly simplify reading music for new students of music.  However, even advanced musicians such as performers, musicologists, and composers can also benefit from learning chromatic notations as a “2nd language” since they enable intervals between notes to be more easily visualized and understood.

In contrast, there are many famous professionals musicians who can’t read music at all, or have (or had) difficulty reading it, e.g., Prince, Eric Clapton, Elvis Presley, Paul McCartney, Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, Dave Brubeck, Irving Berlin, and Joni Mitchell.  Of course, these are the exceptions to the professional musician “rule”, but they illustrate that difficulty reading music is not limited to beginners.

There is a lot of anecdotal evidence that the challenges result in many beginning students struggling to read music and some even give up playing music because of this barrier.  If Alternative Notations can help these students to succeed and stay engaged, perhaps for a lifetime, then that benefits not only them but also music schools and instructors, instrument makers, and music publishers.