Review of E.M. Hume’s “Supermusicology”

by Paul Morris

Supermusicology is Ernest Moore Hume’s book about his alternative music notation system “SuperMusic” and how it seeks to improve upon traditional music notation. It is written in a conversational tone with many helpful illustrations. I particularly enjoyed reading the history section of the book and its account of the use of various staves with different numbers of lines in western music history.

The thoroughness and effort that Hume has put into his book comes through in his attention to certain details. For example, a brief and intriguing passage that is of general interest refers to the Human Engineering Laboratory and their work on isolating and identifying particular human aptitudes. This now-defunct organization (formerly based in Boston, Massachusetts, USA) identified three basic aptitudes relevant to musicianship: tonal memory, rhythm memory, and pitch discrimination. Hume notes how these are different skills from those needed to read music, since reading music, the “ability to discern changes in written material” is an unrelated “accounting aptitude” (page 27). One could have excellent aptitude(s) for playing music, but still struggle to read music notation since that is a separate and unrelated skill.

Supermusicology gives Hume’s account of the problems with traditional notation. These are largely the same issues identified by the Music Notation Project (see our Intro), although he does not emphasize the inconsistent appearance of intervals in traditional notation. To these issues he adds the difficulty of reading notes with too many ledger lines, a judgment with which I and I assume most supporters of the Music Notation Project would concur. Hume goes on to describe his SuperMusic notation system and how it addresses these issues.

Hume notes that SuperMusic introduces two major modifications to the way music is written: A) a seven-line chromatic staff, and B) “pitch bars” that indicate the octave in which a note is to be played. It also introduces a few “minor” modifications like re-naming the 12 notes of the chromatic scale by the numerals 1-12 (with C being 1). The rest of the elements of traditional notation are retained, including its rhythmic notation system. He notes the value of this consistency, taking the approach of “if it’s not broken, don’t try to fix it.”

The seven lines of SuperMusic’s chromatic staff are spaced a whole step apart with the notes of the chromatic scale falling either on the lines or the spaces between them. The top, bottom, and center lines are bold, with two normal lines falling between each bold line. The top and bottom lines represent C and the middle line F#/Gb.

In his justification for this seven-line staff, Hume makes an interesting point about the difficulty of visualizing more than three staff lines at a time.

“Take a second and try to visualize six parallel lines in your mind’s eye. For most people this is virtually impossible. However, it is only slightly easier to visualize five parallel lines. Oddly, in attempting to do this you may notice that you can handle it if you think of the lines in sections, that is two sets of three lines in the case of a six-line staff, or three and two, in the case of a five-line staff. In fact, almost anyone can visualize three parallel lines, an important point in the development of the new staff.” (page 43)

This seems to provide a general argument for the use of a staff with fewer lines, and preferably three or less. However, Hume uses it as part of his rationale for the SuperMusic staff with its three bold lines, which can then be mentally subdivided into two contiguous three line staves (with the third bold line appearing above them).

Hume describes how the SuperMusic staff is based on the basic 6-line diatonic staff that was used by Jan Sweelinck (1562-1621) and Girolamo Frescobaldi (1583-1643). He has added the seventh line in the interest of the aesthetic symmetry of the three bold lines and to keep any of the twelve basic chromatic notes from falling in the spaces above or below the span of the staff.

What most sets SuperMusic apart from other chromatic-staff based notation systems is its use of “pitch bars.” These are short vertical hash marks that occur before or after each note to indicate the octave in which the note is to be played. They function somewhat like the 8va symbol in traditional notation, raising or lowering a note by one or more octaves:

3 pitch bars before a note means it is played 3 octaves lower
2 pitch bars before a note means it is played 2 octaves lower
1 pitch bar before a note means it is played 1 octave lower

0 pitch bars means it is played in the octave of the current staff*

1 pitch bars after a note means it is played 1 octave higher
2 pitch bars after a note means it is played 2 octaves higher
3 pitch bar after a note means it is played 3 octaves higher

(* presumably as indicated by a register indication at the beginning of the staff.)

This provides a seven octave span covering the pitch range of the piano keyboard on a single seven-line staff.

The use of pitch bars is motivated by Hume’s view that one of the main problems with traditional notation is its use of ledger lines — that it becomes too difficult to tell what pitch a note is when it falls above or below the staff and requires multiple ledger lines. No ledger lines are used in SuperMusic, since pitch bars make them unnecessary. When a melody ascends beyond the top of the staff the notes begin to appear an octave lower with a pitch bar written before each of them to indicate that they are to be played an octave higher.

This brings me to a potential criticism of Hume’s system that is worth mentioning. Hume is critical of traditional notation’s use of 8va and accidental signs, but it would seem that SuperMusic’s pitch bars require the same kind of two-step process in order to determine the pitch of a note. A consistent vertical pitch axis is compromised as notes falling above or below others on the staff may be lower or higher in pitch depending on the presence or absence of pitch bars. The appearance of intervals would also be less consistent. Intervals that extended off the staff would appear just like their inversions until one took into account the notes’ pitch bars. Each interval would have two basic appearances depending on whether they “wrap” around the top or bottom of the staff or not. For instance, a major third and a minor sixth would each have two visual configurations that would be indistinguishable except for their pitch bars.

Hume is right to raise the difficulty of identifying notes that require many ledger lines. This is a problem with traditional notation that deserves to be addressed. However, it seems that one could solve it by making a visual distinction between ledger lines. For instance, one could make ledger lines wider or narrower to indicate which ones represented lines that fall between staves, and which represented lines that would be part of an additional staff should one be drawn above (or below) the current staff.

Another potential point of criticism worth briefly mentioning is whether SuperMusic’s seven line staff is actually superior to a similar staff with five or six lines. Hume does consider a five or six line staff but concludes that seven lines are preferable, although it seems that this remains debatable.

With regard to the Music Notation Project’s desirable criteria for alternative music notation systems, SuperMusic does not meet either the eighth or fifteenth criteria.

Of course, most any notation system will involve tradeoffs in its design that reflect the goals and priorities of its designer. Hume has put a lot of effort into studying the history and disadvantages of traditional notation and designing SuperMusic to address them. This comes through in his thorough presentation of SuperMusic and his reasoning behind it. Supermusicology does well to raise the issue of the difficulty of reading notes that require many ledger lines and offers some helpful insights into the business of attempting to improve upon traditional music notation. While there may be differences in the way notation designers address the disadvantages of traditional music notation, it is encouraging to see books like Supermusicology and the growing consensus on the significance of these disadvantages and the confidence that they can be addressed by a better approach.

– Supermusicology is available from Lulu.com

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