Evaluative Research on Alternative Music Notations

The existence of so many different alternative music notation systems raises the question of evaluative research that would help to clarify which systems are most promising for improving upon traditional music notation. The MNMA’s Research Project was a first step in that direction, but more substantial and extensive research would be needed to reach anything like significant, definitive results.

Fortunately, the advances in software for alternative music notations now make it much more feasible to conduct more substantial and extensive evaluations of a wide range of notation systems. We would like to see such research take place, given enough interest to successfully carry it out. If you would be interested in developing, assisting, or participating in such research, please contact us.

There may be other parties that are better equipped to conduct this kind of evaluative research. For example, Richard Parncutt is a professor of systematic musicology at the University of Graz in Austria, a former MNMA member, and an alternative music notation designer. He teaches and researches in musicology and the psychology of music, and has proposed the following research project titled “Psychological Testing of Alternative Music Notations.” It is one of several potential projects for graduate students to undertake as part of the Research Colloquium in Systematic Musicology.

The following text has been excerpted from Richard Parncutt’s list of potential research projects.

Psychological Testing of Alternative Music Notations

Conventional music notation, in which the tones of a diatonic scale correspond to the lines and spaces of a musical staff, may not be ideally suited for music in which every pitch in the chromatic scale occurs regularly, i.e. for the Western music of the past few centuries. The main problems are that conventional notation represents 12 pitches per octave by means of 7 vertical positions plus sharps and flats, and that it represents the same pitch class quite differently in different octave registers.

In response to these problems, countless alternative notations have been developed and proposed in recent centuries. Read (1987) wrote a book about them, and the Music Notation Modernization Association attempted to evaluate many of them systematically. One reason why none of these alternative notations has caught on is presumably that it takes a lot of time and effort to learn a new notation system. Not only professional musicians, but also musicologists (including music psychologists and music theorists) invest enormous amounts of time learning to read conventional music notation. Understandably, they don’t want to have to start again from scratch. So they tend to avoid the problem of conventional notation’s shortcomings and the evaluation of alternatives by regarding the problem either as irrelevant (“conventional notation obviously cannot be improved”) or impossible to solve (“it is clearly impossible to decide among the many possible alternatives”).

But perhaps the real reason is that it is not worth learning an alternative notation unless a very large library of musical scores in that notation exists, so that one can always find the score of a specific piece. Whatever the reason, the problem has achieved a kind of taboo status. Experience with other academic taboos (think for example of the role of sexuality in music analysis) suggests that this taboo will one day be broken.

In recent years, the question of alternative notations has again become interesting – for a quite different reason. Modern computing technology makes it possible to automatically transcribe printed music in conventional western notation into other systems. This means that it is finally worth investing the time and effort into learning an alternative system.

In Parncutt (1999)[1], I presented an experiment to compare different alternative music notations. The experiment has never actually been done. The idea is to break conventional music notation down into separate components and test each of these components by comparision to other possibilities. I now have access to a tailor-made computer program based on Finale that converts Finale data files into alternative notations. In collaboration with the author of the program, this could be used both to prepare the experimental stimuli and, independently of the empirical project, to transcribe music into alternative notations.

[1] Parncutt, R. (1999 b). Systematic evaluation of the psychological effectiveness of non-conventional notations and keyboard tablatures. In Zannos, I. (Ed.), Music and signs (pp. 146-174). Bratislava, Slovakia: ASCO Art & Science.