Noteheads and Pitch

Some alternative music notations use white or black (i.e. hollow and solid) noteheads to help indicate a note’s pitch, instead of its duration as in traditional notation. (See Music Notation Systems: Gallery sorted by 7-5 or 6-6 patterns for examples.) This may seem like an odd and unnecessary departure from traditional notation, but there is a good rationale behind it.

Arguably the most striking feature of any given note is whether it is black or white. Glancing quickly at a piece of traditional sheet music, or holding it at a distance, it is easier to notice whether a notehead is black or white than to discern which staff line or space it occupies. However, traditional notation uses this property merely to distinguish between half notes and quarter notes (minims and crotchets):

Duration symbols in traditional music notation

The traditional rhythmic symbols like stems and flags make it possible to tell a note’s duration without needing to refer to the notehead, except for half notes and quarter notes:

Diagram of how duration is mostly not indicated with note heads

Some notation designers argue that traditional notation makes poor use of the distinction between white and black notes, and that it would be better employed to help indicate a note’s pitch — since it is the feature that most clearly distinguishes one note from another. These designers typically use black and white noteheads to represent or accentuate either a 6-6 or 7-5 pitch pattern. But if they also want to retain the other basic features of traditional rhythmic notation, they must devise a new way to distinguish half notes from quarter notes.

Some approaches include:

  • Using different notehead shapes (Busoni’s Organic Notation used rectangles for whole and half notes)
  • Using double stems to indicate half notes (Rich Reed’s DA Notation, John Keller’s Express Stave, Paul Morris’ TwinNote, Joe Austin’s ChromaTonnetz)
  • Using stems with new kinds of flags (Lindgren’s Nydana Notation, Thomas Reed’s Twinline)
  • Breaking more fully with traditional notation by using a proportional rhythmic notation (Jean de Buur’s Mirck Version of Klavar; Johannes Beyreuther’s Chromatic 6-6 Notation)
  • Or other more complex rhythmic schemes (Skapski’s Panot).

A potential drawback to using black and white noteheads for pitch is that it might make it somewhat more difficult to transition from traditional notation (or to switch back and forth “bilingually”), at least when compared to alternative notation systems that maintain full consistency with traditional rhythmic notation.

One way to address this would be to have two versions of a given alternative system, one that retains traditional rhythmic notation and another that goes further and introduces its own alternative rhythmic notation. While this would not work in every case, it could provide an easier and lower-risk way for those trained in traditional notation to try out at least some of the alternative notation systems that use black and white noteheads for pitch.