Although rhythm notation has not received as much attention as pitch
notation, there are a number of complexities and inconsistencies in
tradtional rhythm notation that present opportunities for
improvement or alternative approaches.
1. There is a multiplicity of graphical representations for relative
– stems or not
– solid or hollow noteheads
– flags (various numbers)
– beams (various numbers)
– dots (various numbers)
– super/sub-script digits with arcs for tuplets
– a whole set of different symbols for rests (duration of
– same symbol used for whole note rest (4 counts) and entire
measure rest (various durations).
Aside from the sheer multiplicity and inconsistency of graphical
this practice preempts too many graphical distinctives that could be
used for other notational purposes.
For example, some pitch proposals use solid/hollow noteheads to
distinguish whole-tone rows, which then requires an alternative
notation to distinguish whole and half-notes from quarter notes,
2. Rhythms are notated by duration instead of “beat” or
This is a particular problem for notation software, since it makes
note position dependent on cumulative durations,
making it difficult to do editing without global side-effects.
Perhaps as a consequence,
notation software often resorts to a Procrustean “tyranny of
the bar”, making it difficult to edit passages that
don’t begin and end at bar lines.
Musical “sense” and performance, however, is
characterized by regular patters of beats (stress) similar to the
“poetic feet” patterns of stress in spoken poetry.
Moreover, music students routinely learn “counting”
pattern, such as 1 & 2 & 3 & 4 &, , and often amend
their scores to include this essential information.
3. Notation of syncopation
In syncopated music, when notes are sustained across a beat, there
is a convention of tying notes across the bar and even the half-bar.
This results in inconsistent notation for the same duration,
e.g. a quarter-note vs. two tied eighth-notes,
but it is perhaps a nod to the idea that “beat” takes
precedence over duration.
4. Encoding of up-beats or “soft” feet is
In traditional notation, it is customary in to have notational rhythm
units start on a beat. So, for example, a dotted eighth note may be
beamed to a subsequent sixteenth note, or a half-note may be followed
by a quarter-note in the same measure, Often, in “compound meter”
especially, the sustained note is perceived as the “end”
of phrase or motif, and the following unstressed note is perceived as
a “pick-up” to the next phrase or motif, not as an extension
of the previous one. But the visual connection between the two, via a
beam or inclusion in the same measure, obscures the break. This problem
is exacerbated by the practice of breaking lines only at bars. This can
result in the beginning notes of one phrase being “orphaned”
at end of a line ending one phrase, separated from the bulk of the phrase
on the next line or even next page.
5. Music is “poetry”, but it is traditionally printed as
This observation actually encompasses “form” as well as
Music is traditionally printed in a way that minimizes the number of
pages at the expense of formal clarity or even page-turniing
convenience. Furthermore, typically printed lines break only at bar
lines, even though, as noted previously, musical phrases often end
mid-bar. This carries over into conventions for repeats and
alternative endings, requiring duplication of
“beginnings” of initial passages after the
“end” of final passages to notate a
“repeat”, or repeat of “ends” of common
material at the beginning of each alternative ending.
These practices are analogous to printing poetry as prose, newspaper
style, vs. printing in “lines and stanzas” to expose the
formal structure of the piece.