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A New Way to Read Music


[clock] 2-MINUTE READ PUBLISHED: April 17, 2013

Hummingbird

If you keep up on music and technology you may have noticed that bloggers have recently taken to discussing a new music-notation system called Hummingbird, depicted above. I tried to learn it. It borrows its method of displaying rhythm from piano rolls, showing us the amount of time a note should be held, like GarageBand and other music software. What’s more, it points up for sharps and down for flats, which a demanding violin teacher might do with a pencil. Aside from that, it’s deceptively complicated and requires learning different symbols. How much easier it would be for someone who has never learned music, or lacks a teacher, is questionable.

New systems (and apps) are best when they solve problems, but learning to read Western music notation isn’t a problem that requires a solution. It’s not easy. But like learning to read English, it’s eminently doable, and fraught with fewer variables and exceptions. Reading Western notation—and there have of course been many precursors to what we use now, as well as many alternatives, including Braille and an integer-based system—has also proven to be good for your brain, and we don’t need to simplify it. The current sharp and flat note symbols work fine; you just have to remember them.

Hummingbird appears to be a nicely designed dumbing-down, and not an especially noteworthy one in an age of design-fetish and how-to videos. Shortcuts—like guitar tablature—should really be shortcuts. This new system basically just makes reading music different, and it doesn’t seem to allow for new ways to notate sounds that we cannot yet notate. I’m in favor of new music technologies and notation systems, but Hummingbird should first show me why Western music notation is a problem, and why Hummingbird is a necessary alternative. For now, especially given our abundance of online music-education resources, it’s not.

For more information about alternative music notation systems that may solve what some perceive to be standard notation problems, check out The Music Notation Project.

5 Comments

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Maine Geezer's picture
Maine Geezer · 1 year ago
I’m not familiar with Hummingbird, aside from attempting for a few moments to decipher it on the piano. What I miss is the key signature, by which an able musician can immediately see the key in which a piece begins and ends.
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Enrique's picture
Enrique · 1 year ago
»I’m in favor of new music technologies and notation systems, but Hummingbird should first show me why Western music notation is a problem……. I would say the traditional system of music notation and the rest of music theory evolved and was consolidated in a manual era – unfortunately it works only manually – in other words the traditional methods of notating music, generating nomenclature and analyzing harmony work only manually. That is a problem of our beloved traditional system in an era of computers where we should be able to generate a functional score out of a music description file (e.g. MIDI) of any piano performance, accompanied by a faultless description of the succession of harmonies. Unfortunately criticism and most alternatives to the traditional system still only attempt to improve readability issues, while many of them actually worsen it. I agree Hummingbird is not a solution, not even an improvement of readability for me, but I hope you and the rest of the readers may agree a solution (contemporary system) is necessary as an answer to requirements of our times because the traditional system was not intended for it.
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Enrique's picture
Enrique · 1 year ago
We inherited a consolidated system and spent a considerable time learning it but it does not mean there are no problems with it. (1)Being a system intended for a manual use it is an obstacle for using the full possibilities that technology offers today. (2)Being a system shaped-by-and-for professionals has resulted in an obstacle for the masses, in other words it is an obstacle for the massive music education that technology allows today. A feasible alternative to the traditional system has never been as justified as it is today; as a matter of fact the piano roll notation has replaced it on many computer applications and many people are used to it and prefer it as much as possible. Music is for the masses but the traditional notation and system never will be. Is that a problem?
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Enrique's picture
Enrique · 1 year ago
To round up the idea, the problem is not just notation, “traditional notation is not just a mere representation of musical notes, it is the medium on which western music theory hinges”(Koppers 1989) The complexity of the traditional system is not only on the notation methods but also on the correlated methods of controlling music that it imposes; when thinking in terms of natural notes and accidentals we have to theoretically handle about 35 notes per series and name the same interval and chord in so many ways according to harmonic context interpretation. When you are a professional and the only thing you study and do (usually since childhood) is music these are not insurmountable problems, one thing is to know how the notes on a score correlate with some instrument and another is to master the whole music theory related to those scores and sight reading. Mastering the traditional music theory (including notation) is not for the masses, not for the people that are professionals in other areas and have to study sometimes much more than musicians and have a busy career, nevertheless music is still a form of native language for them and the traditional system forces them to be semi or illiterate. People that think that the brain acrobatics or dedication required by the traditional system is good should be punished to control math with the Roman numerals and make all the mathematical operations with them. Am I in the right place with the rant? Anyway, the more I look at Hummingbird the more I love the traditional notation.
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Paul Morris's picture
Adam Baer, I largely agree with your assessment of Hummingbird. I would be interested to hear your thoughts on TwinNote (http://twinnote.org), an alternative notation system that successfully addresses well-defined shortcomings of the traditional system. -Paul Morris
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