How I’d redesign piano sheet music

The first measures of the Beatles’ “Let it Be,” in my new notation method

The Challenge

4 measures of “Let it Be” in traditional sheet music. It’s a simple song, but we see some complexity here.
Here are most of the symbols used in traditional sheet music. I count 20+ symbol types

About This Project

This is a personal project where I’m trying to A) solve a problem, B) get a conversation started, and C) have fun thinking about a hobby I love. I’m addressing the casual piano player, one who wants to learn how to play songs well, but doesn’t have the time or attention to learn from traditional sheet music. This target user is probably learning easy, contemporary songs, and already knows what they sound like before they learn them. Maybe they’d even like to sing over the music!

  • Exact visual forms and shapes: I’ve used basic shapes and formats. These are simply mockups intended to demonstrate a concept.
  • An attempt to “replace” traditional sheet music: sheet music has been around for over 500 years (thanks, Wikipedia), and it’s amazing! A professional instrumentalist can sit down in front of any piece of sheet music and play it, even if they’d never heard it before. That notation is flexible, precise, and has stood the test of time. But, as I mentioned, there’s a hefty learning curve. My new notation is for new audiences, not for those already proficient with traditional sheet music.
A whole verse of “Let it Be,” by the Beatles, in my new notation style.

Overall Form

It looks like a keyboard: doesn’t it? Recognizability is critical here, that the student sees a note on the sheet and can associate that with a physical location (a key). The challenge with this approach minimizing the amount of visual noise, so I chose to use thin lines to represent black keys, and the adjacent negative space represent white keys.

Here’s an E major chord, shown on a keyboard, then on my notation.
A chord that demonstrates what a C note looks like over the shaded area (it’s the left-most green note)
Here’s how you count the beats in this notation: top to bottom, with the small spaces being beats, and the large spaces representing whole measures.
  • Uncommon time signatures: This default state is based on 4 beats per measure, i.e., a “4/4” time signature, so it would need to be customized to fit a 3/4, 6/4, 7/4, or any number of less-common time signatures. For most contemporary music, this default 4/4 should be fine, but others will require custom printing. Below I’ve notated the first few measures of Vince Guaraldi’s Linus & Lucy (a.k.a. the “Peanuts” theme song) using a different time signature that has 8 beats per measure:
  • It’s screen- and scroll-friendly. On a tablet or laptop, the top-to-bottom orientation works well with scrolling. If read on a digital device like this, it eliminates the need for page-turning, or pages at all.

Chords and notes

A few chords and notes, as an example. Usually the blue chords would be to the left of the green ones, as those show left and right hands, respectively.
This shows what two adjacent notes look like together (green chord). The circles allow you to distinguish two notes.
My handwritten draft of “You Are the Sunshine of My Life.” Some of the marks are different, but it’s pretty easy to write
The digital notation of this tune. This is technically my own arrangement, as the original uses a different electric piano part.

Other items on the sheet

Chord names: the grey letters on the right side show the name of each chord. It’s unclear how well the intended audience knows chord names, so this is more of an optional item. Those that know chord names can use them. For those still learning chords, this combination could be a great learning tool. I’ve put the “simple” chord names here, instead of specifically noting any inversions or additional nuance.

The pedal arrows, circled in red

Conclusion

So that’s it: my take on what “piano tabulature music” should look like. Where traditional music is read like a second language (and is notably beautiful when “spoken” well), this should read more like an instruction manual: appropriate for beginners and intermediate players trying to play contemporary music. The learning curve is intended to be shallow enough to invite more piano players to learn and play.

Alex Couch's portfolio

I'm a Product Designer in San Francisco. These samples include professional work as well as my personal projects. bit.ly/couch-linkedin

Alex Couch

Written by

Product Designer in San Francisco. Music fan, pizza eater, Medium reader. linkedin.com/in/alexcouch/

Alex Couch's portfolio

I'm a Product Designer in San Francisco. These samples include professional work as well as my personal projects. bit.ly/couch-linkedin