How I’d Redesign Piano Sheet Music
Alex Couch
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Additional notes on piano tabulature (aka, the author’s reply to all the chatter)

I’m excited and humbled by how much attention my new piano notation method has gotten (the original post is below). It’s especially encouraging to hear from folks who’ve dealt with similar challenges with sheet music (and prefer this method). And while the response hasn’t been entirely positive, I’ve learned a lot from your feedback.

I’m planning to release a second version to address some of the shortcomings. Thanks to all those who’ve participated in the discussion! In the meantime, I’ll reply to your collective responses by addressing common themes (and reiterating some points from the original post):

The title was misleading. And I apologize for that. I mentioned in my post that I was not trying to replace traditional sheet music, but the title alluded to “redesigning sheet music.” Call it click-bait, but frankly I didn’t expect this to get this much traction, so it was simply named in the same style as an earlier post I wrote about redesigning TV remotes.

A more apt title would have compared this concept to guitar tabulature, basically, “Guitar tabs for the piano.” Guitar tabs are popular and prevalent among beginner and intermediate guitar players, but are not a replacement for traditional sheet music. I think it’s an apt analogy.

Advanced and expert musicians are not the target audience. I repeat: if you already know how to sight-read traditional sheet music, this notation is not for you. A huge portion of the negative feedback has come from current musicians, which makes sense — these are folks who’ve been successful with the existing system. That’s their mindset, so they may not recall what it’s like to be a beginner.

However, I feel like some of these comments border on elitism and exclusivism, stating that everyone should put in the (substantial) time needed to learn “the proper way,” and that a player needs to understand music theory in order to “really learn” and “really play.” I’m not trying to replace the way “a composer writes a symphony” (someone actually said that… give me a break!). I’m trying to invite more people to the piano, to lower the barrier for those that want to play a pop song or two without the supposedly-requisite music theory that underlies it. Again I’ll point to guitar tabulature here — that hasn’t replaced sheet music, but is a wonderful boon to most guitar players out there.

Children aren’t even necessarily the audience. I’d be happy if children learned using this system, but that was never my goal. Some have noted the challenges that a child might face in transitioning from my notation to classical sheet music (for advanced pieces), which has merit. But that presumes (as does the whole Western notation system) that these students will all go on to play advanced pieces. I disagree with that.

I hope to widen the interest in piano to include more casual players. Given that, my target audience was, I thought, adults who were Ok with being intermediates forever, playing simply for enjoyment. If that can work with young students, too, then that’s a bonus. To me, 1 piano prodigy + 2 kids who can play Coldplay songs is better than 1 piano prodigy + 2 kids who dropped out of piano class because it’s too much work.

There are precedents to this style of notation. Games like Guitar Hero, Dance Dance Revolution (DDR), Rock Band and Rocksmith, plus apps and videos like Synthesia. And I may have just re-built Klavarskribo (albiet with some different design decisions). But I’m trying to create something that’s portable, printable, writeable, simple, and accessible without special hardware and software needs.

The C note and the black line. Some are calling for the black lines (currently to the right of the shaded C notes) to be put on the left side of the C notes. I agree that this would more neatly define the octave, but the lines are all black keys, and there’s no black key between the B and C keys. It’s helpful to hear that this is confusing, though; I’ll see what I can do to mitigate that in the next version.

Timing and rhythm is imprecise. As was mentioned, this is an area where my notation “falls short” of the precision and clarity in traditional sheet music. That’s partially intentional, to make it more learnable and less complex. But I’m working on a few ideas to better clarify how long a note is.

In the meantime, I’ll again (… again) point to guitar tabulature: it’s a widely adopted notation system that’s arguably even less precise (for rhythm) than my piano tabs. But it works. Here are some guitar tabs for Jimi Hendrix’s Purple Haze and Little Wing. Both have rhythmic intricacies, but the notation simply approximates those. It’s enough for the player to look at, play, and recognize the sounds from a song they know. If the player needs extra reference, they can turn on the original album track and follow along with the sheet music. This works really well for guitar tabs, so I reject the notion that piano notation must include precise note lengths.

Songs with wide octave spreads would be hard to read. Agreed. I’m sticking to the assumption that most contemporary songs don’t have wide octave spreads, but I’m working on a way to assist the player when a song does have a challenging spread.

Printed out, this could take up a lot of paper. There are ways to mitigate this (stacked verses and choruses when they repeat, for example), but the overall point is a good one — I’m going for printability, but this is very space-inefficient when compared to traditional music. It’s a prickly problem, and I’d love to hear any suggestions, but I’ll do what I can to compress and optimize space in the next version.

The foot pedal illustration could be improved. There was mixed feedback here, but I think there is a way to improve on how to show when the sustain pedal is held down. Again, I’m working on it.

Next steps, apps, code, scalability. I didn’t have specific next steps in mind, at the outset, but some have expressed interest in getting more pieces transcribed this way (namely through coding). That’s great! If you’d like to contribute somehow, please reach out to me at couch [dot] ux [at] gmail [dot] com. I’m focused on improving the design for now, but it would be excellent to have a way to get more songs notated like this eventually.

Again, thanks to all who’ve joined in the discussion. Looking forward to seeing where this goes.

— Alex

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