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Piano Music Notation

This idea for a simplified piano music notation occurred to me over 30 years ago (writing in Apr 2007). It seems pretty obvious to me, but a bit of searching didn't turn up anyone else proposing the same thing. Feel free to skip the discussion, and scroll down to see a couple of piano music samples presented in the old and new style.

The idea is simply to use the same clef for both treble and bass staffs. As it is now, the staffs are in two different "languages" - a completely unnecessary complication.

The proposed clef for both staffs is the G clef, which, of course, is already in use for the treble staff. The bass staff, then, will have a G clef exactly two octaves below the treble staff.

If the choice of the G clef needs any further defense, it's safe to say that it's familiar to almost all musicians; it's the one almost all students learn to read first, whether on piano, recorder, guitar, or vocal music, etc.

Think of how much less brain power it would take to read piano music notated using two G clefs. Surely almost everyone exposed to the F clef for the first time, and likely for a long time thereafter, does a "conversion" from the G clef: "Ok, that note would be a D if this were the treble clef, but it's the bass, and everything is off by a line, so it must really be an F#." If both clefs were the same, the brain would never be cluttered with thoughts like that. A D is a D. Period.

Using the same clef for treble and bass finally brings piano music notation into glorious harmony with the repeating pattern of the black and white keys of the keyboard; a stack of noteheads on the bass clef indicates the same chord formation as an identical stack on the treble clef, just played farther down.

Yes, I know that there are many people with so much natural musical talent that reading two different clefs at the same time presents no stumbling block whatsoever. One of my music professors at college (I took a couple of introductory courses, for fun) told us how, in his musical training, he was required to read a given staff of music instantly and fluently, with the clef covered up and his teacher randomly setting any line or space to any given note. I'm impressed and jealous! But people with that degree of talent represent a small fraction of the population. And those people certainly wouldn't be inconvenienced by music not written in different clefs! They do quite well when piano music notated in the old style shifts up into two treble clefs for a high passage. And they do quite well on the top part of four-hand pieces.

Getting back to the masses, though, a piano teacher once told me that students always try to get the top part of four-hand pieces. What does that tell us about the user-friendliness of the F clef? Replacing it with another G clef would surely remove the biggest stumbling block to the piano player with normal, human-sized talents. This would open up the piano to anyone who has any interest. I'm guessing that the typical person who can achieve even modest typing abilities would be zipping through "intermediate" piano music in about a year; that someone without any formal piano training, only basic music reading skills, might work up a favorite piece from sheet music with no great effort.

When this idea came up among friends, I often got barked at: "You want them to republish all of the piano music that's ever been written???" No. That is not the point, nor does it even follow from the proposal. Without changing everything that's already been done, publishers could start putting out beginner piano pieces and studies in the new style. After that, Adam Smith's "invisible hand" would keep this new generation of pianists, and converts from the old style, supplied with music. Actually, I'm guessing Adam's invisible - but powerful - hand would wipe out the old F clef in an upbeat.

I don't know if music publishers still crank out piano/vocal sheet music for current pop hits. (Does current pop music lend itself to that? Do people fool with pop songs on paper anymore, or just sing to karaoke tracks?) But if publishers do, I'm willing to bet consumers of pop-related genres would take to the new style almost instantly, having no snobbish or sentimental attachment to what was "good enough for Beethoven..."

Here are two extracts from the piano part of the "Ouverture de Lodoiska de Kreutzer" arranged for guitar and piano by Antoine Meissonier. That was what was at hand one day many years ago when I decided to demonstrate the new style notation.

The first extract has single notes in the bass part:

Old style:

Piano notation - old style.

New style:

Piano notation - new style.


Now I could have a go at that, even though my piano playing experience is limited to some piano lessons when I was a kid, and a semester of beginning piano at college for fun. But knowing the G clef from playing guitar, and remembering where C is on the keyboard (not too hard!), I could work my way through the sample in the new style without too much effort. Admittedly, it would be slowly and with no spirit. But forcing myself through the exercise in the old style would be an exercise - in pain and frustration.

The second extract has a chordal bass part:

Old style:

Piano notation - old way.

New style:

Piano notation - new way.


Isn't that great? - D and A chords in the bass part looking just like D and A chords!

You might be wondering what happened to all those G clefs I was raving about. Actually, I propose switching to the C clef symbol, which is movable, anyhow, and placing it where the C is found on a G clef staff. So it yields the same thing as the G clef, but makes a bit more sense since this is our most common staff and C is our most "basic" note. (Don't ask me why A isn't.) The pair of C clefs also serves notice that this piano music is in the NEW style - don't you even think about that old F clef!

I also propose being rigorous about notating exactly which octave of C the staff is pegged to. Here's a refresher on the pitch names:

    Written:       C,         C        c           c'            c''      etc.
    Called:    Contra C   Great C   Small C   One-lined C   Two-lined C   
                                              (Middle C)

(Numerical superscripts and subscripts are also used instead of the upper and lower ticks.)

Note that Middle C, as strange as it seems, is not the unadorned c, but gets an upper tick (c') and is called One-lined C. On our new treble clef, the clef symbol is positioned on the next higher C, written c'' and called Two-lined C (see?), and this is confirmed by the two ticks shown above the C clef symbol.

The clef symbol on the bass staff is placed on the C below middle C. That lower C is called Great C. It has neither superscript nor subscript, so the clef symbol is written without ticks. And no doubt you're seeing something that only occurred to me at this point while putting this page together - since neither Small C nor Great C have any ticks, a C clef symbol without ticks would be ambiguous. The first solution that occurs to me is to use an obviously larger or bolder C clef symbol for Great C and below.

When the piano music goes uncomfortably high or low for the staff it's written on, the option now exists for simply bringing the music back onto the staff and adjusting the ticks on the C clef symbol. Whether or not "gear shifts" of a single octave are a good idea, I don't know. Perhaps it is only wise to shift the staffs in two octave increments. This would be very similar to the bass clef switching over to the treble clef for high passages in our old style notation. It would allow the pianist to always view the keyboard as being divided into permanent, two-octave blocks, each having its own staff. Even with the flexibility of the shiftable C clef, maybe 8va indications will remain in use much as before.

Note that in this new style of notation, there are two leger lines separating the treble and bass clefs. I view this as an improvement. It lets the staffs "breath" a little more than with the old style, single leger line. Everybody learns to handle at least a couple of leger lines above and below a staff, so why have the bass and treble clefs mashed almost against each other? (I was told once, but have never actually found authoritative confirmation, that the current set-up came about from one, huge, 11-line "grand" staff for keyboards that had the middle line removed for the sake of readability.)

If applied to guitar music, the C clef would show only one tick since the guitar sounds an octave lower than written. That is, the sounding pitch of the note that is written on the 3rd space of the treble clef is really Middle C. Of course, after properly notating the C clef with one tick, we would no longer say the guitar sounds an octave lower than written.

Although I think it's a shame that music for all instruments isn't written on G clefs, I am not proposing that here. It would be nice to be able to look at music written for any instrument and sit down and play it as if it were written for yours, but that advantage wouldn't begin to justify the imposition placed on musicians such as cellists and violists who are perfectly settled in with their respective clefs. But don't let me dissuade any visionary with a plan for a painless transition to G clefs for all instruments.

On the other hand, if piano music started appearing tomorrow in the new style, pianists would be playing it at once with no relearning curve.

And anybody who knows the good, old G clef could have a go, too.

Any objections to this proposal? Or any selling points I missed? Let me know, and I'd be happy to register them here.

Thanks for listening.


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