“Hummingbird,” A New Form of Music Notation That’s Easier to Learn and Faster to Read

If you learned to play a musical instrument as a kid, you likely remember your first encounter with traditional music notation. You remember being baffled by the symbols denoting quarter notes, eighth notes, sixteenth notes. Or the difficulty of reading notes located above or below the staff. The Western system of music notation goes back hundreds of years, and it has been befuddling students for generations. Enter Blake West, a piano teacher from Austin, Texas, who enlisted his old friend Mike Sall, a data visualization wiz, to create a more intuitive form of music notation. They dubbed it “Hummingbird,” and between the two videos on this page and this complete reference guide, you’ll get a quick feel for the concepts underlying this new way of reading music. On the Hummingbird website, you can also find 26 songs — everything ranging from Bach’s “Ode to Joy” to Ozzy Osbourne’s “Crazy Train” — rewritten in a format that budding music students will love.

via Kottke

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  1. Votre says . . . | April 16, 2013 / 4:29 am

    I can see two problems however:

    1. It needs to be printed fairly large in order for older musicians, and those with eye problems, to read it easily.

    2. It would be difficult to legibly write Hummingbird notation by hand. And especially challenging to write it quickly when you’re racing to get an idea down on paper.

  2. marianne vigeland says . . . | April 16, 2013 / 6:18 am

    I wonder how a player would read fully harmonized piano music for both hands.

    I applaud your effort, a grand help for single line notation.

    Do you have tutorials for hand- writing hummingbird? You probably know, hand written musical notation uses an angular line to represent most notes- circles are difficult and slow. Perhaps you could design a special pen.

  3. Ivan the Terrible says . . . | April 16, 2013 / 6:22 am

    Traditional notation isn’t that hard – my seven-year-old son can read treble and bass clefs.

    He also knows who wrote “Ode to Joy”…

  4. Blake says . . . | April 16, 2013 / 8:28 am

    To marianne,
    We have many songs available on the site that use 2 hands, chords, etc. Give them a shot!
    We don’t have tutorials for writing by hand, but the symbols are designed so that you could just quickly writ them and the “gist” is still there. As in, just a circle with some part of the top half filled in will let you know it’s “A”. The hand written version doesn’t need to be the exact same as the printed. Same how traditional notation has many flourishes and ornate details when printed that are always left out when hand written.

  5. cc says . . . | April 16, 2013 / 8:38 am

    What happens when the student gets to the “real world” of music notation? They will be totally lost! This is the same with tab only readers. So instead of “hearing is there a tab for that”, are we going to hear “got the bird for that?” I takes forever to teach these people new music! Example: I handed out new music for my jazz band to sightread and the 1st thing out of my guitar players mouth was; “Got tab for that?” (there was real notes on the page)
    i think that music teachers (i am one) could just do a better job teaching music notation. It isn’t a mystery just like any subject, you just have to adapt to the learning style of each student.

  6. gabriel says . . . | April 16, 2013 / 9:18 am

    as an apprentice musician and aspirant music teacher, i’d say that the fundamental effort is to get people playing music. if there’s a way to make it easier to begin and more accessible, all the better. besides, i suppose comparing this system to tabs seems to be inaccurate, for tabs don’t show duration of the notes among many other subtleties. And even then, this seems to me as a great method to start from and later get into more traditional forms of sheet music. We don’t need to exclude the one to grasp the other, but i find that it is just natural that written and spoken language (be it for talking, playing music, programming etc) evolve and change and become simpler so as to be more accessible. I meet many older musicians who play the hell out of their instruments but can only scratch their heads when looking at sheet music. I don’t usually see anyone teaching 1-year-olds to write the first word they say, but rather have them talking a little and having them visually used to letters as they go.

  7. Michael says . . . | April 16, 2013 / 11:07 am

    I like it for beginners. I see a possible source of confusion when composing: e.g. when you are using it you draw the symbol for A but you misplace it on the clef. (But if you just use software to compose then it would correct you).

    I think the hardest part of reading music clef notation is chords — a hideous clump of notes to anyone who hasn’t put in years of sight-reading. Hummingbird might help here but it will still be an eye-sore. Reading letter notation (e.g.”Em7/D” ) is much easier (but using letters for chords doesn’t handle more subtle chord variations).

  8. Alan says . . . | April 16, 2013 / 1:20 pm

    All these “new” notation are geared toward simple popular melody that people already know by ear, i.e. people learning songs by ear then presented with visual clue, of course they can read it.
    You are using the staff, which already can represent both pitch and position, and split that into note head for pitch then staff for position. This will greatly slow down score reading.
    Also the “traditional” notation already has the relative spacing of rhythm. We don’t need extra lines to tell us how long we should hold the note for. And of course, the smallest division is 8th notes, i.e. trickled down musical notation.
    The golden thing about “traditional” notation is that pitch/position/rhythm is condensed on the note itself. You read one note, you know all 3 pieces of information. And you don’t have to rely on spacing for rhythm, thus allowing us “re-layout/re-space” music.
    Nice try though. But I don’t think one man can improve music notation that’s been developed by countless of real musicians within the last few thousands of years.

  9. Matt says . . . | April 16, 2013 / 4:44 pm

    I think it’s great for young kids to be encouraged to devise their own forms of notation at an early age, and I’m sure I’m not the only person who has their own shorthand for writing down ideas when they have no manuscript paper handy.

    But this system seems just as arbitrary as standard notation, only a lot fussier and harder to read. In my opinion it’s easier to see a great big sharp or flat than the little tails on hummingbird. Also, with traditional notation, beaming gives a sense of the flow of the line – the example on the website turns Fur Elise from something you can clearly see is smooth and joined-together into a page of unrelated dots.

    You might as well just use mnemonics to learn standard notation…

  10. Randy says . . . | April 16, 2013 / 6:12 pm

    Hummingbird seems terribly English-centric and too busy with extra symbols and lines.

    Someone whose first language is German or Spanish, for example, is not going to benefit as much from these symbols, and may feel subtly distanced from the notation.

    There’s no good reason to represent pitch by height AND by symbol. You really do need to pick just one. (This is a flaw in the original system, made worse by this one)

    There’s no good reason to represent duration by line length AND by cross-lines. You really do need to pick just one.

    In a lot of music, where more is happening, communication efficiency is important. I looked at five of the examples, and NONE looked like anything I remember playing on piano. I no longer play, but I recall that I would be playing up to 5 notes at a time, some on each hand. These examples show at most 2 notes, on different hands.

  11. Nate says . . . | April 16, 2013 / 7:24 pm

    Ah yes, that old Bach standard “Ode to Joy”

  12. mariaaaa says . . . | April 17, 2013 / 12:59 pm

    It doesn’t look any simpler to me…

  13. Tamara says . . . | April 17, 2013 / 7:25 pm

    Our great grandparents were on to this idea when they used “shape notes” to teach non-musicians to sight read when singing hymns.

    I, too, think it is intriguing to rethink what we are used to and have folks re-engineer traditional notation systems. For one thing, it helps them understand the power (and point) of what we have as well as which parts are functional but arbitrary.

  14. Earl says . . . | April 19, 2013 / 1:39 pm

    I think people here should learn the new system, try out some sight-reading, then give an educated opinion on whether it’s easier to sight-read or not. Likewise, hand-writing. Just dismissing it because it looks different than what you’re used to is neither a fair nor useful criticism.

  15. alan le says . . . | June 28, 2013 / 9:03 pm

    Have also another form of birds notation that you can add or introduce…. base on tonality… with my new invention
    Web: musicliteracysolutions.com

    Hope you find can correlate with your exciting reserch..

    regards, alan
    0435 602911

  16. John Conolley says . . . | April 28, 2014 / 7:32 pm

    As a guitar player, I can see one good thing about it: reading the bass clef. Drives me nuts, on the rare occasions I have to do it.

  17. Jordan says . . . | May 19, 2014 / 5:40 pm

    “Bach’s ‘Ode to Joy’”? Really?

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