“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

Relat­ed Con­tent:

How a Bach Canon Works. Bril­liant.

85,000 Clas­si­cal Music Scores on the Web

Bob­by McFer­rin Shows the Pow­er of the Pen­ta­ton­ic Scale

Lis­ten­ing to Music (Yale) in Our Col­lec­tion 700 Free Online Cours­es

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Comments (18)
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  • Votre says:

    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.

  • marianne vigeland says:

    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.

  • Ivan the Terrible says:

    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”…

  • Blake says:

    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.

  • cc says:

    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.

  • gabriel says:

    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.

  • Michael says:

    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).

  • Alan says:

    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.

  • Matt says:

    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…

  • Randy says:

    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.

  • Nate says:

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

  • mariaaaa says:

    It does­n’t look any sim­pler to me…

  • Tamara says:

    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.

  • Earl says:

    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.

  • alan le says:

    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

  • John Conolley says:

    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.

  • Jordan says:

    “Bach’s ‘Ode to Joy’ ”? Real­ly?

  • L nichols says:

    I inher­it­ed my grandmother’s piano. She played beau­ti­ful­ly but I did not get her tal­ent. I love the sim­plic­i­ty of your method! I can now play sim­ple songs and hope to keep improv­ing. It allows the casu­al play­er (like me)a chance to enjoy play­ing the piano. I would like to see more songs using the hum­ming­bird method and would even lbe will­ing to pur­chase them. Are more pieces avail­able? (Oth­er than the 26 you offer free)

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