There are countless ways to notate music, but modern staff notation appears to be very successful. What can we learn about music notation that might be relevant to the study of juggling notation?


Music notation can have different purposes. Sarah Feldman introduces 3 of such in her overview video “Music Notation Is More Complicated Than You Think”. They are:

  • Prescriptive, giving instructions to a music performer.
  • Descriptive, like a notated record of a music performance.
  • Mnemonic, serving only to jog the memory of a performer, not containing all the information needed to perform the piece.

I would like to divide prescriptive into two categories: Prescribing how the music should sound, for example by prescribing pitch, or prescribing how an instrument should be played, for example by prescribing fingering. I will call these categories respectively “music based” and “instrument based”.

One notation system could perform more than one function, but there are definitely systems that are more suitable for one or the other. In my music practice I have personally used different notations for all these 4 functions.

Here follows some examples of systems suited to each function, together with a brief description of how I have used these in the past.

Prescriptive, music based


An ideal prescriptive notation system gives a musician all the information to play a piece of music correctly without having heard it before. The most typical example of such a system is modern staff notation. Many musicians are trained to read staff notation from on a young age, myself included. Staff notation prescribes the pitch and rhythm of musical notes, adds a lot of information about the piece such as the key, tempo and time signature, and optionally it can add directions and articulations for notes or sections.

Because it describes pitches and rhythms staff notation can be applied to any instrument that can produce multiple frequencies, and some parts of it can be applied to rhythm based instruments (such as many percussion instruments) too.

Prescriptive, instrument based


Possibly the most common example for a prescriptive instrument based notation system is tablature for fretted stringed instruments. Each line on the score represents a string, and a number on the string indicates which fret is to be pressed. In my experience reading and playing from tablature (on the ukulele) it is harder to predict what the music will sound like than with staff notation, but tablature scores are much easier to play on a fretted instrument. There are also systems that denote the fingering for flutes or ocarinas, and klavarskribo is a notation of piano instructions.

Instrument based instructions can also be added to staff notation, such as fingering marks above notes in a piano score.



Just as a textual description of a music piece might not contain all the information needed to reproduce that piece, a notation might not do that either. Notating music descriptively can be great for summarizing music, for example a musical phrase that leads upwards could be represented with a single upwards line. It can also be suitable for describing sound textures, something which is difficult to do with staff notation.

A famous example is Rainer Wehinger graphical description of Gyorgy Ligeti’s Artikulation.

I have used an ad hoc notation system in the past to summarize musical pieces in order to help me understand their structure in order to be able to build a matching juggling act. I was using lines and dashes to represent each bar of the song, and could see the different qualities and repetitions of the whole piece at once from the description. I remember using similar notation in music classes when I was a young child, before I learnt to read staff notation.

Any prescriptive notation is also descriptive to some extent, but it can normally not summarize multiple components into one statement.



When I play ukulele, I usually have sheets that only show the lyrics and the chords. Not the melody or the rhythm or even the intended inversion of the chords. Someone who has never heard the song before could not reproduce it from only this information, but for me it is a lot simpler to remember the melody and rhythm than to read or write them. The chords alone serve as enough reminder of the structure of the rest of the song.

And of course chords themselves are a notation system, I have learnt that D7 actually means D, F#, A, C (although I rather relate it to a certain grip on my instrument), which is itself a notation for absolute pitches.

Sometimes these chords are extended with little diagrams on how to play the chords, which is then an instrument based prescriptive note.

Staff notation

Modern staff notation is very widespread, and it is what most people think off when we talk about “music notation”. It is probably the most successful notation system for performance, and is used much more than for example dance notation.

It is suitable for many different instruments and genres.

Based on my experience reading music I think the reading of vertical placement of the staff is successful because it allows you to read intervals easily. You have to work out one absolute position, and then from there on you can read intervals instead of absolute positions most of the time. Because intervals are not as obvious in juggling as they are in music, and because juggling tricks are short sequences I think that music notation style juggling graphics are harder to read and use.

Short description

Modern staff notation consists of 5 parallel horizontal lines with oval ‘notes’ placed on them. The vertical position of the notes relative to the staff denotes the pitch, their shading or note-stem denotes the length of a note and the horizontal order of the notes describes the order in which the notes are played, from left to right. When no note is played this is marked with a rest symbol.

The staff is diatonic, some steps on the staff indicate a half tone difference, others a whole tone difference. To write notes that are in between two whole tones one can use flats and sharps to raise or lower the pitch.

There is a lot of extra information in modern staff notation, such as the time signature, the key, the bars lines. Also there is optional information which can be added to notes or sections to give extra performance directions, such as for dynamics, articulations, ornaments or note relationships.

Short history

Unlike most dance or juggling notation systems, modern staff notation does not have a single originator. Instead it has transformed into what we have now through over 1000 years of development.1 Over this time it has had different functions and characteristics.

This started out with neumes, symbols placed over lyrics which described if a note went up or down, but not by how much. From there evolved a system with the staff lines which allowed for pitch to be denoted, and in the 12th century a first standard form of rhythmic notation occurred.1


‘Music is “poetry”, but it is traditionally printed as “prose.”’ - author unknown2

Luckily not all music is printed just to cram as much information on a page, just like not all books are designed to hold as many letters on a page as possible.

A quality I really appreciate in music notation is that it can be written expressively. Good writing style can make all the differences in a music piece. There have been detailed style guides,3 and even papers dedicated to the amount of space in music notation.4 There are also “unwritten” rules in staff notation. One could do away with the time signature and bar lines and a simple computer system would read the notation exactly the same as with it.5 But musicians might place their emphases differently if you were to shift a score by a quarter note. The same pitches could be written in any key thanks to enharmonic equivalence, but some performers would perhaps interpret them slightly differently.6 The way we read music is also influenced by things such as note grouping.7 And what does the scale of the rhythm say, is there a defined difference between a 2/2 and 4/4 measure?

All these factors allow the notator to make choices, even after the contents have already been decided. And those choices can indirectly influence the performance.


Staff notation can be expanded for specific purposes or instruments.

Common examples are breath marks for wind instruments, pedal marks for pianos or vibraphones, or fingering marks for various instruments.

Also there are systems to notate microtonal music, with added symbols such as for demiflat and demisharp.


Modern staff notation is sometimes being criticized8 for being hard to read and learn. I have experience with this myself, I much dislike the way how music becomes much less legible with many sharps and flats, especially polyphonic music.

Many suggestions have been made to improve the staff. There are systems with more or fewer lines, systems that use 4 positions per line (above, below, floating between lines or sitting on the line), systems that use other symbols or shapes for half notes, and many many more. Most of these try to solve the problem of sharps and flats, but do not solve for microtonal music.

There is also some critique on rhythm notation within modern staff notation, but it is appears to be much less researched than pitch notation.

One of the hindrances of introducing a new notation system is that there is not a lot of work produced in a new system compared to existing ones. This is however something that software could potentially solve, for example you could load in a score in modern staff notation and convert it to a notation system of choice.9 Despite this, alternative notation systems are not yet common place.

Music Notation Modernization Association

The MNMA was founded in 1985 to address these issues, and has done a great job of reviewing and categorizing alternative notation systems, mostly staff based.

I find their list of desirable criteria particularly interesting. It contains 17 good practices for a music notation system, I have copied here the ones which are most relevant to the Juggling Notation Research:

(My numbering does not match theirs)

  1. The notation is convenient for a human writer (as contrasted with a machine) to express musical ideas. The notation is convenient for a human performer to recreate those musical ideas.
  2. The notation can be written conveniently and quickly with nothing more than a writing tool (such as a pencil) without the absolute necessity of a ruler or other drawing aids or specially prepared paper.
  3. The notation can express music of all reasonable degrees of complexity – not only simple music.
  4. The notation is relatively simple so as to be practical for both children and adults.
  5. The notation is flexible enough so as to be appropriate for the music of the past, present, and foreseeable future, as well as to music of various cultures, and to both solo and ensemble performance.
  6. The notation is writable using only a single color on a contrasting background (for example black on white) without shading or tinting.
  7. No more than five identical, successive, and equidistant staff lines are shown, so that staff lines can be quickly identified without counting lines.
  8. The notation provides for the convenient addition of optional or supplementary kinds of information, which may or may not be necessary or desired in some music
  9. Frequently used symbols must be at least as convenient to write in longhand as are the corresponding symbols of traditional notation.

Notation as an art form

Music notation can be treated as an art form, in a variety that I haven’t seen other notation systems being used. Some artworks use symbols and structures from modern staff notation, some artworks are purely graphical. Some are intended to be playable or to accurately describe music, and some less so.

I highly recommend this Lines thread on experimental music notation resources.

Staff based

Some playable scores with minor transformations:
Works by Baude Cordier, long predating our current modern staff practises. (15th century)
Works by George Crumb, who said “I think music should look the way it sounds”

Some playable scores with major transformations:
The experimental works of Sylvano Bussotti
The staff based scores of of John Cage

A playable score that fits within most rules of modern staff notation: The satirical composition Faerie’s Aeire and Death Waltz by John Stump, you can find a decent performance of it here on YouTube.


There are infinite meaningful ways to interpret music on paper, and I am glad many artists have done so. The example of Ligeti’s Artikulation was already linked above, but now again here in case you missed it.

For those who want to see some, the wikipedia article is not a bad starting point, and if you can get your hands on the book “Notations 21” by Theresa Sauer you’re in for a real treat. Over 300 colored pages filled with bizarre music notations of over 100 composers.

One particular quote that stood out to me came from Brian Eno, who coined the term “ambient” music. He would not write down modern staff notation for his pieces, but would create unique graphic notation systems for his tracks such as on his iconic album “Music for Airports”. He said in an interview:

“… But in fact, quite a lot of what I do has to do with sound texture, and you can’t notate that anyway … That’s because musical notation arose at a time when sound textures were limited. If you said violins and woodwind that defined the sound texture, if I say synthesizer and guitar it means nothing – you’re talking about 28,000 variables.” 10


  1. Strayer, H. R. (2013). From neumes to notes: The evolution of music notation. ↩︎

  2. ↩︎

  3. Gould, E. (2016). Behind bars: the definitive guide to music notation. Faber Music Ltd ↩︎

  4. Sloboda, J. (1981). The uses of space in music notation. Visible Language, 15(1), 86-110. ↩︎

  5. Cogliati, A., & Duan, Z. (2017). A Metric for Music Notation Transcription Accuracy. In ISMIR (pp. 407-413). ↩︎

  6. ↩︎

  7. Sloboda, J. (1978). The psychology of music reading. Psychology of music, 6(2), 3-20. ↩︎

  8. ↩︎

  9. ↩︎

  10. Eno at the edge of rock by Glenn O’Brien (1978), accessed at ↩︎