In Defense of Key Signatures, Accidentals, Double Sharps and Double Flats

In the February 2009 issue of American Music Teacher (AMT), published by the Music Teachers National Association (MTNA) of which I am a member, there is under “Impromptu” a short informational (infomercial?) entry for “Simplified Music Notation”.  As a teacher of all ages and all levels with a special interest in brain research and Special Education, I am naturally interested in anything that can make a student’s life (or mine) easier, less complicated.  The idea of a “Simplified Music Notation” seemed to fit that bill, so I looked at the website.

I have, in another post on this site, written about the issue of simplification, and the fact that there’s a right way and then there is a wrong way to simplify.  The right way maintains the spirit of the music but makes life easier for the performer – such as redistributing notes between the hands, or leaving out doubled notes in chords that are too large for a small hand.  When simplification is done right, you don’t hear a difference; as a matter of fact, it likely sounds better than the original because the performer is now technically able to play with expression whereas the original would either have been impossible to play or so strained that expression was a lost cause.

As someone who didn’t learn to sight-play until grad school, I had missed out on a lot of literature, growing up, because it was too time-consuming to learn to read the many notes – unless I knew how the piece sounded in which case I easily played by ear, using the score as a last resort to check on notes I wasn’t sure about.  Learning a piece I didn’t know was piece-meal work:  I’d laboriously figure out the notes in one measure, play it a couple of times until I had it memorized, then go on to the next measure, and from there string the measures together.  Amazingly, this worked for Chopin Ballades, Scherzi, Etudes, Schubert Sonatas and the like.   It did, however, not work for Hindemith.  I had somehow managed to never play Hindemith before, so my grad school professor assigned the Second Piano Sonata.  Progress was glacial at best.  Dr. Edwards grew frustrated and finally, suspecting that my reading skills (or, better, lack thereof) were to blame, put an easy Schumann piece (Melody? or something like that from the Album for the Young) in front of me, “Play!!”  It was a disaster.

As someone who suffered the consequences of not learning to sight-play until grad school, I now take great care to teach my students how to read and sight-play.  There is more to sight-playing than knowing your notes: sight-playing requires horizontal thinking and understanding, anticipation, and the development of  a secure knowledge of the keyboard topography – your fingers have to know where the keys are without looking down.   You also have to be able to “think” in different keys, so that there is an immediate knowledge of what to expect from, say, Beethoven’s Bagatelle in G minor – there will be B flats and E flats (from the key signature), and accidental F sharps, etc.  This is a skill I aim to develop in all of my students.

While my approach to teaching how to read works, I am always interested in learning more and perhaps finding a system which works even better.

According to their website,

Simplified Music Notation is a new notation designed to make sight-reading easier. It was originally created for musicians with dyslexia, memory impairments and other disabilities, but has gained interest from a broad range of professional and amateur musicians.

Sharps and flats are given by the shape of the notehead. This eliminates the necessity of relying on the key signature and dispenses with the need for accidentals.

The key signature is still there, along with all the information in the original score, but many of the unnecessary complexities of reading music have been removed.

“Simplified Music Notation”  promises

You no longer have to remember

— the key signature
— accidentals throughout the bar
— cancelling accidentals at the end of the bar
— transposing double flats and sharps

Wow.  What a relief!

Or is it?

Unfortunately, this system is based on a couple of incorrect assumptions.  According to this system, reading difficulties stem from key signatures, accidentals, and double flats and sharps.  (I don’t know what they mean by “transposing double flats and sharps”.)

If that were so, then my attempt at reading that easy Schumann piece should have been a piece of cake:  I distinctly remember that it was in the key of C (key signature: no sharps, no flats); there may have been one lonely F# toward the end of the first line.  If they were to take that piece and transcribe and convert it to Simplified Music Notation, it would not look any different, except for that F# which would alter the shape of the note head instead of having a # in front of it – hardly a simplification.

Next, it has been my experience that the difficulties that dyslexic students have with reading words/sentences, are different from the difficulties of note reading.  I have had dyslexic students who read music with relative ease, and I have had students who had no trouble at all with reading language but couldn’t read music to save their lives.

Then, they claim to eliminate “the necessity of relying on the key signature”.  While it is true that I tell my students that if a note sounds wrong, “check the key signature, then the clef (Right Hand is not always in the treble clef, etc.), then accidentals” – thereby acknowledging that remembering the key signature may take some effort – I also explain to them that the key signature is like their zip code:  it gives you a map, it tells you where to find what, it puts things into perspective, into a relationship.  If you are used to (skilled at) thinking in different keys, then playing a piece in A flat will pose no problems that could be traced to having to “rely” on the key signature.  On the contrary, having the key signature, thinking in the key, will help you read because you are familiar with the map, you know what to expect.  – If reading in A flat is a problem for you, then perhaps you are not ready to read a piece in A flat.  Simplifying the notation only covers up that problem. (This by the way does not mean that you shouldn’t play that piece in A flat – there are other ways to learn a piece than read it.)

I suppose, the worst here is the issue of double sharps and flats, as well as “white key” sharps and flats such as E#.  They “simplify” the notation and write the note of the white key.  While it is important for students to learn that E# is a white key, it is equally important that they learn that E# and F are not the same!  Yes, they are played on the same key, but they are not the same note.  Just like B flat and A sharp are not the same.  I like to do an experiment with a beginning student who has just figured out, by ear, an F major scale (black key – yay!) by asking what the notes were.  Many students will call that black key “A sharp” but it takes just a moment for me to explain that it has to be called B flat because we are replacing the B, not the A.  What is altered when you use enharmonic notes is the shape of the melody, and, importantly: the visual image (and cue).   Imagine an F# minor scale:  harmonic minor will have an E# in the scale.  Simplified Notation will write the scale as F#-G#-A-B-C#-D-F-F#.  That is not a scale!  It doesn’t look like a scale, it violates the visual image we have of a scale.

Or take a highly patterned piece such as Robert Vandall’s Prelude in G major:  The left hand pattern always starts with a half step down, then up again to the first note, then down an octave: G-F#-G-(low)G for instance.  Visually, it is instantly recognizable: one down, one up, octave down.  The pattern has implications for the fingering:  1-2-1-5, with the second finger always a half step below the first – meaning: very next key.  Learning, or sight-playing this piece, we put the visual cue and the fingering together.  In most measures, this pattern is followed by a repetition of the first three notes, creating:  G-F#-G-(low)G-G-F#-G, etc. (Did you notice the palindrome?)  Because we have looked at this and analyzed it,  we now know that we don’t need to “read” the last three notes – because we know that they are the same as the first three.  Actually, we don’t need to read any notes beyond the first because of the pattern!  So, there goes the issue of having to remember accidentals lasting through the end of the measure.   On the second page, there are two measures with (the same) double sharp: G#-Fx-G#.  Visually, we instantly recognize this as “the same” as before = same fingering, etc.  With Simplified Notation, this would look totally different:  G#-G-G# – we would have to think about it to recognize that it is actually the same pattern.  Destroyed is the consistency, the visual cue.  Yes, I am sure students can learn to play this piece with Simplified Notation, but they will have missed out on really understanding this piece.  And I don’t see how the Simplified Notation would have helped with memory.  Understanding patterns (visual, fingering, aural, and more) goes such a long way toward memorizing; I’ve been known to say to my (new) students, when they ask whether they “have to” memorize a piece, “If you really use your brain learning this piece, you cannot help but memorize along the way!”  (We know there’s more to memory than this, but it’s a fantastic and reliable start!)

The “unnecessary complexities of reading music” do not come from the key signature, accidentals, and double sharps and flats.  Music notation, the way it is, is a marvelous system that makes sense.  It has clear-cut rules that are mathematical in nature, they have to do with ratio, absolute distance,  etc. – unlike other musical signs, such as signs that indicate touch, tempo or dynamics:  there are (and should be!) infinite variations of staccato for instance.

Whenever I hear the cry for stricter rules here in town for – take your pick: non-smoking, vicious dogs, speed limits, I think: we do not need stricter rules, we need to enforce the rules we have!  The rules are there, but they need to be obeyed and enforced.

So, for music notation, what we need is not a new system with new rules, we simply need to adhere to the rules we have!  The rules say, for instance, that the barline cancels the accidental(s) of the previous measure.  But what do we have in the next measure?  A gratuitous, “friendly-reminder” natural/sharp/flat.  THAT is what clutters the score!  THAT is what makes reading unnecessarily difficult because it demands our attention, and then the decision that we can ignore the symbol – what a waste of brain power!  I can’t tell you how many times a confused student has asked, “Why is there a natural here in this measure?  I thought the barline cancels the accidental??”

When I shared with Mark who has a black belt in Karate my misgivings about this kind of simplification, he immediately had this story:

I told you about sparring with the Tae Kwon Do people.

I was paired with a woman who was perhaps 5 or 6 inches shorter than me. She had beautiful kicks and tremendous flexibility. Her spinning back kick was consistently higher than my head. Her form during the kick and after was atrocious.
During the kick she was not looking at the target. At best her line of sight was 90º to the side, and at worst she was looking 180º in the wrong direction. Imagine throwing a pitch with a baseball. You look at the catcher’s mitt, you look at the target. You don’t throw the ball with your eyes closed and hope that it heads in the right direction. Without looking at the target you have no control over the kick or pitch.
After throwing the kick she ended up facing away from me. Her back was completely exposed. In the karate-do world I came from the back was a legitimate target. Exposing your back to your opponent was called  mubobi or a defenseless posture. In point sparring you were giving your opponent a free point, on the street you were giving your attacker your life.
While her form was beautiful it was completely incorrect. She had no visual control over where the kick was going, she consistently missed the target, and she finished the kick facing the wrong way. I never had to duck or block her kicks, and I always had a free shot to her back or the back of her head after she completed her spin.
She was offended when I pointed this out, and indignant when I started tapping the back of her head with my fist each time. “That’s not a target!” she would say. Maybe in Tae Kwon Do it isn’t a target, but in the real world it is a target.
Her instructors had done her a huge disservice; they had allowed her to advance through their rank system with the belief that what she was doing was an effective martial arts technique when in fact it was anything but. Her form was beautiful, her style was flawless, but what she was doing wasn’t self defense or martial arts.

Using Simplified Music Notation violates the rational logic of music notation (the way it is) and gives our students a false sense of reading “skills”.

Update January 1, 2015:

Last year I bought a new book by Diane Hidy, “Attention Grabbers” (published in 2012). The pieces are attractive, immensely playable, and, best of all, easy to read. I so appreciate especially this “notational difference” she mentions on page 3: “Pick-up notes appear before each new phrase on a new system rather than at the end of the previous system.” While definitely a break with tradition, this is not really a simplification, just a more logical way of notating music because it allows the student to immediately recognize patterns – also because the number of measures in a system conforms to the pattern or phrase length – the wisest choice an editor can make. Which means that most of the time we get four measures in a system, but occasionally six or seven if the phrase length dictates it. Which also means that occasionally – when the music moves in half notes for instance – the notes seem a bit drawn out, and any other editor/publisher would have insisted on squishing more measures into the system.