Recently I came across this amazing video of the origins and evolution of our current Western notation system on Youtube.

Here is the response I made in the comments:

Thank you for creating such an amazing video based on a topic which I have been considering seriously for so many decades.

 When I interviewed legendary jazz drummer and clinician John Riley as part of my Master's thesis, I expressed certain views about the limitations of our Western notation system, he simply replied with: "Does it help?". Off course I responded in the affirmative, and it really moved me to consider more deeply the kind of quite critical disposition I had about our notation system. I think certain people are wired differently and unfortunately in my case for whatever reason it has meant that though I understand music notation, how it functions, and can write and read it, I have a total inability to sight read. I can't make the connection or interpretation required to read music in real time while playing at the same time. It is a kind of left to right brain thing or obstacle that I don't seem to be able to overcome. I marvel at other drummers that can read in this way.

It has impacted my music career quite profoundly, because I know that being the musician that I am I could have gotten so many gigs (whether live or session) had I been able to overcome this inability to sight read and therefore would have moved so far ahead in the industry than I have been able to date. In fact one of my lecturers pointed this out to me when I was doing my bachelors in college, telling me that if I really wanted to get ahead which I should, due to my musical ability, I needed to become a proficient sight reader, that was twenty years ago.

I remember as a teenager when I first started taking drum lessons and began learning to read, it took me a little while to realize that where a note happens in time is based on the length of the note that preceded it. That the note symbol itself did not define or dictate where the note was in time. Initially I thought that single eighth notes always started on the "and", it took a while for it to register that any note symbol can be anywhere in time and that the whole structure of the notation system as it relates to rhythm is based on note lengths, and therefore where the note sounds is dependent on the length of the note which came before it ad infinitum.

Well what is first or comes first in a piece of music, what is primary, pitch or rhythm? That is really  interesting to consider and depending on the answer, it could define the direction that any notation system heads in. Off course the fact that our notation system seems to have come into being in order to facilitate the dissemination of choral chant, it is obvious in that context that note pitch and length would be a primary consideration, and since the rhythmic structure of Gregorian chant is not dense,  it is completely logical that the notation system started out not considering whether rhythm or pitch and its relative length should be taken as the primary context for developing a notation system. In fact at the time there was no way of anticipating that music would evolve in such a way that rhythm would become so important in our Western pantheon. If we look at other cultures, like India for instances, their approach in the context of an oral tradition of pedagogy  treated the rhythmic and melodic components that make up music with equal importance, as did  the African traditions, but not in the West.

So as a young drummer concerned with rhythm, I did not initially register and I guess my first drum teacher did not take the time to explain to me, or realized I had not understood how the notation system functioned. So what about answering my question above, what is primary in a music score pitch or rhythm? I strongly lean towards rhythm, because prior to any pitch being assigned to any notes in a musical work, those notes arise in time and create a rhythm, even if no formalised pitch is assigned to them, a rhythm is created first and foremost, it exist prior to pitch, melody or harmony, it is foundational and that rhythm will exist irrespective of the note length, since if we clap out the rhythm all notes will fundamentally be of equal lengths, defined by the very quick attack and decay of each note, the attack being the place where the note arises in the time line. 

So if rhythm exist prior to pitch in musical works (though one could argue a handclap has a pitch, but even than it would be just one pitch of pretty much equal length), would it not make sense to have a notation system in which the symbols used define where the note is in time, before it defines the pitch and the length of the note. This adjustment using dedicated symbols could easily be made using our current notation system by changing the meaning and orientation to the note symbols we already use, and in doing so, in my view would make the reading of music so much simpler, because with one glance at any bar of music one would know immediately where the notes are in time, and using such dedicated symbols would mean the need for rest symbols could be eradicated by 95%.   

Here is another issue considering the kind of contradictions within our notation system and music theory and how they interrelate or are interdependent. Let's think about time signatures, which are also based on note lengths, looking at the most common time signature in contemporary Western music 4/4 time, that signature means four notes in a bar with each note having the value of a quarter note, so what is the value of a quarter note?

Well that is a dependent measurement that only achieves definition or comes into being once a tempo has been decided upon. What is tempo? Tempo is the arising and creation of consistent manufactured time created within an infinite silent space,  based on the speed of repetitive consistent pulses arising in equal measured distance from one another thereby creating a "feeling" of time, based on repetition. Is there perfect time? Can time even be perfect? What is the source from which it arises? Is the feeling of time a human creation, merely conceived in our human limited universe of perception, based on the uniqueness of the mechanisms of our human nervous systems, or does it exist objectively? Therefore, do non humans experience pulses and time similarly to humans beings? When a cock crows does it experience its crowing in a rhythmically and melodically identifiable repeatable way, as a human being does? 

Getting back to our humble quarter note it becomes obvious that the quarter note has no inherent definable existence, it is a dependent conceptual construct, which needs to be underpinned by a variety of other constructs such as pulse and rhythm, which makes a pretty strong argument that note length is an overlay on structures that must already be in existence, interpreted and felt for a quarter note to have any meaning, and for it to become a conduit for musical communication. In that sense the way we conceive of time signatures or more precisely the conceptual symbols we use to be communicative about what they are, are completely untrue or at least quite ambiguous, since there is no actual difference if we were to clap the pulse in any time signature, with cycles of four pulse for example such as 4/4, 4/8, 4/12, 4/16, 4/20, ect, irrespective of the tempo, if clapped they will all sound the same, and even with a melodic instrument that can sustain notes. 

There it is so many unanswered questions and ambiguity exist in our notation system, yet it works. It is a representational communication about music, not music itself which is so mysterious, because for one obvious thing, music is a series of event moving in linear time, but music itself is actually experienced as a totally. So of course music being such a mystery, any symbolic representation is bound to be limited. However, I think it could be simplified by changing the foundation orientation on which it is based. Keep its symbols, just re-interpret them such that the note symbols themselves communicate explicitly where they start on the timeline without being dependent on the previous note symbol, and negotiate the symbolic communication of how long the note is afterwards, this could be done by having the head of the note coloured in or not to define its length.

Maybe I am just a complainer because I have difficulty making it work for me, while millions of others have had no problem making it work for them, and it would be an almost impossible experiment to create in order to determine which system most people find easier, so I guess I will never know, but my intuition tells me that a dedicated symbols for where a note exists in time relative to the pulse would be easier to read than the current system we have in place currently.

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