Is there a need for 'letter' names of notes?

Discussion in 'General Instruction [BG]' started by greenfrog5, Jun 13, 2005.

  1. greenfrog5


    May 9, 2005
    Please excuse me for rambling... (a lot more came out than I first intended). Let me preface this by saying I am admidetly an Engineer by nature, personality and education. I am very technical, mathematical, and analytical, yet have always been creative and artistic as well. (a really terrible speller too)

    I have started playing various instruments throughout my childhood (mostly memorizing, often with lessons), but was too young and uninterested to get into any serious comprehension or theory, thus stopping each.

    I have always regretted this, as I love music, and am now committed to learning the bass in a way I never gave myself a chance before. I have been playing on a friend's MIM Fretless Fender Jazz 4 for 6 months, and am making progress - while I wait waiting for my new (to me) Spector Q5 to get its jack replaced (how long does it take to ship a new jack anyway? - almost 2 weeks now). My friend (a long time Jazz guitarist and college music major) has been giving me occasional lessons and we often discuss theory and music in general.

    I am a very visual person, and always learned things by how they look, and this has been relatively successful in learning scales, chords, and tonal relationships (especially between strings on the bass). In addition to this, the idea of the function (roman numeral) representation of notes, scales, tones, etc make lots of sense to me (same fingering + different root = same scale in differet key - brilliant!). This is most apparent with the bass where even between strings, the same fingering results in the same intervals (where all strings are same relation to oneanother - guitar is not quite as regular/obvious).

    MY QUESTION IS: is there really a need for the letter (A, B, C...) representation of notes? I know they are all just sounds, and the letters are (technically) arbitrary. My friend always brings up that it makes communication between musicians easier (assuming all know the same 'language'), I am somewhat convinced that the additional level of organizational relationship that it provides (low A ~= (is 'similar' to) high A = same note w/ different frequency) is necessary/useful, but doesn't I ~= IIX represent the same relationship?

    I have been learning things in 'function' (scale degrees), as once you learn it, you can apply it to any key you like. (obviously practice in all keys, but 'think' in just the functions) This seems like the 'higher understanding', and (to me) the letters seem like symantical jargon that just confuse the concepts.

    Am I selling myself short? I know that it makes it difficult to communicate (read sheet music) with the 'standard' language, but it seems (to me) that to take a pitch, and convert it to a letter, then to a scale degree, then relate it to another note (by scale degree), then back to a letter (of the other note), to the (other) pitch - this seem incredibly round-about and excessive, when in fact its really just the relationship that is important.

    In conclusion, I've been looking for fretboard charts for 5-string that doesn't focus on the letters (I'm not against it, but I learn the formations much quicker than the letters themselves). I'm also interested in books of the same 'relational' nature - however, I am very interested in books that do not allow this 'general nature' of this approace to only provide one key and say 'this applies to all keys, just do the same in a different place'. I want a complete set of all fretboard charts for all keys (and similar instruction of more theoretical concepts - by (visual) relationships and/or scale degrees.

    Also, if I'm totally out of line and should be sitting down and memorizing (A, B, C, D) - please please point me back in the right direction. My friend and I discuss this often, and he keeps saying 'its convenient (once you know it) for communication, transcription, etc)' I say 'tell me which root, and use scale degrees - whats the difference?' - he (a well educated and practiced musician) hasn't really sold me on the use/need, aside from the fact that 'everybody else already knows and uses it' - which seems like mankind, and the development of modern music theory/notation places unnecessary limits on the organization of music - is this really the best way to organize this stuff? - I find it hard to believe...

    And again, sorry for the novel,

    Thanks for listening!

  2. fraublugher


    Nov 19, 2004
    ottawa, ontario, canada
    music school retailer
  3. Richard Lindsey

    Richard Lindsey

    Mar 25, 2000
    Metro NYC
    I think you're misunderstanding this. If you look at the primary purpose of a score, which is to tell you which note to play, it's not a matter of four or five steps, it's a matter of one: you see a note on the lowest staff of the bass clef, and you play A. It's that simple. Things don't get simpler than that. I think your error is in thinking that you have to convert things to scale degrees and back whenever you read. You don't. You never *have* to do that. That's just one way--and a valuable one--of understanding what's going on. But you don't need it to play what's written on the staff. You need to know the notes.

    Your friend is right. Learning the notes is better for communication. A language exists, and this is it. You say, just tell me the root and the scale degrees. Trust me, no one who writes charts wants to do that (well, except in Nashville, maybe, but that's a limited case). It's as if nearly the whole world speaks English, and you've gotten the idea that Esperanto is more logical, so you want someone to explain your job in Esperanto. But anyone who writes musical charts will want to write in the accepted language, just as if you have a supervisor at work, that person will want to write you e-mails in English rather than Esperanto.

    I don't mean to be harsh, and I hope I don't come off that way. I just mean to say that (1) the process of referring to notes by letter names is nowhere near as convoluted as you suggest, and (2) this is how it's done, so if you want to be able to talk to people, this is the language to learn.

    Another point is that not all music is understandable in relation to degrees of a scale off a root. In addition, what do you do when the chords are changing fast? Do you do a frameshift with every change of chord, so that you have to think in relation to a new root, say, every other beat? In such circumstances, it's better just to know the notes.

    Another point: in the note system, one letter name is one note, period. The space on the bottom of the bass clef is A, always. But in the system you're suggesting, that A could be V off a root of D, iii, off a root of F#, etc. So if I want you to play an A, I can't simply say, play an A, I have to say play the iii of F# or whatever. This is far more complicated that the standard approach, and pointlessly so.

    I'm not saying you shouldn't know the scale degrees, I'm saying it's in no sense a substitute for knowing the note names.
  4. WalterBush


    Feb 27, 2005
    Yuma, Az
    I asked a music teacher the same question once. His response was that many forms of tablature, numeration, note naming, graphing, etc. have been tried since before the Romans were an empire, and none of them survived as long as our current system of notation. Why do we still refer to dynamics in Italian terms, such as fortissimo, piano, etc? Why do we use symbols with no basis outside of music to represent the repeat, coda, etc? Why do we use 5 lines for our staff, when so many notes use ledger lines? The bottom line is that we use it because it works, has worked, and will continue to work, for the vast, vast majority of composers and musicians.

    As I said, this was his response, but I fully agree. Just my opinion based on his (much) more educated one.
  5. When it comes down to it, learn what you need to know and go with it. You don't need to represent the sounds as letters if you don't feel the need to. However, in many cases where a standard reference is required, letters are used, and you may be limiting your ability to communicate with others by ignoring them. I don't think they're necessarily required but they do help to give music a more universal and orderly definition.
  6. greenfrog5


    May 9, 2005
    Not taken as so - I appreciate the discussion, and offer my ideas in response...

    Examples? Besides really 'out there' a-tonal kind of stuff? Is it more understandable by something better illustrated in the letter system?

    How else should it be thought of? Isn't a chord change a shift of the root?

    Spoken language is completely arbitrary and based completely on the 'roots' (intended in the linguistic sense - not the musical sense) of its creation. This is partly why I believe using traditional language (letters) seems unnecessarily arbitray. Music is somewhat mathematical, and can be organized logically (and to some extend is). Doesn't it suggest itself (and bennefit more) from this additional organization? Can't it be organized better?

    What about b/#? Always? (And you only show it in one place, and sometimes it gets changed back?)

    With the letter system, as soon as you move away from CMaj, you immediately begin to loose the 'Primary(Letter) and Secondary(Augmented/Letter) nature that is obvious with numerals. (Maybe I'm just not 'deep' enough to understand yet?) Key signatures (b/# make different locations on the staff actually mean different notes, some of the time?) seem crazy to me - they make exceptions to accomodate the limitations of the letter system. Isn't is actually the 'III' that you are (musically) flatting to go to Cmin, it just happens to be a E?

    When playing from written score.

    You could say 'play frequency 220 hz', then its simple multiplication to locate the other 'related' notes.

    This is one of the things I'm really trying to work out. The way I see it, the G-iii is the same in all 'fingerings', and it doesn't matter what 'letter' it is. It matters at which 'degrees' it intersects other scales (also memorized - unfortunately). And this moves into ideas like the circle of fifths?

    Unforturately, I can't really claim to be suggesting a perfect alternative, I am more questioning the one currently in place. I do admidt the need for that 'thrid' level of relationship (among more I'm sure to come across). The way I picture it (with my primitive theory knowledge) is the 'overlapping of scales/key/chords'. This is the main purpose (aside from current staff-based notation) that this notation seems to serve. Again, the current 'names' are arbitrary, just already in place. Shouldn't each semi-tone be treated equally, with emphasis being given based on underlying (natural) relationships and theory?

    It matters what comes before/after, both for theory and for practicality of playing (how to finger, and whether the A is at the higher end, or lower end of the particular key). The only reason you need to know where 'A' is, is so you can find another 'A' (or to read current notation).

    I don't have a solution. My initial thoughts suggest numbers 1 - 12 (=1) to 'relate' A to A to A, they are all the products of the same pitch out of the standard 11 that are used. Then roman numerals to expand within that key to produce modes and other elements.

  7. JimmyM

    JimmyM Supporting Member

    Apr 11, 2005
    Apopka, FL
    Endorsing: Ampeg Amps, EMG Pickups
    (Oops, this is an edit because I just noticed something I missed that the original post contained)

    Don't reinvent the wheel. The current form of music notation has been tweaked out thru centuries of music writing and playing and has lasted longer in a basically unchanged form than probably any other language on earth. The reason you don't name notes with Roman numerals in a way like you did is because Roman numerals are already used to refer to scale degrees, i.e., C, D and E are I, II, and III in a C scale. And if all you use is the Roman numerals, then you still have to have a key. So what are you going to call the key? Fred? There's ways of denoting which octave you're in as well, all related to middle C, i.e., 2 octaves above middle C, 3 octaves below middle C, etc. It's all in there.

    If you are looking at sheet music and translating all the notes from letters to numbers and back again, you are adding steps to your thought processes that bog you down. If you learn a foreign language fluently, you don't have to translate it to your native language in your mind before you can understand it. Same with music. Once you learn all this stuff to where you can recite it off the top of your head, there won't be any need for translations. You'll know the note names and scale degrees off the top of your head.

    However, there is an alternative notation used for studio work called the Nashville numbering system. What you're talking about sounds a lot like it. Because they might have to change keys on the fly, they just write chord charts with scale degrees in place of chord names. Then they choose the key at the session. But it's not without can't notate melodies you want played (which is fine in Nashville because most studio musicians make up their own parts), and you still have to have a key, which is that dreaded letter name thing popping up again!

    So my advice to you is learn it, get used to it, and don't waste your time questioning it. Nobody's going to change it because someone sees it as arbitrary. Long after we're gone, no matter what space age instruments they come up with, this will still be the language of music. Number charts will still exist too, but to communicate specific ideas, standard notation will always be around. Everything on earth is arbitrary at some point, but this stuck and works pretty much flawlessly once you commit it to long term memory. You can choose to learn it or not, but that's the way it is and it's not going to change. Besides, if it wasn't this language, it would be another, and you have to learn that one, too.
  8. mbeall


    Jun 25, 2003
    "How else should it be thought of? Isn't a chord change a shift of the root?"

    Interpreting chord changes this way will limit your ability to hear and think melodically. Don't get me wrong. The roots are very important, after all, about 90% (maybe more) of our job is to play the roots of the chords. But this is also the type of thinking that prevents most bass players from being able to play any meaningful sounding solos.
    The defining sounds in chord changes are all of the notes that are different between the chords. A good rock and roll example of this would be the beginning of the bridge in Kashmir by Led Zepplin. The D is in the bass throughout but the defining sound of the changes is in the chromatic line starting at the G in the Dsus and moving down to the F#, then the F and the E.
    The way you are describing your view of chord changes is valid but there are other ways of thinking as well. The more you incorporate all of them the better you playing and hearing will get.
    As far as the need for letters, reading and communication with other musicians. It is just semantics but everyone already knows it so learn it. It'll make your life easier. As far as what your thinking when playing, think the sounds, everything else is just labels.

  9. It wouldn't be any more effective to refer to the 12 notes of the chromatic scales by number, decimal or Roman numeral, since that would just be a change of label. Additionally, it would conflict with the existing system of scale degrees (third, fourth, fifth, and so on), which figures prominently in harmony.

    Letters are good because they're a sequence that everyone knows but which isn't used to describe any aspect of music besides pitches. Why use A through G with accidentals instead of A through L with no accidentals? The existing system conforms closely to the major scale, as you know. In the key of C major (or its relative minor), the benefit is immediately obvious. When you modulate into other keys, the system is still very useful. Since each letter can only occur once in a key, you can memorize your scales by the sharps and flats in the key signature, which is much easier than memorizing a set of eight notes that share no immediately obviuos relation. Additionaly, you can compare scales more easily. It's trivial to decide that the only difference between C major and G major is the F note, since we must only consider the notes which are altered by the key signarure, rather than going through all the notes in both keys to compare them.

    It is, but Richard was trying to highlight the trouble you would have when your only name for a note relies on its context. When you have an A chord and a F chord, and you want to play a C, but only if it's a shared chord tone, you can rely on your ingrained knowledge that the C is in both chords, much the same way that you know that the letter C appears in the words chamois and cattle. There's no translation involved. How do you decide whether the third of the six chord and the fifth of the four chord in a major scale are the same note? While that's not an especially challenging piece of math, it's not as fast as knowing the parts of both chords and whether your intended note is in both of them.

    Like Richard says, we benefit from having absolute names for notes. Even accidentals. A# will always be A#. It's very handy to have that when you need to compare chords and keys, since you have a set of uniquely identified building blocks to make everything out of. You may have heard of the mnemonic room system. It consists of memorizing a fictional room full of objects which you can then "remove" to make different subsets of your full set, allowing you to keep track of information that would otherwise exceed your mental capacity. This is much the same thing. Since we have only twelve objects, we don't need a full room, but only a knowledge of which notes go in which group. While patterns are good, and good to know, absolute identifiers help in making very quick assesments.

    Yes, and no. They are completely arbitrary, but they allow us to create useful mental constructs. We should not treat all twelve notes the same, because diatonic music uses each letter note only once, and accidentals let us memorize scales easily. The way we use them, all notes are not the same. If you were attempting a 12 tone composition a different system might be better. Our current system is structured to gracefully handle sets of eight out of twelve notes. We always have A-G, and need only memorize how to alter them. I find it a lot easier to remember that D major has two sharps than to remember a set of eight notes that make up the key.

    Also worth noting is that while thinking in patterns is easy enough on stringed instruments, since you can see them, those patterns are absolutely meaningless on a wind instrument. Notes on a stopped string follow scale degrees, but notes on a horn, for example, follow the harmonic series. Horn players would have to figure out which harmonic of the fundamental pitch they had selected with their valves they were playing (which can be tricky in the high ranges, although it's pretty obvious on the low end), and then translate it to strings and frets and scale degrees to communicate with string players.
  10. greenfrog5


    May 9, 2005
    This is the most convincing example of how (one day) I could know the 'spellings' of scales/chords, eliminating my need for the 'translation' that I feel complicates things for me now. I totally see how using complete words spellings makes their 'intersection' natural to determine without any computation (assuming you know the language fluently. (Thanks)

    I had not, but it is a very interesting (and applicable) concept. I will try to incorporate this in my struggle to memorize and conceptulize music theory, the various keys, scales and such.

    But our notation system only emphasizes these 8 main notes in regular keys like Cmaj. This is the only case where it is graceful (IMO, and it is my main issue with the current system). The accidentals serve as secondary notes (in this key), but this order is lost in other keys.

    There has been overwhelming response of 'this is how its done, and you'll do much better if you just learn it (for whatever reasons... etc)'. I'm beginning to accept that it is just the way it is, and I'll have to suck it up and memorize this stuff. :( I guess all ways of approacing this type of theory are useful in their own ways, and I assume that the better I know the letter based system, the more I'll find it useful.

    My music friend couldn't really convince me its value, but I am also quite skeptical. The advise of you many TB'ers supported many of his initial claims, and has exposed some additional things which I hadn't fully considered before. However, I think I'll always be looking for higher forms of order (in the back of my mind) - but I guess this is probably a good thing.

    Thanks for the ideas!

  11. Richard Lindsey

    Richard Lindsey

    Mar 25, 2000
    Metro NYC
    greenfrog, I think a basic issue is that you're trying to complicate something that's actually much simpler than you think it is. Whether you like it or not, note names are a language that is generally accepted and understood. Nothing you proposed would make things simpler, clearer, or more logical; it would just make them more laborious. Your approach requires at least two steps and some basic harmonic analysis for every single note played; standard note names require one step. Which is simpler and more elegant?

    EDIT: One more thing: you seemed to be thinking that either you go with the letter-based terminology or the degree of the scale approach. You'll find that in many areas of music, nothing is a bigger mistake than to adopt that kind of either-or thinking. Generally, an experienced musician will be aware of both of those relationships, and more besides. For example, if there's an F chord, and the composer either writes an A or verbally asks for one, the player will instantly know what to play--*but he/she will also be fully aware that that tone is the third of the F chord*. Or, the composer can say, play the third under that chord, and the player will instantly know to play an A. You see? These thing are not conflicting; thet are complementary. But the letter based system is still the simplest and clearest for requesting a specific note.
  12. Bryan R. Tyler

    Bryan R. Tyler TalkBass: Usurping My Practice Time Since 2002 Staff Member Administrator Gold Supporting Member

    May 3, 2002
    I'm hoping one day they'll assign colors for each note. Maybe then I'll be able to site read :(
  13. I would say that it emphasizes sets of eight notes more than a particular eight. Although a key may have accidentals on each note, we still have only one kind of A, one kind of B, and so on. Each letter can only, and must, appear once. For example, you couldn't write the Key of F using an A# rather than a Bb, since you'd then have an A natural and an A# in the same key, and you'd have no B note at all. Since we always have a sequence from A to G, possibly modified by sharps and flats (or double sharps and flats, if necessary), we can always identify intervals by the number of letter names they span. Some kind of A to some kind of C will always be some kind of third, although without knowing the particular key you can't say whether it's major or minor. It doesn't seem like a big thing, but it does make life easier when more things are certain. That's why I say our system deals gracefully with keys other than C major.

    EDIT: I should probably clarify a little. I'm talking about sets of eight notes that follow our major scale pattern. If you start dealing with arbitrary sets of notes, all bets are off. While any set of eight notes can be described using the system (each letter once; accidentals added), if you have to stack sharps or flats three or four deep to make the scale you invent conform, then you probably do need a different system.
  14. slybass3000

    slybass3000 Banned

    Nov 5, 2004
    One very simple answer:
    A 440 !!!
    That says it all!!
  15. All_¥our_Bass


    Dec 26, 2004
    interesting idea

    "stop playing that red-purple chord it sounds awful. Its red-blue damnit!!"
  16. Bryan R. Tyler

    Bryan R. Tyler TalkBass: Usurping My Practice Time Since 2002 Staff Member Administrator Gold Supporting Member

    May 3, 2002

    I have really poor eyesight-I have to be very close to something to read it, and even then it takes me a long time. Recognizing word and letter shapes are the only way I can read with somewhat decent speed. Music notation is a series of nearly identically shaped figures that are very small and in very close proximity to each other; as it is, I'll never be able to sightread. I take the time to try to read notation, but it's akin to a child trying to read "see spot run," and I simply can't go any faster than that.

    I just meant that colors would help differentiate a little bit.
  17. Somewhat off topic but Ifeel it relates. If you compare the way we look at things in the US with music and the way they look at it in Asia things are slightly different. When we sing a major scale here we have do ray me fah so la ti do. No matter what the scale is we just change the pitches to go with the key of the scale. In some of the Asian countries they dont do that they have 12 words... I am noit sure what they are but if we had there system for singing the words do would be C and everytime we got to C in any scale it would be do. There is a much higher percentage of people with perfect or perfect relative pitch using the Asian system then the english system. I think if we deviated farther from that by saying that the 5th fret on the E string is one thing this time and another thing another time instead of saying it is an A would become very detrimental to ones ability to play by ear and would further reduce our abilities to pick out notes when we hear them.
  18. burntgorilla


    Jan 24, 2005
    Over the years, there's been plenty of different notation systems (the Oxford Dictionary of Music has an interesting bit on them), and none of them have really taken off. I think that says a lot about our current system. If our music theory is based on the 12 notes, then changing the way they work would surely affect a lot more. I suppose it depends to what degree you think change is needed, whether it's just a different way of presenting the information, or a completely different method. If you took a more drastic method, surely the frets on a bass, for example, would need to be moved?
  19. Even if you came up with a much better system, the vast pool of established note readers would probably prevent it from becoming adopted as standard.

    Look at the Metric system. US still sticking to English measurements.

    There's another keyboard layout besides qwerty, much more efficient, the letters are arranged so the most used keys are at the strongest fingers and toward the center of the keyboard. People can type much faster, less finger/wrist strain when using it. Have you ever actually seen one in person? I haven't. But its clearly superior.

    Lots of times, traditional solutions become too widespread, too big a user base for something newer/better to get a foothold. MS Windows comes to mind too...

  20. greenfrog5


    May 9, 2005
    This is an excellent comparison, and I'm surprised it didn't come up sooner. This totally sums up (almost all of) my (percived) short-comings of the current system.

    Both Metric and English units use a base-10 number system(characters 0-9). This is the 'natural' base of the number system (liken it to the '12-tone' nature of our (Western) music system - 12 tones, because thats how we define it (divide it up)).

    The Metric system creates a series of measurement units using this this natural 'base' of 10 (since it seriously simplifies things in every respect), while the English system uses non-base-10 units (12" per foot, 3 ft per yard, 16oz per pound etc).

    Performing calculations (relatively) becomes much more difficult, as does pretty much anything else (including unit conversions). Why is the system as it is? Because thats how it developed, and is currently (in some places) the primary system (people are stubborn). Are there advantages to using these non-standard unit bases in a base-10 number system? Not that I can tell, or have ever heard of, excpet that you get to use units like Foot-Pounds, Hogsheads, Rods and Furlongs.

    In the same way that the numbering system of 0,1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9,10... 'naturally' suggests using units of base-10, I would expect something as mathematical as music (theory) to 'naturally' suggest a similar 'best' method of organizing - something that is contained and embedded in the Modern Theory that defines and 'controls' the language.

    Obviously there will be exceptions, but (to me) it seems like our whole system is just a long list of exceptions to accomodate short-comings of the system 'we are stuck with'. Think about how a base-12 number system might work. (you can represent the quantities '10','11' and '12' with just a single character (in the 'ones' place - it doesn't exist right now, as we use base-10 primarily). With this system, 12 inches in a foot makes sense. It is hard to adjust to this mentally, as base-10 is very ingrained in everything we do- to the point that the English Unity system STILL uses base-10, even though in only complicates things (not that they whole English system could have one standard base, as most units are developed off of various base system).

    The current letter system is sort of a base-8 arrangment, with 1/2 values inbetween some values. This organizational arrangement seems useful to me - when its relative to the root note (ie only applies to 'letters' in Cmajor), however the 'relationships' apply to all keys. The places where there are no semi-tones 'change' from key to key.

    As for notation, the staff implies equal distribution of all 'lines' on it, and similarly with all 'spaces'. This is not the case, as between B-C/E-F there is no 'in-beteen' tone, but you couldn't tell that from the staff. This just seems crazy. I thought the idea was 'here is a single tone, now you play it'. Shouldn't there be a unique place for each possible tone? (ie - why 'reuse' a position on the staff with a #/b?)

    I know music isn't calculas, but it is about relativity, relationships and patterns. I must be too much of a newbie to fully understand the more complex theory where the letter system becomes more useful. Everybody says it is, but nobody has given any hands-down convincing examples.

    I'm not trying to convert the Modern World of Musicians, I'm trying to suggest a (possibly better) alternative that some future people might prefer and adopt for their own personal bennefit (mainly - me!)