Relative Shorthand: an original notation system

Back when I was in high school, I had gained a bit of notoriety among my teachers for being the kid who typically didn’t pay too much attention in class and was usually bent over a manuscript book jotting down ideas I had. They didn’t appreciate this very much, and over time I was eventually barred by all of my teachers from writing music in class.

One would expect that I would respect their authority and would have kept my music-writing for when I had free time: not exactly. I had recently discovered a fascinating notation system that the Mexican microtonalist Julián Carrillo had devised to work around the intricate and sometimes overbearing aspects of trying to retrofit microtonal music to tonal notations.

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I could see early on that this system, while incredibly interesting, was very problematic for trying to notate more complex melodies, as well as the fact that it was impractical for trying to write standard music in. So, during the schoolyear of 2013–2014 (I was a junior), I devised the beginnings of what I called “Tonic Numeral Notation”. Later, turned off of the sterile and academic nature of the name, I would change it to Relative Shorthand, or RS.

This system has undergone many, many transmutations over the last five years, so rather than detail the history of the notation, I will only describe how it works as according to the modern language.


BASIC ELEMENTS

RS uses a single-line musical staff (as opposed to the five-line staff in Western modern notation, WMN), and the use of lines and spaces changes radically from WMN. Rather than using note heads to denote pitch, the RS staff will facilitate simple numbers: 1—7.

The seven numbers refer to the seven steps of a Major scale, e.g. C=1, D=2, E=3, F=4, G=5, A=6 and B=7. We will now show an RS staff and place these numbers upon it.

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So, what does this short example tell us? For one, there are seven notes written on this staff, the seven unique pitches of the Major scale. Another thing that it shows us is each of the notes is a quarter note—in RS, singular numbers with no other notations are assumed to be quarter notes.

Let us see this example with its WMN translation:

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As all of these pitches fit within one octave, they will all be written on the one line, side-by-side. If the next octave C’ is wanted, the space directly above the staff is used for the next octave. Let’s also add a couple more familiar elements to the example.

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To the trained musician, it should be clear at this point that the point of RS was not to be complicated and “new” but instead to build a very easy-to-read alternative to WMN, and if it was functional to the new system, I tried to maintain as many older elements as possible.

Rather than redundantly provide charts to the different symbols, then give you examples that showcase those exact same notations, I will instead provide a slightly longer example which should show you much more information:

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Short, quick /- and \-notations replace the sharp and flat; lines on the top of numbers are for beams; a dot following a number will make it a “dotted-___”, whatever that may be; circling a note with a beam makes it a half note and no beam makes it a whole note. At m. 2 (beat 1), why do I re-notate the accidental for every note, rather than assume that the next note is sharp as it would be in WMN? I have shaped RS to adhere more to colloquial ways that notes are named rather than how they would be written down. If a musician were to “speak” the second measure, they would say “sharp-five, sharp-five”, not “sharp-five, five”, even though that is what is written.


WHY IT IS CALLED “RELATIVE” SHORTHAND

Let’s go back to the beginning of the last section: “The seven numbers refer to the seven steps of a Major scale.” Note that I did not specifically tie the numbers to C Major, but instead the “Major” scale in general. RS is an entirely pitchless notation system, which means that the base scale being used can be in any key you wish. Similarly, RS is also entirely registerless, so the “base octave” (the range of the staff’s line) can be any octave you wish.

This complete lack of absolute pitch or register allows for any RS example to be realized in any key and in any range without requiring any alterations to the music itself. Let us go back to the simple, one-octave Major scale in quarter notes and now realize it in a few different keys.

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Why would I build this notation to be so loose to interpretation? I do not have perfect pitch, and because of that generally when I try to write down music that is in my head when I do not have a piano to reference, I am off-key from what I’m hearing. This creates the later problem of having to rewrite the entire excerpt into the correct key. What if I hear a Major arpeggio but I cannot say for certain what key that arpeggio is in? Well, using RS, it’s impossible to be wrong as long as I am certain that I am in fact hearing a Major arpeggio. The simple notation of a few numbers can be realized in any key and any range, so the “feeling” of the Major arpeggio is maintained without nailing it down to one specific pitch.

Rests, by the way, are notated the same as they are in WMN, as rests are already non-pitched and non-registered, so it is unnecessary to reinvent the wheel, so to speak. An example of a rest being used in the system will be shown later with a translation of the jazz standard “All My Tomorrows”.


HARMONY

RS’s melodic notation is entirely relative, as I have described in the previous section. I also have fitted RS so that it portrays itself the way that a musician would “speak” a piece of music if they were speaking in scale degrees. To complement this, I decided to go with a fully relative harmonic notation system, as well, which is written the way it would be spoken casually, rather than worrying too much about the way that certain chords might traditionally be notated as according to their function.

One could describe the harmonic side of RS as an update to the Roman numeral system. The diatonic chords are written as they have been in the past: I, ii, iii, IV, V, vi and vii°. If one wished to flip the quality of each chord, it could also be written as i, II, III, iv, v, VI, VII. For cases of modal interchange, one could also include a sharp or flat before the chord (e.g. I—ii∅7—♭VI—V7).

I have decided to abandon notating secondary dominants, partially because chords are less inclined to following these traditional paths in modern usage than they were maybe two-hundred years ago, and mostly because musicians simply do not speak in those terms casually. If one were in the key of G Major and they saw an A7 chord, they will not call that a “secondary dominant of the Five chord”, they will say it’s a “Two dominant seventh” chord. This is something that I witness across multiple disciplines, from the self-taught rocker to the academic classicist. I will call that A7 chord “II7”.

For the intricacies of the different seventh qualities (or “species”, as I saw a friend refer to them at one point), that could largely be left up to the individual’s personal preference, as there is no one standard way of notating all of these chords. As a general idea, though, one could go with the list below. If you’re curious, I use the first version of each option.

  • Major-seventh: IVΔ7, IVM7, IVMaj7, IVMajor7, etc.
  • Dominant-seventh: IV7, IVdom7, etc.
  • Minor-seventh: iv7, iv–7, ivm7, ivmin7, ivminor7, etc.
  • Minor-Major-seventh: iv(♯7), ivmM7, iv(M7), iv(+7), etc.
  • Half-diminished-seventh: iv∅7, ivm7(♭5), iv–7(–5), etc.
  • Diminished-seventh: iv°7, ivdim7, etc.

I also eschew the figured bass system of using /6 to denote a first inversion, etc., again because it is simply not common practice anymore to refer to chords in these ways. One would not see the notes E–G–C and call it a “one-six” chord in common use; they’ll say it’s a “C major chord with the third in the bass”. Because of this, I use /3 to denote first inversion, /5 for second inversion, etc. What makes this system work well is that it is now much easier to notate chords which previously would have been rather difficult to write in Roman numeral or figured bass notation:

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PRACTICAL APPLICATIONS

I feel that RS will be a useful tool for the composer, the teacher, the student, the music theorist, the musician. It is very, very intuitive (I was in fact able to teach it to one friend of mine in only thirteen seconds—yes, I counted—by just showing him a side-by-side of it with WMN) and is customizable to whatever purposes you wish.

If one wanted to write serial music, for instance, they could abandon the 1—7 in place of 0123456789te, so highly chromatic music could be written without need for sharp and flat notations.

RS will be useful for the music student who is learning about how chords work and how notes at various scale degrees fit into these notes: I have been able to teach this successfully to a couple of my own music students who have gone on to replicate it and apply the knowledge obtained from it to WMN. RS doesn’t teach you how one single key works: it teaches you how keys work, and that highly generalized knowledge is, at least for some, more easily understood than brute-forcing through every single key.

If you are in an environment where you are playing with multiple transposing instruments—let’s say flute, English horn, alto sax and bass clarinet—in order to play in unison one only needs to write a single RS staff down and just tell each musician which key to realize it in. Flute, F Major; English horn, C Major; Alto sax, D Major; Bass clarinet, G Major! This could be incredibly useful for the concert band world.

As I’ve already alluded to, being able to write down generalized music while on the run is perhaps the primary use of RS. It has a quick and simple notation system that can be written down on any surface and if you are out on the run and you don’t have access to manuscript paper or your laptop, RS is a great alternative.

For the jazz musician who may have to change the key of a tune often, having a RS version of it could prove useful for quick on-the-spot transposition.


WEAKNESSES

Perhaps the biggest issue with RS is that it is monophonic only. If you at any point need to write more than one pitch down, there isn’t really any practical way of doing so. As I built the notation to be monophonic with harmony (alla lead sheets) I didn’t structure it in a way to support polyphony or notated chords. This may change in the future, and perhaps an advancement in RS’ notation (or even a new system entirely) will allow it to be friendlier to multi-voice writing.

Modulations are also difficult to notate. How do you relatively notate a key change? Intervallic jump? What do you put on paper and how? This could really boil down to what you as an RS practitioner prefer to write. Ultimately it is your own variation of it and therefore you should worry primarily about what you will understand later when translating it to WMN.


A LITTLE CHALLENGE

You and your friend are playing at a bar, and he asks you to play a song. You tell him you don’t know it, and he hands you this piece of paper. What song is it?


IN CONCLUSION

Relative Shorthand has been a wonderful experiment for me, and I have put it to great use over the years. I hope that others can find use for it as I have, and if you have any questions about it, let me know in a comment.

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