An Appreciation of Staff Notation

Because it’s relatively difficult to learn, modern-day design experts have criticized staff notation as a badly-designed system. In a controversial talk by Dan Formosa, he said of staff notation, “My description of this is a blight on society. This is the worst example of information design that we have been saddled with for more than 500 years. This is a God-awful system developed by monks in the 1500s …”

However, staff notation is a clever way of fitting a lot of information into a small enough space that people can read it, with training and practice.

The example below shows how you can write 49 different notes on only 29 lines and spaces, by expressing some notes as sharps (#). Each sharp (#) note also has a corresponding flat (b) note name. The flat (b) notes are not shown in the example on the following page.

Key signatures are a clever convention because they help you shift your attention away from the notes you’re less likely to use. There are also fewer sharps and/or flats on the page, which cuts down on the amount of visual clutter. Staff notation started out as a simple system which evolved as music evolved and became more complicated. The letter system, with its seven letter names and five sharps or flats, evolved alongside the keyboard, which has a complicated evolutionary history of its own. Staff notation was initially designed for playing in one key, but it was expanded to accommodate chromatic music.

The grand staff includes bass and treble clefs, and ledger lines. It’s laid out as a Cartesian array where the vertical axis is pitch and the horizontal axis is time. The vertical axis is compressed by naming some notes as sharps and flats. If you expand the vertical axis out, so that each pitch has its own line or space, then you get something that starts to look like a MIDI programming interface. The MIDI format is great for programming, but not for reading. The grand staff is something like a MIDI piano-roll interface that’s been compressed so that humans can read it.

© 2019, 2020 Greg Varhaug