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Tuesday, April 11, 2017


World Music Online And Remote Learning: Cultivating Music System Diversity.

The banner screenshot above hints at possibilities never before seen in an online music environment - music notation directly driving a wholly configurable variety of instrument models and theory tools in an entirely graphical setting. It doesn't take long to figure out that the music system being represented is based on equal temperament. What, though, of all the other world music systems - of which there are many?

This post examines the music systems underlying notations: the musical configurations and semantic or semiotics (meanings or intentions) notation glyphs or symbols seek to convey.

Music System Diversity

MusicXML is perhaps the most expressive of exchange file formats. Capable of representing entire multipart orchestral scores, it's reputation has earned it integration into web standards under the aegis of the W3C.

Though increasingly capable of representing music notations from other musical cultures (for example Arabic and Turkish makam), in most people's mind's MusicXML is tied to the 12-tone equal temperament (12-EDO or 12-TET) western or classical music notation system. There is pressure to integrate other music systems, but don't hold your breath.

Stripped of the more recent (and -in an age of responsive and algorithmic placement- pointless) screen positioning information, MusicXML specifies a score's structural characteristics. Amongst others: voice, octave, duration, note name (pitch) and note type. Critically, the note appearance is not specified.

This is important, as it on the one hand allows various fonts to be applied, and on the other allows a degree of latitude in the type of notation used. In effect MusicXML invites limited notation 'misuse'.. Let me list a few examples:
  • classical scores played on just-intoned instruments
  • just intoned folk instrumentalists adopting western classical notation as a base for documenting own folk tunes
  • western classical notation being intentionally adapted to accommodate a variety of microtonal music systems
Equally, certain microtonal notation systems (for example Sagittal) are capable of use with equal temperament music.

Master - Slave
Notation The Driver. Reads L to R.
MusicXML 1 : many
All that is required are:
  • known mappings between notation systems
  • an ability to suspend training and/or doubts ("Just Do It")
The relationship between exchange file and notation is demonstrably one-to-many. In recognising that, dear heart, we open up new avenues of exploration.

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To recap, western notation can be -and indeed is- used to represent certain forms of just intoned systems. Equally, microtonal notationsystems such as Sagittal, conceived to represent just intoned music, can be used to represent conventional equal tempered pieces.

To be absolutely clear, we are not merely talking of subtly differentiated glyph sets (as between, say, Gonville and Emmenthaler), but the disambiguation of, and compatibility mapping between fundamentally different musical notations.

We are talking of the ability to represent a piece of music using notations based on one of a number of different underlying music systems.

The concept described here is known as 'Transnotation', and though not yet (to my knowledge) implemented in any online notation system, is long established amongst ethnomusicologists.

My gut feeling is that this -to all intents and purposes simple- capability is the key to unlocking a wave of cross-cultural or comparative musicological interest. Moreover, it's consequent implementation, though in a comprehensively 'music visualization' sense manpower-intensive, is decidedly not rocket science.

We might also (logically) infer that a given score can be represented by more than one type of exchange file. Indeed, here we can begin to think of compatibility mappings between exchange files.

As always, to avoid duplication, one should always seek mappings at the lowest possible level in any dependency tree. Our dependency tree stretches from underlying music systems over their semantic or semiotic representations to the formalities of exchange files to actual notations.

Clearly, mappings such as these are not just between various notation families, but effectively to music systems and hence cultures. If these could be formalized, might they not unlock some powerful practical applications?

Let's take a stab at illustrating this slightly confusing topic in one simple visual model. If we think of equal temperament and just intoned music systems as 'orthogonal' to each other, we might nevertheless find 'best-fit' pitch mappings between the two.

We show just two from many potential mappings. Other, perhaps experimental notations could be represented by additional tetrahedrons with an edge common with the underlying notation. The basis for a future animation?

Incidentally, similar results might alternatively (and more accurately) be found by directly overlaying the pitch graphs for the two systems.

For the meantime, we should simply be aware of notation mappings as a means of transitioning between: Though those known and applied are limited in number, such mappings open a number of avenues for musical exploration.. The challenge, of course, is not just to indicate that a different pitch system is referred to, but -especially in the case of just intonations- to indicate which (possibly regional) derivative is intended.

At the end of the day, however, there is likely to be a simple and elegant solution. My own preferred hack is to describe the problem, and to allow the old wetware to work on it while sleeping.

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Why Explore Music System Diversity?

Music notations in all their forms remain a surprisingly fertile and active area of interest and study among artists and musicians.

Potential Crowdfunder?

While many have western classical music as context, it's probably fair to assume the similar levels of interest across all music cultures. Moreover, we humans can prove very adaptable. The use of music notations in contexts other than originally intended is no exception.

Often, the easiest way to learn something new is to relate it back to the known. Say you have two notation systems, one designed for equal temperament, the other for just intonation. A specific note may have a wholly different representation within each notation system, yet be so close in pitch that the representation is all but irrelevant.

This is a possible mapping: find enough and you have a general purpose bridge between the two systems. Uses?

  • To ease transition to unfamiliar music systems - and hence musical cultures
  • New notational, instrumental and theory tool freedoms and interworking (for example: documenting experimental music using existing exchange file formats)
  • Represents emotional, cultural, commercial, social and intellectual opportunity
  • Area of application of artificial intelligence
  • A base, context and impetus for the further development of web standards and conventions
  • New understandings in relation to other disciplines
  • Facilitates progress towards an open, multicultural society
In earlier posts, amongst others, we identified the following two configuration or control levels:
  • overall (music system)
  • internal defaults (notation, instrument and theory tools)
.. and of the flexibility boost they bring. Here they are illustrated:

Here we see two types of configuration change in action: the defaults, driven both by the musical source (here MusicXML) and user's environmental settings, and any directly user-controlled and propagated 'what-if' type changes.

Freedom of navigation between compatible music systems seems likely to serve these ends. For the rest, we will be able to see at a glance where differences lie and why they are rendered incompatible.

Pitch Standards
440 Hz (Standard)
432 Hz ('Nature')
Notes Or Tones Per Octave
12, 17, 19, 22, 24, 25, 31, 41, 46,
48, 53, 58, 72, 79, 88, 96, 1420
Temperaments & Intonations
Equal, Just, Meantone, Pythagorean, Syntonic,
Well Tempered, Tempered Timbres - and many others..

Those used to the 'western' 12-tone equal temperament can be truly surprised to learn of the many other music systems in use worldwide. Whether surveyed by ethnicity, region, country, religion or underlying music system, there is vast diversity of musical convention, style - and tonal subtlety. For the most part, the latter is largely lost on ears accustomed only to western music.

Swapping perspectives for a moment, having your musical culture ignored, misunderstood or even disparaged is for many -along with language, food or customs- just another challenge in an increasingly multicultural society.

Music Systems In The Learning Process

The concept of transnotation is intimately bound to the way musical symbols are used to represent intent.

Having got this far, let's go just a little deeper, and see if we can identify how learning is affected by music system -and especially symbolism. Keep in mind: we are not talking specific notations or symbolism here, but the notion of musical intent.

Music Systems In The Learning Process
Goal Layer 1 Means Concrete Example
Transsemiotic mappings Semiotic interworking. Semantic or semiotic compatibility within same exchange format (source), semantic 'meta-knowledge'. Pan- and music-system-generic symbolism.
Extending Horizons Microtonal Tunings & Regional Prefs Expressing fine-grain regional differences in tuning practice.
Musical flexibility Accommodation of global change. Accommodation of key change or transposition, and instruments in other than noted keys..
Stylistic disambiguation Elements of style. Innovation Semiotics of fine-motor, stylistic intent and their disambiguation. Symbol innovation.
External mappings Fingering, chord etc representations Semiotics of pitch-finger position mappings, including chord representation
Detailed glyph-semiotics mappings Semiotics catalogue. Survey semiotics of pitch, voice, dynamics etc. What exists? Existing meanings. Gap analysis.
Initial Orientation Identify applicable music systems Desired semiotics across time signatures, pitch, dynamics etc.
Music System Application Area Culture, instrumentation, conventions What do we want to communicate?

Where There's A Will, There's A Way

Finally, mappings between notations dedicated to different music systems have the potential to open many cultural doors. How might we accelerate their discovery? Here some tentative thoughts.
  • General user consensus, perhaps with recognised limitations
  • A crowd-sourced approach, possibly using screen bitmaps and/or audio to correlate symbol and behaviour
  • A structured test approach, but otherwise as immediately above
  • Artificial intelligence engine able to identify notation compatibilities


online music learning,
online music lessons
distance music learning,
distance music lessons
remote music lessons,
remote music learning
p2p music lessons,
p2p music learning
music visualisation
music visualization
musical instrument models
interactive music instrument models
music theory tools
musical theory
p2p music interworking
p2p musical interworking
comparative musicology
world music
international music
folk music
traditional music
P2P musical interworking,
Peer-to-peer musical interworking
WebGL, Web3D,
WebVR, WebAR
Virtual Reality,
Augmented or Mixed Reality
Artificial Intelligence,
Machine Learning
Scalar Vector Graphics,
3D Cascading Style Sheets,

Comments, questions and (especially) critique welcome.