Transcribing Music in Western Culture

and the Introduction of NUME

Copyright © Michael S. Ellis 2008



Science - a branch of knowledge or study dealing with a body of facts or truths systematically arranged and showing the operation of general laws. -[1]


Creating music is an art. Transcribing music is a science. - Michael S. Ellis


“In questions of science, the authority of a thousand is not worth the humble reasoning of a single individual.” - Galileo[2]


            Western culture is the way of life derived from European countries, which was later brought to America.  The transcribing of music in European and American cultures is different than the transcribing of music in many other cultures. In India, for example, music was passed on through dictation for centuries. It was not transcribed at all. Most methods of transcribing the music of a particular culture are closely tied to the instruments of that culture.


            The Hydraulis was the oldest ancestor of the modern day church organ and the first musical instrument to utilize a system of manually operated piano key notes.[3] A Greek engineer named Ctesibius of Alexandria was the inventor of this ancient keyboard instrument in 250 BC. Using 3rd century BC technology, the pipes of the Hydraulis utilized an air compression mechanism that was powered by water (hýdor means: water in Greek). Like modern pipe organs of today, each pipe of the Hydraulis was tuned to a specific tone or “note”. Although the piano key notes of the Hydraulis consisted only of seven basic notes (A, B, C, D, E, F, & G), it was a very popular and sought after form of musical entertainment in Greece and Rome during the first five centuries AD.


            The five-line staff came into use about 1500.[4] This staff line notation goes very well with the early keyboard instruments that had only the seven natural notes, A B C D E F G, with no sharps or flats.  Each line and space is a different sequential alphabetical letter.  Today there are several types of clefs, such as the treble, bass, alto, tenor, French, soprano, and more.  Each utilizes the five-line methodology, again having a sequential alphabetical letter on each line and space.  Each staff “affords the eye no assistance at this point, since the octaves of notes occupy relatively entirely different positions upon it, the octave of a space being invariably a line, and the octave of a line a space. Moreover, the octave of a bass line is always very differently located when it falls upon the treble staff, and, vice versa, the octave of a treble note falling in the bass is very differently placed. If a notation had to be made anew it would no doubt facilitate matters to make use of a staff so planned as to bring out the equivalence of octaves more perfectly.”[5]


            There is a problem in that when the sharps and flats were created on the keyboard, the number of lines and spaces in the popular notation did not change to accommodate these new notes.  For example, the bottom line of the treble clef is an E note and the space above it represents an F note and there is not a note between E and F.  The second line of this staff is a G note and the space above it is an A note and there is a note between G and A, but visually there was no obvious display to show the difference between the G line and A space versus the E line and F space.  A further problem is that the note between G and A (namely G# or Ab ) has two names and can be viewed as being one note above G (G#) or as being one note below A (Ab).  This automatically introduces unnecessary complication to understanding notes and their placement in the order of their sound. Also, the natural sign was introduced. Now, you can have F# followed by F natural followed by F# and all three dots on the staff line would be on the same line (more on this later in the discussion on key signatures). Also, the natural sign, when it appears, not only affects all notes of that type (F notes, for example) regardless of the line or space on which they are written, but that type of note stays natural only for the current measure and then returns to being sharp or flat as it was before the natural sign was inserted. Or it could go back to being sharp or flat within the current measure if the sharp or flat sign appears preceding the note within the measure. There are hundreds of pages on the Internet on how to read sharps, flats and naturals. This is a confusing and cumbersome operation requiring needless memorization of rules and steps. Other staff line derivations have been attempted and are shown at


            The second problem with conventional notation is how the duration of the notes and rests are transcribed.   The chart below gives you the different kinds of notes and rests used today.



      In 4/4 time, the whole note and whole rest each get four beats, the half note or rest each get two beats, the quarter note or rest each gets one beat, the eighth note or rest gets one half of a beat, the sixteenth note or rest each gets one fourth of a beat and you can have smaller increments, each splitting the previous.


      However, in 12/8 time each value is doubled, since now an eighth note or rest each gets one beat.  This means a quarter note gets two beats and so on. 


Also, all the note and rest types have a different appearance, requiring memorization of each type.

Figure 1


            The biggest discrepancy in the display of the duration values lies in the use of time signatures. Time signatures indicate with the top number (4/4, 12/8) the number of beats in the measure.  A measure is indicated by placing a vertical bar line on the staff after each occurrence of the number of beats shown as the top number of the time signature. This can be helpful in dividing the sections or phrases of the music, as well as giving an indication of accent of certain beats (usually the first beat, unless other accent notation is shown further into the measure), but it can also be confusing because different types of notes can be assigned as having one beat.


            The bottom number of the time signature (4/4, 12/8) tells which kind of note gets one beat.  You could have 12/16 time in which the sixteenth note gets one beat. This means that the next larger note, the eighth note, gets two beats. The quarter note now gets four beats, the half note gets eight beats, and the whole note gets the full sixteen beats of the measure. The same timing applies to the rests.  When you're used to seeing a quarter rest getting one beat, what appears to you to be one beat is now four beats and you have to keep this in mind as you play.  It is not at all impossible, it just takes more work than showing one beat as a single type of notation.  You might also see the difficulty in interpreting the whole and half rests in the chart, above. 


            The only logical portion of today's method of transcribing notes and rests is that the eighth note and rest each have one “flag” indicating the duration is cut in half from the quarter note or rest. The sixteenth note and rest each have two flags indicating the duration is again cut in half.  One flag means cut the duration in half, two flags mean cut it in half again. There are 1/32nd notes with three flags (cutting the duration in half again) and 1/64th notes with four flags (cutting the duration in half yet again).  So flags cut the beat in half, as many times as there are flags. That is easy to grasp and to see. The flags from two notes can be “tied” together or attached at the top (or bottom) of the note stems to provide even more clarity of beat.


            The last word on time signatures and note duration is to discuss the dot. A dot after a note extends its duration by half as much as the note it follows. Duration can also be shown by “tieing” two notes with a curved line going from the round portion of one note to the round portion of the next note.  In this case you play the first note and hold it for its duration and then also hold it for the duration of the next note.  This “tie” can tie a note with any duration to the a note of the same pitch with any other duration, whereas the dot always means you are tieing the first note to a note of the same pitch whose duration is always half of that of the first note.



The dot notation[7] and explanation:


Figure 2


            This may make transcribing easier, but it also makes for additional rules and memorization for the musician. While on this subject, it is necessary to interject here that the operative word in the last sentence was musician. This is a person who desires to make music on whatever instrument (including voice).  Music is an abstract concept of beauty and simplicity, notes in sequential order and notes grouped to make us feel the emotions of the composer. Therefore, every attempt possible should be made to simplify how music is transcribed and conveyed to the beginner musician, and even to the advanced musician.


            Probably the greatest point of confusion in Western music transcription is the Key Signature.  Before going further, below is an image displaying some of the key signatures.[8] 

Figure 3


            The previous chart does not show all of the possible key signatures, such as the keys of G# and D# and others.  These keys have “double sharp” considerations, making things even more complicated.  A double sharp note is two notes above the normal note. The G## note is really an A note, but due to the requirement that major scales be notated in alphabetical order, the A note can not be called A but must be called G## instead. Keys with “double flats” also are possible. You need to understand why these key signatures became so involved and why they are so complicated.


            According to a contributor to, “Key signatures are generally used in a score to avoid the complication of having sharp or flat symbols on every instance of certain notes. Each major and minor key has an associated key signature that sharpens or flattens the notes used in its scale.” The article goes on to say, “The purpose of the key signature is to minimize the number of accidentals required to notate the music. In principle, any piece can be written with any key signature.”[9]


            Looking at the first quote, you must again go back to the five-line staff line.  The five lines and the five spaces (one above each line) do not accommodate the twelve notes we use.  Originally having its source in the seven letters, A through G, the ten lines and spaces were more than enough for the seven letters.  These seven lettered notes, when played from C to C gave the do-re-mi diatonic scale sound.  However, when playing from D to D, the sound was “darker” and called minor.  In order to get the same do-re-mi sound starting on a D note, a note had to be added between F and G, namely F# or Gb.  Another had to be added between C and D, namely C# or Db. This process for each of the seven starting points (A-G) gave us the sharps and flats we have today. Writing for the key of C, you did not need sharps or flats, but for every other key you do.  So back to the first sentence from Wikipedia, if you were to put the all of the required sharp notations at the start of the line, you would not have to put them on every occurrence of the note that needed to be sharped throughout the transcription of the song composition. But the musician has to remember which notes need to be sharped or flatted throughout the piece of music being played.


            This brings us to the second quote, the “purpose of the key signature is to minimize the number of accidentals required to notate the music.” This very sentence is its own oxymoron. There is no such thing as an accidental note. Each note has its own sound and purpose, musically. The term “accidental” is to keep from saying “sharps and/or flats.”  It is more succinct.  Digging deeper, we find that in the Baroque period, when the concept of keys was established[10], the insistence of calling each of these “accidentals” by two names coupled with the insistence that all musical scales' notes maintain alphabetical order caused the different key signatures to be created.


            For example, consider that the notes in the D major scale are D, E, F#, G, A, B, C#, and D.  The notes in the Ab scale are Ab, Bb, C, Db, Eb, F, G, and Ab.  Now look again and notice that the C# in the D major scale is called Db in the Ab major scale.  Due to the five-line staff, transcribing a composition in the key of D will result in putting a # sign at the beginning of the staff line on the third space from the bottom line, to indicate that all C notes are to be sharped unless proceeded by a natural sign. On the other hand, to transcribe a composition in the key of Ab, you will see that there is a flat sign on the fourth line, counting from the bottom, indicating that all D notes are to be flatted. Although these are the same note, they are not even displayed on the same line or space of the staff line.


            The most simple solution would be to stop using two names for each “accidental” and stop insisting on maintaining alphabetical order in the scales.  The Ab major scale would be called the G# major scale and would read G#, A#, C, C#, D#, F, G, and G#. This would not only cause the “half-steps” to be more visible, but would eliminate calling C by the name B#, and calling F the name E#, and needing to call G the name F##, which would happen in the G# scale if alphabetical order was demanded.  Also, if the double names were omitted and the staff line was increased by one line and space to accommodate twelve notes, no key signatures would be needed at all. An F# note would be on the line or space it should be on, thus eliminating key signatures, natural signs, notes automatically switching back to sharp or flat after the measure, and all of the complications and memorizations associated with key signatures.


            My son was given a music scholarship to a major university.  He was told that the next to last note in the G# scale was F## and that is what he must call it.  My son replied, “It's a G note.” When the professor told him his test grade would be lowered if he did not call the note F##, my son insisted on calling it G. I'm a very PROUD father. By creating new names for familiar things, we cause confusion.


            The major diatonic scale moves in what are called whole and half steps.  A whole step is moving up in sound two notes, while a half step is moving up in sound one note. This is due to the do-re-mi sound produced by the C major scale, wherein the notes E and F as well as B and C do not have a note between them. With the early instruments that had only the alphabetical notes A through G, you moved up from one note to the next, or a “step.” With the introduction of the sharps and flats, a step from C to D now had a note in between and the term “half step” was introduced, because from C to D had always been one step. Therefore, the musical community now called the distance from C to D a whole step and the distance from E to F a half step. Why? Is it a half of a note from E to F? No, it is not. Furthermore, this interval from E to F can be called one note, or a half step, or a semitone, or a minor second interval. Once again, why? Why have four names to represent moving up one note in sound? If you look at the way notes progress through the major diatonic scale, the movements you take from the starting note are two notes, two notes, one note, two notes, two notes, two notes, and one note (2-2-1-2-2-2-1). Regardless of the starting note, you move up 2-2-1-2-2-2-1 and you get the do-re-mi sounds.  They called these movements whole step, whole step, half step, whole step, whole step, whole step, half step (w-w-h-w-w-w-h). One half step equals one note and one whole step equals two notes.  I think you can instantly see the confusion that this concept introduced.


            The current staff lines of five lines are separated by some space, but within the space lie three alphabetic notes.  On the space above the top line of the bass clef is the B note.  On the space below the bottom line of the treble clef is a D note. Where is C? The C note can be shown on a partial line called a ledger line below the bottom line of the treble clef or above the top line of the bass clef.  So the C note (or middle C note) can be shown in two places in the same piece of music. Isn't this also more confusing than showing it on one single place? Of course it is.


            The last consideration of possible confusion and excess memorization requirements is the subject of intervals in standard Western notation.  Below are two examples of the intervals of adjacent notes on the staff line in two different keys.  The key signatures have intentionally been omitted.  In the Key of D, the F note becomes F# and the C note becomes C#.  From a line to a space or a space to a line can be one or two notes and is different in each of the two keys shown below. It is different for every key.

Figure 4


            The intervals of notes in chords can be just as confusing. Look at Figure 5, at the intervals on each of the chords in the two different keys. What appears to be a uniform amount of space between the notes is not only not uniform, but the intervals from space to space are different than from line to line in both keys. Remember that in the key of D, the F note and C note both need to become sharped. You can understand, now, why additional memorization is required to determine the different intervals of similar looking chords.

Figure 5


            As the complexity of chords increases, so does the required memorization of the intervals, because it is not visually inherent as to the distance between the notes in the current standard method of transcribing notes in Western culture.


            While on the subject of the apparent display of intervals with the Western staff, it would be wise to eliminate the whole and half step methodology, entirely. There is no such thing on the keyboard as a half of a note. While some instruments can “bend” notes to half way between two notes, the keyboard and many other instruments cannot. The proper interval relationship between notes in the major diatonic scale is 2-2-1-2-2-2-1, as said before, and there is no need to obscure this by calling a one-note interval a half of a step. This is a throwback to the time when there were no sharp or flat notes and the distance from one note to the next was a step. This should have changed long ago.


            Over the centuries many different methods of transcribing notes have been proposed, including a number of different staff line considerations and note types and styles. The Music Notation Project is a not-for-profit association dedicated to raising awareness of the disadvantages of traditional music notation, exploring alternative music notation systems, and providing resources for the wider consideration and use of these alternatives.  You can view some of the considerations at the website  The Music Notation Project was formerly called the Music Notation Modernization Association (MNMA).


            There are many chromatic notations (notations showing all twelve notes per octave) displayed, having staff lines with from one to seven lines per octave.  Some use many additional ledger lines (lines above and below each staff), some use the x symbol to represent certain notes while others use the v symbol and the inverted v symbol. Some even propose different colored notes. While the purpose of modernizing music notation is to make it easier for the musician to read and transcribe music, many of these proposals seem to complicate the situation, instead. Although there are only a few examples of actual music shown on the site and also few representations of note durations and rests in the proposals shown on the website, there is much food for thought there.


            All of the proposals seem to be focused on having the C note as the “starting” note of their octaves, as the C based diatonic scale is the common do-re-mi sound with no black notes and since the C note is supposedly the middle note on the average 88 key piano. Actually, the E note above “middle C” is really the 44th note of the 88 key piano. But it might just be easier to start the staff with the bottom line being the A note below what is now called middle C. This would make visualization and counting up to notes much easier and the use of A would be more logical to the beginner.


            Since there are twelve notes, why doesn't each note have only one name and have its own line or space on the staff line?  This would logically give us a six-line clef where the lines and spaces are each the sequential letters of the twelve notes, A  A#  B  C  C#  D  D#  E  F  F#  G and G#.  Also have the bottom of the six lines always start with A, the first letter for the first line. The space above would be A#, the line above would be B, the space above would be C and so on, having the space above the top line (the sixth space and twelfth note) being G#.  This would alleviate the double names and would make the sequences of notes visibly accurate. There would be no flats, only sharps. Consequently, major scales would no longer need to be described in alphabetical order. Thus, the intervals between notes would be more apparent on the staves as well as in letter order. For example, the F major scale would be F, G, A, A#, C, D, E, F.  By knowing that E and F have no note between them, the half steps would be obvious from A to A# and from E to F, and from A# to C is obviously two notes.


Figure 6


            In the diagrams above and below, the T represents the treble clef and the B represents the bass clef.  In Figure 6, there is no note between the G# note on top of the bass clef and the A note on the bottom line of the treble clef.  The spacing is for readability, only. Many of the proposed versions have the staves not separated, which makes it not only harder to read, but also does not allow for more space between, in order to show separate hand functions.  If the bass and treble clef are separated to show right and left hand usage, conventional ledger lines can be added to accommodate this.  Also, ledger lines can be added above the treble clef and below the bass clef, as shown in the examples below.

Figure 7


            With a New Understanding Musical Expression, you should also consider the duration of pitches and of silence (rests). As shown in Figure 1, there are conventionally the five types of notes that are shown, along with the possibility of more. The 32nd and 64th notes are not entirely uncommon.  The description to the right in Figure 1 explains that the note and rest durations are not always what they seem. A whole note is usually considered to receive four beats, but in 12/8 time, it can receive eight beats.


            People who listen to music understand a beat.  It is a tap of the foot or the nod of a head.  The beat is the single primary pulse of all music.  As the foot goes down, then it must come up to go down again for the next beat. You can say that the beat is broken into two parts, down and up. We know that beats can go faster and therefore can be broken down further into half again and half again of that, but the original beat is still one foot tap or head nod. Therefore, due to the fact that traditional notes’ duration values can change (as shown in Figure 1), this brings more complications and more memorization of excess rules. The solution is to never have a note or rest larger than one beat.


            But what about a note that lasts more than one beat? Introduce a sustain marker.  You have pitch markers and rest (or silence) markers. Why not have sustain markers. A pictorial view of the note, the rest, and the sustain markers and examples of usage are shown in Figure 8.


Figure 8


            If a sustained note is on a line, the sustain marker is closer to the line. If the sustained note is in a space, the sustain marker is in the middle if the space.  The sustain indicator may cause a little more work for the transcriber, but is much easier to see and understand for the reader, which should be the primary concern for music notation modernization. This will eliminate five or more different kinds of notes used, eliminate five or more different kinds of rests used, and eliminate the need for dotted notes of any kind. Think of the number of rules and memorizations that will be eliminated. The individual beat and its divisions will be the prime rhythm concept, as it is when you tap your foot. “Off-beats” will be instantly visible and understandable.


            The next supposedly insurmountable obstacle is the concept of the key of a composition and how to display it. The original problem was that the different keys had different sharps and/or flats, and these needed to be memorized so that you could write a C# note in the same way you wrote a C note, but you would have a sharp symbol at the beginning of the staff line on only one of the C note lines or spaces. With chromatic staff notation, there is no need for a key signature at all for transcribing the composition. Sharps will have their own locations (lines or spaces) and will be indicated properly with no “accidental” notation required.


            As a matter of fact, the designation of the bottom line as being an A note on each clef is really an arbitrary choice. If you wanted to assign a different note such as D, you could, as long as it was the bottom line of each clef. This would make transposing to another key almost instantaneous, as the intervals between the notes would remain the same, regardless of the bottom line note designation.


            This brings us to the last topic, intervals. Figures 4 and 5 (above) show the disparity in the display of note intervals in the keys of C and D, using the traditional method of transcribing notes. It is not at all obvious or inherent as to the “distance” between the notes in sequence or the notes played together in chords. This is due to the complexity of key signatures. Figure 9 shows how it can be easily discernible as to the intervals in sequences or chords using the chromatic staff lines in the New Understanding of Musical Expression.


Figure 9


            Here are some comparisons of standard transcribing and NUME (the New Understanding of Musical Expression) transcribing. In the first example, the issue of key and time signatures is obvious. This example uses the song “Money,” by Pink Floyd, which is in 7/4 time.


Figure 10


            You can see in Figure 10 that the Key signature in the contemporary Western method is quite complex, as the song is in the key of B.  The B in the NUME version represents the Bass clef, not the key.  The NUME method, being chromatic, would customarily have the bottom line of each clef being an A note. The key would be obvious to anybody who knows scales and has a little music experience. The point here is that the NUME method is easier to see and understand, with less memorization required by the musician.


            Counting in 7/4 is not usual to most musicians at the beginning and even intermediate level.  In this case, it might be more beneficial to have the musician/student count four and three, alternately. You can easily see the complication using today's transcribing on the first line of Figure 11. The displayed time signature has to be shown for each measure. This is not only cumbersome for the transcriber, but is clutter for the reader.

Figure 11


            On the second line and third lines of Figure 11, it is easy to see the four beats or three beats in the measures. Measures are to be helpful in phrasing and feeling, not a device that makes music harder to learn. Look at an excerpt from the Dave Brubeck classic “Take Five.”

Figure 12


            The key signature, the time signature, the different kinds of rests, the sharp and natural signs are all unnecessary when using the NUME methodology and the beats are actually visible, and the measures can be split in a way that can actually help the reader decipher this complex rhythm. Triplets, as shown in Figure 12, and grace notes can still use traditional notation. Directional indicators like DS al Coda can still be used or replaced by English terminology.


            Finally, a section of a contemporary work by Sir Paul McCartney is displayed below, with right and left hand separation. The left hand's four beats in each measure are clearly visible and the syncopation of the right hand is more perceptible than with today's Western transcription methodology.


Lady Madonna


Figure 13


            The NUME methodology is not intended to replace current Western music transcription, but its ease of learning and viewing certainly make it a viable alternative and a valuable addition to the current means of expressing music for all to enjoy.


            Below, you will see the complete tutorial for NUME (the New Understanding of Musical Expression) note transcribing. You will not need to spend months memorizing rules, and exceptions to those rules, to be able to understand how to read and write in the NUME methodology. Helping the musician means simplifying the enormous amount of confusion that the current Western method of note transcribing has caused and clarifying the way melodies and chords are constructed and used.  You can see more examples on my music page.  Click here to go now.


Nume Note Transcribing

copyright © Michael S. Ellis 2008


Figure 14