(I’m writing shorter posts now, by the way: no more than 1,500 words each.)
In writing about myself last time I identified a problem that I’m trying to solve, which is that I get obsessed with particular hobbies – music, programming, writing, researching, camping, etc. – and I keep doing the same thing for too long. I get bored with it, but keep pushing myself, because it was so enjoyable, and then I suddenly switch to another. This leaves long periods in between pursuits, so I forget where I got to, making progress frustrating and inefficient.
I noticed it again in relation to music when I began re-learning to play the piano. I’m now practising fairly regularly, and I lose a lot of ground if I leave it even a few days between sessions, so I really don’t want to go off it and get obsessed with something else.
I began to feel the threat of another of my hobby phases approaching: programming. Just as piano playing had ousted my infatuation with wild camping, I began to worry I’d switch again and forget most of what I’d learned of my Bach and Chopin and Glass.
And then I had a brainwave – actually a brainwave from an earlier programming phase – an idea to write an activity tracker, to help me avoid one hobby fading into oblivion. It could also remind me of tasks that need regular attention, like changing the water filter, doing computer maintenance or getting exercise.
I sketched a prototype of it with Small BASIC (which is a nice, easy programming language), and then ported it to AutoHotkey. This worked well, it’s quick to update, and I’m using it every day. A glance and I know I’m doing well on my piano practice, but well behind on writing my blog (fixed) and my exercise. Some software I like to write myself so it works exactly how I want it to, and I probably need that for anything that nags me to do things!
So, ironically, instead of resisting the switch to programming, I’ve used my programming itch to help me avoid neglecting my other hobbies and repeating tasks. Clearly, “help” is the operative word – I still need to act on those reminders. It has another function, to show me things I spend too much time on, like social media.
A similar change has happened as with music: I’ve lost my ambition to turn this hobby into a business. Writing software for general use is a thousand times harder than writing it for myself, even before I start considering distribution and sales.
Playing music also increased my desire to program, because I was reminded just how insane traditional musical notation is. I began researching alternatives, and that led me to a tentative idea for a future program, an editor for what’s known as “Klavar” notation (short for “Klavarskribo”). This system is most suited to keyboard instruments, although the piano keyboard has become the default instrument that many musicians learn alongside another, and people – including most classical composers – now use one to interact with MIDI software to write music on computers.
I struggle a bit with the traditional notation, but I’ve done a fair bit of it and I don’t mind continuing. However, I think a lot more people would learn to play piano if they were introduced to Klavar, and the more I think about it, the crazier our current system seems. I’m currently trying to make contacts to discuss it more. Most users and resources are Dutch; there was an English website, but it’s now gone offline. Trying to get traditionalists interested in it is an uphill task, but I think some tweaks to the system might help, hence my playing about with my own version.
Here’s an extremely simple example of traditional musical notation:
You know how it works: you read left to right, and the dots show how high or low the note is. You might think that would be easy, and – with a simple melody like this, a few lessons and some homework – it is. If you haven’t learned to read music, however, it is virtually meaningless. If you sat at a piano and tried a guess, you’d have no chance. Moderately well-trained musicians have to do a lot of mental processing to read music, too, although after years of study and countless hours of practice, pianists assure me they can read even complex pieces with ease.
Now, have a look at this:
It looks more complicated, doesn’t it? You might think you’re worse off. For a start, there are a lot more lines, and it looks like I’ve turned the music sideways. Are you meant to read from top to bottom?
Yes, you are. But, if you look closely, the vertical lines are grouped in twos and threes. Now you can decipher the notes fairly easily, because this “stave” (or “staff”) represents the keys of the piano.
Of course, the stave in standard notation also represents the keys of the piano (and other instruments – here I’m just thinking of keyboard players), but knowing which is which is actually quite complicated. Not only does the stave not look like a piano, but a dot on a line or space doesn’t represent a specific piano key or musical tone unambiguously, it depends on a lot of things. Beginners usually don’t realise that – introductory material suggests it’s all fairly straightforward – and then, I imagine, a lot must come up against the complexities and give up.
The clef (the curly symbol at the beginning) is the “treble clef”: if it were another, all the notes would be different. Usually, piano music has a treble clef above, for the right hand, and a “bass clef” below, for the left, but they indicate different notes, and they often switch in the middle of a piece. Imagine if in writing English we occasionally put a mark that indicated all the letters are now going to shift up the alphabet two letters. Yjcv yqwnf aqw ocmg qh vjku? 😉
Then there are the sharps (the “#” symbols above) and flats (little ‘b’ shapes) that move the note up or down by one piano key, and “key signatures” (groups of sharps or flats at the beginning that change all the notes on particular lines or spaces). These are then further altered by “accidentals”, which make a note “natural” again (overriding the sharp or flat from the key signature) or even “double-sharp” or “double-flat”, moving it another key up or down!
That’s before we consider all the symbols for different note values, i.e. how long each one is held for, and “rests”, periods of silence.
Here is that Klavar image again, showing how it relates to the piano. Although at first it might look more complicated, it isn’t. The following quick lesson will tell you how to play it on a keyboard, and it will give you most of what you need to know to play anything in this notation, because notes always mean the same thing.
You start at the top, working downwards, and play each note just as it appears on the piano, guided by the sets of two and three lines that mimic the piano layout. The dashed lines down the middle just indicate the middle of the keyboard. A white circle shows you which white key to play and a black circle shows which black key to play. Each note has a tail pointing to the left or right, telling you which hand to play the note with. There are wider spaces between the lines corresponding to where there are two white keys together on the keyboard. These spaces take a circle to one side or the other to differentiate those keys. The stave can be extended outwards if necessary.
You can tell when to play each note much more easily, too. You’ll see the numbers 1 to 6 in the top section between solid horizontal lines (this is a “bar” or “measure”). These show in this case that there are six beats to the bar, so you just have to count 1 to 6 evenly, matching the notes to the six divisions (later marked by dashed lines across the stave if no note is shown there).
This is almost the same tune as the first example in the traditional notation. One difference is at the end, where the Klavar version has a final chord. In case you’re wondering, this is the “Westminster Quarters” that many church bells play, and precede Big Ben’s bongs.
Although this version of Klavar notation is the most used, there are others, including one where you read across the page and the tones go upwards, as per normal. There have also been plenty of other suggestions for better musical notation systems.
Well, that’s about all I have words for this time. Vjcpmu hqt tgcfkpi!