Tuesday, December 18, 2007

6. Dumb Clefs, Smart Clefs

In this post, I'm going to make a simple suggestion that would make piano music much easier to learn, and easier to play. It's probably totally unrealistic, but here we go...

Take a look at this note that you might see written on a page of music:
That symbol represents an "A" if it's on the treble clef, but on the bass clef, it represents a "C". Looks exactly the same, but means different things on different clefs.

Isn't that a strange system? Think of the accidents you'd have if a stop sign meant "Stop" when on the left side of the street, and "One Way" if it were on the right.

So, wouldn't it be nice if the notes were the same on the two clefs?

Here's a suggestion about an alternate version of the bass clef that will result in notes being represented the same way on the two clefs. The change needed to make it this way is a simple one, and it would greatly benefit anyone who has to learn two clefs. Here's a description of the change.

Current System (Dumb Clefs)

There are a lot of clefs that are used in writing music, but there are two that are much more common than others: the treble clef and the bass clef. Combined together they are referred to as the grand staff. This is what it looks like:

This looks nice and neat, but here's the problem. This arrangement results in different notes being represented by the same written notes on the different staves. As I mentioned above, this representation:
refers to an A if it's on the treble clef, but a C if on the bass clef. Looks exactly the same, means two different things.

Here are the note names on the grand staff:

To learn the just notes shown in this figure, you (or a seven-year-old student) would have to memorize 38 different notes.

But much worse, a single representation of a note, like this,

looks exactly the same to your brain whether you are dealing with treble or bass clef, yet it represents two different notes. No matter how well you know your music, your brain still has to go through that extra step and say "OK, if this were the bass clef that would be a C, but we are dealing with the treble clef here, so that is an A."

There's a surprisingly easy to fix this.

Suggested System (Smart Clefs)

Imagine that the grand staff were slightly different, like this:

It looks just as nice and neat as the grand staff you're used to, but with a single note inserted between the two staves. This simple change gives us a tremendous advantage: The notes are in the same places on each staff!

Note that I've called the lower clef a "Smart clef," and it's represented with an "S". Here are the note names on this new grand staff:

So, for example, this:

represents an A, no matter which clef you are reading from. On the upper staff it's an A above middle C, and on the lower, it's an A about an octave below middle C.

Think about what this change would mean. Students would have their memorizing task cut in half (only about 16 notes instead of 38). They'd learn their notes in half the time.

Better, your brain can process the notes faster when sight-reading (OK, I made this part up, but it makes sense).

If publishers could agree to print beginner piano music (or all music) with these new clefs, a lot of time, effort, and frustration would be saved.


I've been surprised to find that if I talk about a change like this, I usually hear some objections. Here's what I've heard:

Objection 1: Once you get used to the standard clefs you won't have problems

Sure, but it will take you longer to learn them. Also, I suspect that your performance would always be a little better if you can avoid that extra processing step.

Objection 2: There are plenty of staves (tenor, soprano, etc.); treble and bass are just two among many

True, but they are the ones used by most, and most piano music is written on them

Objection 3: The current grand staff is symmetrical around middle C, and it makes sense

The smart clef is also symmetrical. It just happens to be symmetrical around a B instead of a C. Some people like the fact that there's only one ledger line between the staves. The new system has two. The two staves are rarely printed so close to one another that there's only room for one ledger line between them anyway. In that regard, the smart clef makes more sense.

Objection 4: You're going to change the piano keyboard??!!

No, no changes to the keyboard or to any instruments are necessary.

Objection 5: I'm already proficient with the current system. I don't want a new clef to learn

There's nothing new for you to learn. The notes in the smart clef are in the same location as on the treble clef. You can probably adapt to it in a day or so. I know this because often music has sections notated with two treble clefs or two bass clefs. This is especially true of music written for four hands. Those situations are not difficult to deal with.

Objection 6: Nice idea, but most music is already written with the standard grand staff

Ah, here's a real problem. Literally billions (with a "B") of sheets of music have been printed with the treble and bass clef.

But, look at the state of downloadable sheet music. On some web sites, you can download songs and print them in any key. Digital displays are used in some applications and will be more common in ten years. We are just entering a period of transition to a newer way of displaying music, and now might be a good time to make a change.

That's fine, you might say, but let's say a kid who's learned piano using the smart clef system wants to get some music from the library and play it? She will be out of luck!

True, but this situation occurs today, since some older music is written in unfamiliar clefs. When playing trombone, I came across exercises and pieces written for tenor clef, a clef I've never learned.

In rare cases, when the music isn't available in smart clef, and can't be converted, the student will have to learn the bass clef, in which case she will be no worse off then she is today. Better off, since she's already been playing a while, and doesn't have to learn two new clefs at once.


Humans have a surprisingly high tolerance for different standards. Here are some examples:

  • Philips head and slotted screwdrivers
  • Standard time and Daylight time
  • Metric and English systems
  • PCs and Macintoshes
  • Driving on the left, driving on the right
  • Calculator keypads versus telephone keypads (take a look!)

That may explain why people have tolerated the current system for so long.

Yes, it may be unreasonable to suggest a change like this, and I'm sure someone else has already proposed it. But at least it's something to think about, and that's why I wrote this post.


d w said...

great idea

what is more amazing is your authentic passion :)

Anonymous said...

The different clefs give you experience that will help you to play in a different key from the one that is written - a commonly needed skill for accompanists.

Dan W said...

I wish more people had your attitude.

Playing an instrument is supposed to be fun, and learning the notes on each clef is one of the rites of passage one must painfully go through (at least for sight reading). Learning a 2nd clef is at best twice as slow, and at worst, can easily confuse the mind to be 10x as slow.

Your idea sounds like one of the better systems I've heard (there are others, like with 4 lines instead of 5 per clef).

I'll try and promote it if I can (I'm a piano teacher, and obviously have to teach the status quo, but...)

Anonymous said...

(same anon from yesterday) I think a lot depends on how much you use the notes around middle c. if you use them a lot, then recognizing them quickly makes sense. The main staff and 3 notes in the middle are currently the easiest torecognize and your system would change that. Finally, do you ever think about removing half the alphabet characters to make life easier for the 3 year old? Or do you think that o and p look too similar but different?

Al said...

Thanks for the comments, folks.

Funny you should mention the alphabet. There are 40 phonemes in English, and 26 letters. If we had one letter for each phoneme, spelling tests would go away.

Unknown said...

This posted a while ago, but this hit home for me. I am amateur composer (jazz and progressive) and i have used my own smart staff for 20 years. It always seemed like ridiculous, unnecessary task to transcribe all the notes an octave lower to a different place on the staff. Made it slower for me to write, and then slower to sight-read when trying to record the piece. Both were critical, but when writing, its important to keep creative flow going, rather than getting caught up in technical details. Truly a no-brainer.

Al said...

Thanks. Yes, it seems obvious to me, but you'd be amazed at some of the resistance I've received. In any case, I doubt it will ever happen.