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Too Many Notes! How a Silicon Valley Designer Is Disrupting Piano Music

The bleeding edge of piano music takes an idea from the 14th century and 14-year-old guitarists: tablature.

by Ben Richmond
Jul 8 2015, 9:00am

Image: Medium

Western musical notation—those pesky dots and stems on a staff—is a system that everyone uses, but not one that everyone likes, largely due to its steep learning curve. That's why Alex Couch, a casual musician and Bay Area designer, did what Bay Area designers do and tried to disruptively innovate piano music.

"I want to make it easier for 'regular people'—casual hobbyists, beginners, intermediates—to play the songs they love on the piano," Couch told me in an email. "To me, that means showing them how to play a song, where to put their fingers, etc., instead of trying to teach them how to be a classically-trained musician first."

The result looks like Guitar Hero For Piano or the piano-teaching system, Synthesia, although, Couch told me his system is designed to be much simpler. "I know these exist, but was trying to create something more flexible, simple, portable, more 2-dimensional (as those are all '4D' interactive forms requiring hardware and software to use)," he said.

I dragged the old keyboard out from under the bed and gave Couch's system a shot. I've never been able to play piano, and I didn't play long enough to intuitively grasp where my hands should be going—and frankly, Paul McCartney was using too many octaves. But it was a hell of lot less intimidating than the sheet music to "Let It Be," even though I've been smashing into sheet music my whole life.

While it's musical notation, Couch's system is more accurately described as a form of tablature. The notation tells you where to put your fingers as opposed to telling you what note should be heard, like Western notation or its would-be replacements, such as "Hummingbird," the 2013 product of other Bay Area software disruptors. It might be limited, but Couch's system is about getting to play faster and worrying about music theory later, if ever, and probably never.

"Say you're traveling to Mexico and you want to know how to ask, in Spanish, where the bathroom is. What you want to learn is the phrase "dónde está el baño?" (or, as an English speaker would probably think of it, 'don-day-estah-banyo?')," Couch told me. "You don't need to understand the origins of the words, or how 'está' is conjugated for different subjects, or that 'el' is the masculine form of that article. You just want to find the damn bathroom! I think Western notation is a powerful thing, but it assumes that you've put in the many hours (and probably years) of foundational work to be effective."

Whiletablature dates back to 14th century organ music, guitarists are the most likely to rely on it today. Since the beginning of the internet, there have been websites that tell you in plain ASCII, where to fret the intro to "Enter Sandman" along with almost any other guitar song, or songs arranged for the guitar.

Image: Ultimate-Guitar.com

The guitar is a folk instrument, and open to amateurs, so maybe it's no surprise that tabs would catch on there. Granted, it's not a perfect system, and tabs are looked down upon by "real musicians" who will often note with a sniff that tabs don't tell you the rhythm of the song, or are instrument-specific, or that Jimi Hendrix didn't need them, or whatever. They're the Dark Side of music—quicker, easier, more seductive.

Image: Guitarist.com

On the other hand, I can tell you from personal experience that reading sheet music for guitar sucks. A note can tell you the pitch, but that same pitch occurs five times on the guitar. Classical pieces for the guitar either take a long time to memorize where you put your hands, or else they have a bunch of other little tablature-like numbers around the notes, to indicate which finger or string to hit the note on. And the guitar is a Western instrument built for the 12-tone scale! For instruments designed for other scales—think quarter tones or unequal temperament in Russian or Arabic musical traditions—and it's even worse.

The piano, meanwhile, was designed with Western notation in mind and they work together more smoothly. It's all there in front of you: one key per note. That isn't to say that sight-reading piano music is easy or even that playing the instrument is any easier. It just seems that culturally we're content to hold pianists to a higher standard of musical knowledge. Couch wants to open the instrument up a little bit.

Couch explained that even before the first note, Western notation references a huge body of knowledge, referring to the "coded communication" at the beginning of the piece that explains the tempo, as well as the time and key signatures.

"We train every piano student as if they're an eventual expert, and in doing so, create a high barrier for entry," Couch said. "I think it ends up excluding a lot of folks who would like to play some piano (without becoming an expert)."

Couch says he's gotten some helpful feedback since writing an article about the system on Medium last week, including suggestions for things like shapes and colors. "It's been good to hear where people are getting confused," he said.

But just as with guitar tabs, there's been backlash, much of it from people who put in the time to learn regular sheet music, which, again, Couch has no pretenses of replacing.

"I'm not targeting symphony conductors here, I'm looking at that that Coldplay fan who wants to play 'The Scientist' for their friends," he said.

Western notation has become, for better or worse, the world standard for written music, and as long as the instruments of the Western canon are being used, it will likely remain that way. It's flexible, and is the product of "user testing" that is said to date back to Pythagoras. Stems and dots on the staff really do convey a lot of information really succinctly. However, beyond guitarists, musicians, particularly those who compose on and for their computers, are leaving it behind. But it's never been perfect, and if you want to bust out some Elton John or even, God forbid, Train, the only thing stopping you should be good taste.

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