Introduction to Notation Systems

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This lesson is part of the Fundamentals of Sound & Music module.


  • Student will be able to critically assess the difference between an aural cue and its visual representation
  • Student will learn the definitions of etic vs. emic; prescriptive vs. descriptive notations
  • Student will be able to identify the emic/etic and descriptive/prescriptive aspects of various notations
  • Student will assess the functionality of different notation system(s) according to specific goals (i.e. performativity vs. representation)
  • Student will be familiar with various notation systems and the main sonic aspect they annotate, notably: guitar tablature, lead sheet notation, braille music notation, and electronic notation formats such as DAW diagrams, MIDI 1.0 and MusicXML files.



Notation Explained

Histories of Western Notations

Individual Notation Types

Instructor References[edit]


Class Activities[edit]

  • Discussion and demonstration of different notation systems and their individual purposes, strengths and weaknesses
  • Transcription of a simple melody in guitar tablature (given fretboard diagrams) and braille music notation
  • Demonstration of the creation of various electronic notation formats
  • Demonstration of MIDI signals using MIDI monitor software
  • Listening and "quick" transcription of musical examples: compare to score and discuss differences based on notation's function.
  • In-class interpretation of various notations on different instruments.
  • If you have a Javanese gamelan: Have students perform from gamelan notation and illustrate non-written practices


  • Notating short melodies in different notation systems
  • Transcription assignment: ask students to transcribe examples from various musical traditions with different aims and/or given different parameters (i.e. "notate the pitch parameter.")