We Redesigned Musical Notation So It's Actually Easy to Read
"It's much more easier!" exclaimed Anna.
Anna’s six years old and I teach her piano lessons in Austin, where I live. She had just tried a new music notation I invented with a friend. And she understood it—no; she loved it. Her mom came into the room to see how Anna was doing.
“Look,” Anna said, pointing at the paper, “these, this is full! And empty! And this one is long!” She began explaining it all back to her mom. The whole system, after a thirty-minute lesson. I was amazed.
Learning to play an instrument is hard, but sheet music makes it even harder. I’ve taught dozens of students, ages 4 to 60, and traditional music notation never comes easily. It can often take months (or longer) to pick up. Worse yet, those frustrations often lead to thoughts like, “I’m bad at music.” It’s tough to hear; as their teacher, I know that’s not true. The sheet music just isn’t intuitive. And that shouldn’t be the hard part—when you read a great book, you think about the *meaning*, not which letter is which.
Last year, I set out to fix it. I recruited my old college roommate, Mike Sall, who works in data visualization, and together we started hacking ideas. Over the past year, we’ve tried everything —colors and shapes, lines and squiggles, flipping and squashing—putting it all in front of my students as we went. We ended up with Hummingbird, a new music notation.
Hummingbird does a few things differently. We realized students often can’t see when one note is higher than another, spending a lot of time counting lines between notes. So we gave each note its own symbol with a “helper” word that’s simple to memorize. No more counting lines, and both hands use the same symbols. We also noticed it can be difficult to remember which rhythm and rest symbols are which, so we made them follow a natural progression that actually shows what they mean: long notes are longer, short notes are shorter, and they each still have a unique symbol.
Hummingbird’s strength is in its reinforcement. Everything has both a symbol and a spatial element so you can read it and perceive it at the same time. Plus, it does all this without sacrificing the important things—it can show anything that traditional notation can, and you can still write it out by hand.
We’ve been trying out Hummingbird with my students over the past few months, and it has gone better than we could have imagined. Elle, age 8, asked if she could learn every song this way. Chris, 24, needed the whole folder because he was blowing through songs faster than I could share them. Alejandro, 6, started reading music without having to write out the letters. Anisha, 7, felt comfortable playing with both hands for the first time. Jack, 8, calls it the “magic system.”
And on and on. It’s a teacher’s dream.
Now we want to share it with the world. We put together a website—HummingbirdNotation.com—with a full explanation of how it works and lots of songs to practice. If you’ve ever felt discouraged out of learning to play, try it again with Hummingbird. Print out a song and give it a shot. Honestly, it will be fun this time.
A few weeks ago, I was teaching another student, Dominic. He’s 5. His mom came in at the tail end of one of his first lessons, and she was ecstatic that with only one lesson using Hummingbird, he could already read and play Twinkle, Twinkle perfectly. She insisted we keep using Hummingbird, telling me it was the first time she had seen him make real progress musically. But it wasn’t just that, she said. Her son had a sense of accomplishment she had never witnessed in him before.
Images courtesy of Blake West and Mike Sall