- adj. a made up word meaning "of pleasing sound."
- n. the personal weblog of Cameron Spencer.
Hummingbird is a new music notation system designed to be "easier to learn, faster to read, and simpler for even the trickiest music." It has received some high profile attention since it launched last week, but I haven't seen much critical analysis (aside from a very critical thread on Quora). As a musician and music teacher, I'd like to provide some perspective on Hummingbird, what's good about it, what's bad about it, and what role it may be able to serve.
Who is Hummingbird for?
The most important mistake the creators of Hummingbird have made is that they are positioning it as a complete replacement for traditional music notation, rather than as a stepping stone for beginners. As a learning tool, Hummingbird has some merits, but as a general use music notation system there are significant problems. Some of these problems can be attributed to Hummingbird being a work in progress. There are missing pieces that I'm sure the creators are working on, such as triplets and grace notes. Other problems, such as the removal of stems, are much more serious. I'm going to try to evaluate Hummingbird according to both of these goals; being easier to learn and being easier to use long term.
My favorite part of Hummingbird is its system for notating pitches. They have preserved the traditional method of associating pitches with vertical positions on a staff, and have added uniquely shaped noteheads for each pitch. This creates redundancy, but I think that has some value.
Changing the appearance of notes according to pitch is hardly a new idea. Other teaching systems exist that color-code pitches, or simply write the names of each pitch within the notehead. These systems are intended as a crutch for beginners, and students are weened off them as quickly as possible.
The creators of Hummingbird, on the other hand, see the unique shapes as a permanent feature. I can see some advantage to this. For isolated or difficult to read notes (such as very high or very low notes with many ledger lines1) shapes can be more quickly recognized than positions. However, in a typical passage of music experienced musicians don't read note-by-note. They recognize intervals and scales, and this requires position-based notation. Let me explain.
Above is an excerpt from a Bach partita for violin. If I were sight-reading this (I don’t play violin, but this piece sounds lovely on marimba) I wouldn't be thinking "E then F# then G# then A then B then C# etc." I would be thinking "start on E, then move up an E major scale until I get to A, then play F G# B, then start on E again and move up the scale, etc." I wouldn't even be slowed down by the high notes with ledger lines because I can instantly recognize them as simply the next notes in a scale. This is why it's fortunate that Hummingbird kept note positioning. Reading the wider jumps in pitch, such as the E in the second measure, may actually be easier with Hummingbird's shapes.
I have seen some criticism that the shapes Hummingbird uses are too similar to each other and would be hard to discern at small sizes. I don’t really agree with this. In context, even vague shapes will be helpful. The only pair of very similar shapes, C and E, are at least not next to each other. And, as I’ve said, you can still use positioning to read the notes.
Returning to the idea of using Hummingbird as merely an aid in teaching, the key to its value is in preserving the association of each shape to an actual named pitch. It would be a terrible mistake to put stickers on your piano with the shapes of each note on them. I have seen this done with color-based systems where each key on the piano is given a colored sticker. This makes it possible for students to play a song by simply matching up the colors, without ever knowing what the notes are (guitar tablature has this problem too2). Wisely, the creators of Hummingbird designed their shape-based system to help musicians learn the names of the notes. They even have clever (english only) mnemonic devices to help you translate each shape into a name.
Of course Hummingbird's pitch notation has drawbacks. The shapes are more time consuming to draw by hand, and harder to read when printed small or at poor quality. Then there's the really big drawback: because Hummingbird uses both hollow and filled-in noteheads it's necessary to also change how rhythms are notated, and that's where most of Hummingbird's problems lie.
Hummingbird's rhythm notation is placed inline with it's pitch notation. In other words, the circle that defines a note's pitch occupies the same horizontal space as the lines which define it's duration. I worry that this will make the music more difficult to scan and read quickly. To a certain extent, traditional notation visually separates rhythm and pitches. The rhythm is mostly defined by thick horizontal bars that sit far above or below the notes. This makes it is easy to focus on pitch or rhythm independently. I suspect that this is much harder with Hummingbird.
The small dashes that define note length will be hard to read at small sizes, or on poor quality copies. The notation also takes up more space, requiring sheet music to be longer.
I understand the reasoning behind stretching out noteheads so that they more literally describe the lengths of notes, but I think this resulted in a system that compromises long-term readability for the sake of learnability. This is not such a big deal if Hummingbird is only designed for beginners, but that’s not how they’ve been promoting it. Even if they were positioning this only for beginners, the rhythm notation is far too different from traditional notation to serve as a useful entry point to reading music.
Why stems are important
The worst part of Hummingbird, in my opinion, is the removal of stems. Stems are the vertical lines that extend up or down from noteheads.
Stems play a very important role in music: they allow a composer to group notes together, or to isolate notes from each other. Take a look at this passage from Schumann's Von fremden Ländern und Menschen for piano.
Schumann is using stem direction and beaming to convey some very important information. He is telling us that there are three separate musical parts. There is the melody on the top staff with stems pointing up, the bass line on the bottom staff with stems pointing down, and an accompanying part split between both staffs with stems pointing towards the center. He is instructing the performer to keep these parts discernible from one another because they each serve a different musical role. An experienced musician will likely interpret this by playing the melody notes a little louder than everything else, and by being careful to keep the accompaniment fluid and connected even though it's split between both hands. This information is lost if you remove the stems.
Composers sometimes use stem direction to tell performers other information, such as which hand to play with. Here's an excerpt from Clair Omar Musser's Etude in C Major for marimba with four mallets. The notes with stems pointing up are played with the right hand, and stems pointing down with the left hand. This is a common pattern for marimba music. Again, this information is lost if you remove the stems.
How about this polyphonic passage from a Bach fugue. In its current form, I have serious doubts about Hummingbird's ability to notate complex music, and this fugue is just the tip of the iceberg.
What about clefs?
It is odd that Hummingbird preserves traditional clefs. Learning multiple clefs is one of the most complained-about aspects of learning music. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve handed a young percussionist a part written in bass clef and had them look at me like I’ve asked them to try playing ukelele for a change. It seems frustratingly pointless that pitches are written on different lines in treble and bass clef (and these are just the two most common clefs). If the goal is to completely replace traditional notation, I would have used a single clef and devised a simple way to indicate which octave to play in. (I would put middle C in the center of the staff, like alto clef. This has a certain logic to it. Viola players would be thrilled.)
What does it mean to teach music?
The final point I want to make is about the difference between teaching a song, and teaching music.
I think any notation system aimed at beginners should be designed to build an understanding of music, rather than just making it easier to learn individual songs. I'm concerned that Hummingbird's only goal is to be easier to read, which can sometimes run counter to the goal of aiding understanding.
For example, they propose eliminating the key signature if there are only a couple flats or sharps. They say you should just mark each flat or sharp note with an accidental as the music goes along. At least they don't suggest removing the key signature entirely. They think it should be placed at the beginning of the music in plain text, like a tempo marking, where it's certain to be ignored. This is a terrible idea. Understanding key signatures is fundamental to understanding harmony, which is fundamental to understanding music. The concept should be introduced as early as possible, not skipped over until the key signature becomes too complex to ignore.
Hummingbird focuses too much on bringing clarity to individual notes, at the expense of bringing clarity to the music as a whole.
Where to go from here?
As a teaching aid, I think some parts of Hummingbird have some merit. I like what they have done with notehead shapes because they aid readability without taking away any information, and can serve as a bridge to learning traditional notation. However, I think they have gone down the wrong path with the rhythm notation.
As a complete replacement for traditional notation, Hummingbird is nowhere close to being ready. All of the music they have posted on their website is very simple, and I worry that they haven't tried rewriting something more complex. I'd like to see them do a version of the Schumann piece I mentioned above (here's a link to the score). This is a good test piece for Hummingbird because it's short, it's not very hard, and it's in the public domain. Once Hummingbird can handle that, maybe try a Bach fugue. Then try an orchestral score. If you really want to test the limits of the rhythm notation, try rewriting a snare drum solo.
If these pieces can be rewritten in Hummingbird, be made easier to learn, and not lose any information, then perhaps Hummingbird is ready to be adopted by the musical masses. Perhaps.
Ledger lines are little horizontal dashes used when a note is too high or too low to fit on a traditional 5-line musical staff. The higher (or lower) a note is, the more dashes are required. These notes can be hard to read because the dashes are small and difficult to count quickly. ↩︎
Guitar tablature is essentially a diagram of the fretboard. It tells you exactly on which strings, and at which frets, to put your fingers. It’s an extremely literal notation system, like writing a word by describing what shapes to make with your mouth. As a result, it's possible (and common!) to learn a song on guitar without ever knowing what notes you're playing. ↩︎