Cleanotation – A New Music Notation System

September 18, 2007

Cleanotation minimally simplifies Standard Music Notation.

Hello. My name is Clark Battle. Like many musicians, I have accepted, but never been entirely comfortable with the complexities of the standard western music notation system. Western Standard Music Notation has always seemed way too complicated for what it was trying to communicate. Since the need to know standard music notation is important to be able to read almost any western historical music, like everyone else, I struggled to learn it.


Western Standard Music Notation evolved over hundreds of years from a time when music generally did not deviate far from a single tonality. As a result it made sense to use a key signature to establish the harmonic rules for determining the value of all subsequent notes on the staff. Once the rules are established writing music becomes as easy as placing dots and lines on the paper. Any “accidental” deviations to the harmonic rules carry forward through the measure.

Given the simple needs of music notation at the time, this system was intuitive and effective at communicating the composer’s idea. The composer could quickly scribble down the idea and send the score to a copyist to render it in a form more friendly to the reader. Printed music is little more than a pretty version of the scribbled shorthand composers used to quickly notate music.

The historical bias for ease of writing over ease of reading can not be overstated.  Composers gravitated toward systems that made their lives easier.  Writing tonal music in traditional notation is fast and easy.  Reading it is not.   This is an unfair bias given that many players must sight read in real time while operating an instrument, while a single composer can write at a speed of his leisure.  A fair music notation system would bias ease of reading far above ease of writing.  However, since composers control the writing of music it has evolved to their benefit over that of the reader.  Also, the needs of classical players are traditionally considered subservient to the superior demands of the composer.  So there is little pressure to change.

Presently most music, like most creative text, is written on a computer. Modern composers should have little need to adhere to a notation whose main value is that it can be quickly written with a pen. What is needed is a notation that is consistent, uniform, and simple but as expressive as Western Standard Music Notation.


It is no surprise that we can see parallels to music composition in the advent of computer word processing. Originally, text formatting was notated by entering control characters within the text to indicate margins, fonts, spacing, etc. If you wanted some text in italics you would have to enter a formatting code before and after the text that indicated such. Due to the limitations of display technology at the time, the text was not actually shown in italics on the screen. This process reflected the way that printing needed to be specified before the advent of computers. The editor would specify the set of rules that modified the content (italics, bold, paragraphs, etc) as instructions to the printer.

HTML and CSS currently uses this approach to lay out web pages. While this approach has advantages for content intended to be parsed by a web browser it is not so good for content intended to be read by a human. In word processing, this all changed with the advent of WYSIWYG. Finally computers could display the text on the screen as it would appear at the printer. No longer did readers have to refer to a set of rules that had been previously established in order to imagine how the text would be formatted. They could see it as it was intended to look.

While most people today take for granted the benefits of WYSIWYG word processing, standard music notation never really evolved to this stage. In music, the reader must still refer to a set of markup notation (clefs, key signatures and accidental precedents) in order to determine the value of any note on the staff. Like text markup languages, this system introduces a lot of clutter that demands a lot of the reader to interpret. Professional musicians take years of intense study to be comfortable with all of this. And once they are comfortable with it they often forget what a struggle it was to get to that point. And thus, composers happily perpetuate the system that they once struggled to learn. For them there is little incentive to change. However, Western Standard Music Notation continues to present a steep learning curve to the novice and intermediate musician.

The Present

It is now the 21st century. Since most modern composers use computer software to write music there is little need to adhere to a single system that was designed to make music easier to write with a pencil and paper. Technology allows us to evolve music notation to incorporate a more WYSIWYG style of communication. The advent of chromatic notation systems attempts to capitalize on this opportunity by notating music orthogonally and chromatically. This removes the need for almost all of the cumbersome mechanisms of Western Standard Music Notation. Although many chromatic notation paradigms have some very attractive features they lack one feature that is the most important and powerful… familiarity.

Chromatic notation systems have gained little popular foothold largely because they do not leverage the historic familiarity of Western Standard Music Notation in order to gain acceptance by current musicians. Like all human language, music notation must improve through evolution, not revolution. Many chromatic notation systems seek to re-invent the wheel rather than simply make it rounder. A music notation system needs to be expressive, familiar and compatible with Western Standard Music Notation.


It is very important that any new notation system not be less communicative than Western Standard Music Notation. Chromatic notation systems tend to begin with the assumption that composers only need twelve symbols per octave to determine any given diatonic note. While this may be technically true, in practice it cripples the composer’s ability to communicate subtle harmonic interpretation information through the choice of enharmonic equivalents. Sometimes, C# is not the same as Db!


Despite its complexity, Western Standard Music Notation (WSMN) is really quite elegant. However, this elegance is often obscured by a lot of unnecessary clutter.  Cleanotation elegantly simplifies Standard Music Notation minimally but effectively. Anyone who can read Standard Bass Clef will find Cleanotation almost immediately intuitive.It accomplishes this by:

  • Eliminating multiple clefs so that note positions on the staff always have the same value,
  • Making the staff octave-transposable allowing full range notation with minimal ledger lines,
  • Replacing # & b symbol clutter with note head “colors” that resemble the piano keyboard,
  • Eliminating key signatures and accidental “carry overs” that obscure the name of a note,
  • Replacing the Western Standard Music Notation key signature with a simple key indicator, and
  • Using stems without heads to indicate rests.


In Western Standard Music Notation in order to know the name of any note you need to remember the clef, the key signature and all of the accidental symbols that may have appeared (and disappeared) earlier in the measure. As a result, a note head at any one position on the staff may have twelve different values (four clefs x three accidental states) and the musician needs to maintain a running memory of the accidental state of all twelve notes for every measure! In Cleanotation all that is needed to know the value of any note is to relate its color to the simple Variant Clef. There is nothing else altering the value of what the note is actually depicting.


Cleanotation can comfortably coexist as a supplement to Western Standard Music Notation rather than a replacement for it. It can even be used interchangeably on the same staff if desired. Composers may choose to notate tonic sections in WSMN and atonal sections that would otherwise require a lot of extraneous symbols in Cleanotation. The two can live together side-by-side without incident.


Transforming Western Standard Music Notation to Cleanotation

Cleanotation is arrived at by starting with standard bass clef and applying three necessary transformations and two optional ones .  Bass clef was chosen as the basis simply because D (along with G#) is a point of symmetry on the chromatic scale. With D on the center line the half steps between B&C and E&F both lie symmetrically on the second and fourth lines. Of the four WSMN clefs it is the most naturally symmetrical. Reducing the staff to only one clef allows us to standardize what each line and space represents across the full range of every instrument.

Doubtlessly there are those who would rather Cleanotation be based on treble clef due to familiarity. I would urge you to resist doing that. Cleanotation is an attempt to standardize a simplified Music Notation without losing any expressive power. If everyone used their favorite WSMN clef as the basis for Cleanotation then we would eventually be stuck with yet another unnecessary vestige of WSMN. Please do not write Cleanotation music based on anything but Bass clef. Cleanotation looses its value if it is not kept as simple as possible… forever.

Transforming from WSMN

1. Releasing Note Head Color – One problem with Western Standard Music Notation is that rhythm is determined by the junction of flags, dots and note head color. This overly complicated rhythmic representation wastes the extremely valuable mechanism of note head color simply to distinguish half and whole notes. The fact is that whole notes, having no stem, do not also need to be hollow in order to indicate their rhythmic value. Neither do half notes.

  • In Cleanotation any note head without a stem is a whole note.
  • Half notes are represented by a double stem, one in the standard place and another next to it more toward the center of the note head.

By simply releasing the note head color from the half note we can use color in a more useful way, to indicate pitch and eliminate almost all accidental symbols.

2. Using Note Head Color – Cleanotation uses three note head colors to represent pitch: white, black and stripe. Black and white note heads look identical to the black and white (hollow) note heads in WSMN. Stripe notes are the same as white notes with a vertical stripe dividing the hollow. On first inspection it might seem intuitive to simply use these three note head colors to represent natural, flat and sharp. There are reasons why the method outlined here is superior.

The “Variant Clef” is a large # or b symbol that occupies the entire staff in the same way that a WSMN clef does. The Variant Clef indicates what the black notes are and what the stripe notes are not. The rule to remember is simple:

  • If the Variant Clef is a sharp symbol (#) then all of the black notes are sharp and all of the stripe notes are flat.
  • If the Variant Clef is a flat symbol (b) then all of the black notes are flat and all of the stripe notes are sharp.

In tonal music most notes will be either black or white. The further the key is from C major the blacker the music will be.  In general, music in flat keys should use a flat variant clef and music in sharp keys should use a sharp variant clef.  Using color in this way almost eliminates the need for accidentals in Cleanotation entirely.

Stripe notes are typically reserved for those “accidental” notes that need to be sharped in flat keys or flatted in sharp keys. They are used simply as a way to break out of the mold of the key when necessary. Stripe notes allow composers to indicate the subtle yet important difference between enharmonic equivalents, as is possible in Western Standard Music Notation.

There are rare times when it is necessary to use a double flat or double sharp to imply a chordal structure within a heavily flatted or sharped key.  In this case an X in the note head indicates a double accidental against the Variant Clef (eg. double sharp if the Variant Clef is flat), while a dot in the note head indicates a double accidental aligned with the Variant Clef (eg. double flat if the Variant Clef is flat).  Triple accidentals can be notated with standard symbols.  They are rare enough that an exception is acceptable.

Note that using this simple coloring paradigm usually aligns note head color with piano key color.  In general, white notes are white keys while black and stripe notes are black keys.  There are exceptions, but these are rare.   This close resemblance to the piano keyboard and makes it possible in most cases to read piano music almost like tablature.  Additionally, for non-keyboard instruments Cleanotation makes it more obvious to the novice which notes on their instrument are natural and which notes are not. This is a powerful aid to learning the logic of the instrument.

3. Octave-Shifting the Staff – This mechanism is the most important feature of Cleanotation. It is something that, by all rights, should have been a feature of Western Standard Music Notation long ago. By using a roman number to indicate what octave the staff is in it is possible to limit ledger lines to a reasonable three at the most. Excess ledger lines intrude upon other staves and are hard to count past three very quickly. It also eliminates the need for clefs to accommodate different instrument ranges. Octave shifting the staff allows the exact same notation to be used in every register.

  • Octave shifting the staff removes the confusion of dealing with a system where the any one position on the staff has potentially twelve different meanings (four clefs x three accidental states)!

The octave number appears on the C space by convention. It usually appears at the beginning of the music but can also appear anywhere else. By convention it is preferable to place it to the right of a bar line rather than in the middle of a bar. It typically ranges from I for the lowest piano octave to VIII for the highest. If there is no octave number then the default is IV (middle C).

Since note names are more consistent with their positions readers can more easily recognize the octave relationships in music. So when those notes high up on the violin are notated in a familiar place on the staff they become less intimidating for novice musicians to learn. Music is easier to sight read when you don’t have to count lines and memorize what note is on the 6th ledger line of each clef.

These three changes are really all that is necessary to use Cleanotation.  The two following transformations are optional, but useful.

4. Key & Mode Script (optional) – Because Cleanotation uses a WYSIWYG paradigm it is not necessary to notate any key signature. All of the pitch information is revealed by the note head and the variant clef. However, it may be useful to to readers to know what key they are playing in without having to analyze the music.

  • Although it is still important for any musician to know what notes are flat and sharp in every key, the ability to read Cleanotation is not dependent on this knowledge.

Rather than memorizing which key has how many variants, Cleanotation simply indicates the key in plain English.  Simply write the name of the key over the staff (ex: E Minor).  It is also possible to write modal information in this way.  However, mode names are cryptic.  I suggest simply using a slash after the key notation followed by the root (ex: “C Major/D” instead of “D Dorian”).  Need it be any more complicated than this?

Key and mode script in Cleanotation is totally optional. If your music does not readily fall into any key then you don’t need to have a key script at all. Nor do you need to have dozens of accidental symbols cluttering your music.

5. Single Notation Paradigm for Rests (optional) – Another needless complication of Western Standard Music Notation is that rests have a completely different notation system than notes. In essence, readers must understand two different systems: one for note rhythm and another for rest rhythm. This is unnecessary. Cleanotation uses the same notation for rests as played notes. The only difference is that rests have no note head. This is possible because note heads are not used to determine rhythm the way they are in WSMN. The only element of WSMN rest notation that is retained is the whole note rest.

Of course, it is possible to use WSMN rests as well if the composer desires. The time signature appears after the octave number just before the music begins. It is also advisable to make the time signature more complete by adding the BPM over it. However, that is left as a composer preference.

Coming soon…
In the next post I will trans-notate a complex but short modern piece and post it here to show the difference. Meanwhile, stay tuned…


One comment

  1. Congratulations for your pertinent observations about standard musical notation as well as for your analysis of the reasons we are still stuck there.

    I will come back to comment your notation proposal but first I would like to say some words about the very personal and elastic meaning you give to the WYSIWYG acronym. Though it can be used in a few distinct (but neighbouring) meanings, it seems to me that none of them has much to do with your various and rather confusing interpretations. WYSIWYG is related to the feature claimed by edition software to keep the user away from the markup language, which is by no mean a computer language but a code designed to be easily readable by a human and at the same time strictly structured in order to make the parsing task easy and error-free for the computer. I think your article would have gained in clarity and accuracy if instead of heavily commenting on the “WYSIWYG paradigm” and claim similarity with domains you don’t seem to be very familiar with, you would just have used the more appropriate term “context free” to mean that your note values need no external reference to be set.

    Now let’s comment on the core subject.

    1. I agree that using note fill (“color”) for time value is a waste of resources. However I still need to be convinced that a double stem for half note is visually a good solution. I am also reserved on the legibility of “striped notes”. Do you intend your system for on screen use only and completely forget about handwriting? In any case, the black/white notation for time value is so deeply involved in musical notation that I doubt any proposal to change its meaning has any chance of success, even with some valuable ground to support it.

    2. Octave shifting is already implicitly implemented, for guitar music for example. On the other hand it breaks the “context free” (aka “WYSIWYG”) quality you were claiming for note values.

    3. Speaking about the markup signs in music notation, you wrote: “Professional musicians take years of intense study to be comfortable with all of this.” IMHO this few markup signs never were an issue. The difficulty is much more with the changing functional roles of notes inside the diatonic scale and variable values of the intervals between lines and spaces when changing key. I would have liked to see your notation system address this and avoid restructuring the whole staff for trifling transposition issues.

    4. Finally and most importantly, your system falls short of standard notation in a very important aspect. The sharps and flats on the score in standard notation allow to instantly spot the notes that are foreign to the current key. Let’s take the case where your “Variant Clef” is a sharp. Then any striped note will be an accidental flat (outside of the diatonic scale) but a black note may or may not be accidental. Musicians spend a considerable time repeating scales, so the inside/outside scale property is crucial to apprehend the score. It is also dropped in chromatic notation systems, and this is arguably one of their main drawbacks.

    To conclude I will say that there is still much room to improve this notation system, but it might be worthwhile to carry on, though chances for innovation to succeed in this domain are very weak.


    Alexandre Oberlin

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