Hummingbird

At first blush, a new system of music notation that allows early learners to learn more quickly, that is compatible with the most common existing system, and is easy to use, is really appealing.  That is the promise of Hummingbird, that it is “easier to learn, faster to read, and simpler for even the trickiest music.”  The Hummingbird site contains a full reference guide.  Hummingbird keeps the staff, with its five lines and four spaces.  The lines and spaces correspond with the same notes that they do currently.  The staff corresponding with the F (bass) clef has been set so that the notes indicated are identical to the G (treble) clef (which they claim as a feature).  The fill of the notes has been changed from part of the indication of note length to a duplicate indication of pitch name.  Note length and multiple voices are indicated by horizontal lines extending out from each note and the overlap of those lines.  Accidentals are indicated by little tails coming out of the notes, and key signatures are indicated in plain language, much like the time signature.

Is it Really That Much Better?

As a life-long musician, a church organist, a jazz pianist, an experienced accompanist, a clarinetist, a conductor, and a composer, I have to say that Hummingbird is not the solution that it promises to be.  It claims to be easier to learn, faster to read, and simpler for even the trickiest music.  To my hour or so review, it appears to have redundant encoding of easily mastered and unambiguous information, indications of critical information by intricate variations that will be hard to discern when printed at the font sizes used in professional music, and forgets or ignores the symbolism that helps to reinforce the common context in the current system of notation.

Easier to Learn?

I can see how the system, with its visual indicators of meaning might aid learning.  The note shapes that act as duplicate indication of the pitch seem to work much like modern Korean writing, which takes symbols representing the shape of the mouth when you make a given sound and puts them together into compounds that spell a word using the mouth sound shapes.  Even here, though, it seems like a stretch to say that it would be faster to learn hummingbird than modern common notation – it is the underlying theory that presents most of the issue in learning to read music, not the graphical symbolic recording of the theory.  This is much like the difference between trying to learn to read English as a native speaker of English, and trying to learn to read English while you are learning to speak and understand the language.

One example of how Hummingbird changes the notation system without becoming any easier, offloading any effort to the learner’s knowledge of music theory, can be found in the way it drops the key signature in favor of a natural language indication.  Under the current system, the sharps or flats that are used universally in a piece are spelled out clearly in the music.  Using this information to come up with a letter designation for the key of a given piece requires knowledge of several theory tricks and is challenging for some people to master.  Knowing the key that a piece is in is important from a theory perspective, but I would argue that for performance of a piece, knowing which notes to play as sharps and flats is more important than being able to say the key that the piece is in.  The Hummingbird system makes it easy to know the name of the key, but leaves it to the learner to know or figure out which notes to play.  It is easier to learn the two tricks for naming keys from signatures than it is to unfailingly play the right key without a signature and only a key name.

As I mentioned above, the staff corresponding with the F (bass) clef has been set so that the notes indicated are identical to the G (treble) clef.  They did this without moving the F clef symbol, breaking its existing meaning and removing any point of retaining the symbol.  The creators of Hummingbird seem to not know about the meanings of the F and G clefs and that the Bass clef is functionally a continuation of the Treble linked by middle C, or they don’t care to retain important contextual symbolism.  The same disregard for contextual symbolism can be found in the case of dropping key signature markings in favor of plain language designations.

Faster to Read?

In very early music learning (when I was very first learning to play the recorder, for example), when learners are only focused on simple melodies with little rhythmic complexity, the redundant encoding of information in Hummingbird might make it faster to read.  I have been an accompanist for almost two decades.  I have to be able to read and understand the structure of an accompaniment, what is is saying, and where it is going, at first sight or within a couple of run-throughs.  Standard notation makes use of consistent placement of encoding information (sharps and flats are a different shape, but they are always found in the same location relative to a note they are modifying; the flags on eighth and sixteenth notes are different shapes but are in the same place so I don’t have to hunt for them; the value of a note is encoded at the location of the note – I don’t have to follow a bar right and then back left before I know what length it should be.  By the time I have done that, I have missed the note I was supposed to be playing and the singer or instrumentalist is a measure downstream), and there is strong symbolic context.  By using placement and direction to indicate note value and pitch modification, Hummingbird adds a lot of eye movement around each note, which in a complex musical setting like accompaniment is not efficient at all.  I have to be able to read several measures ahead of where I am while simultaneously watching a singer or instrumentalist, and sometimes also a conductor.

In addition to placement is the very small variations used in Hummingbird to indicate note differences (length, accidentals, etc).  The very simplified version of Fur Elise posted on the Hummingbird site (image of the first page below) is printed in a very large font.  The archival and professional music that I usually play from are printed in much smaller fonts where the nuances of the Hummingbird system would probably be legible, but would be much to small to reliably read in a performance setting.  This could be answered with an argument that Hummingbird is more efficient for learning music (memorization), and that no written music should be used in performance.  If that is the case, why do we have written music at all?  We are a century or more into the Recorded Age – why do we not just listen to pieces and memorize them that way?

Simpler even for the Trickiest Music?

I made most of the points I wanted to make here in the section above.  All I can ask is, looking at the image of the first page of Fur Elise, below, imagine trying to play something like a Bach Fugue, with all of its intricacies, using that notation format.

Fur Elise (Final)_Page_1

Update:

It wasn’t until after I posted my review of the Hummingbird notation system that I thought to see what others had to say. I suppose not surprisingly, I found much of the same things that I posted from those who are actual musicians, and nothing of real value from those who aren’t. Just a sample of the other reviews I found:

In fairness, I did come across a post by an organist that, although very light on examination of the notation system, did give a positive opinion.


via kottke.org