Nonstandard Musical Notation Symbols

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  • 0:03 The Standard Notation System
  • 0:54 Neumatic Notation
  • 3:02 Staff-Based…
  • 4:17 Graphic Notation
  • 6:02 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Greg Simon

Greg is a composer and jazz trumpeter. He has a doctorate from the University of Michigan and has taught college and high school music.

Expert Contributor
Sasha Blakeley

Sasha Blakeley has a Bachelor's in English Literature from McGill University. She has been teaching English in Canada and Taiwan for six years.

There are lots of different ways for composers to write their music down. Learn about some nonstandard strategies for musical notation, from the ancient neumes of Gregorian chant to the fearless experimentalism of graphic scores.

The Standard Notation System

You've learned that Western music is often written on five lines and four spaces, collectively called a 'staff.. The staff is used as a framework for black and white markings called 'notes.' This is the standard Western notation system. Composers from Europe, America, and elsewhere have used it since the 1500s to express their musical ideas. Nonstandard musical notation is considered to be any system for notating music which augments or ignores the Western notation system. This includes primitive systems for notation, which predate the Western system as we know it. It also includes avant-garde and modern experiments with new notational ideas, some of which use the 5-line staff as a basis, and some of which do not.

In this lesson we'll examine some of these systems and how to read them.

Neumatic Notation

Before the 5-line staff was developed, composers experimented with several different systems for notating music. Among the most popular was the neumatic system, which records musical ideas using symbols, called neumes. Neumatic notation first appeared in the 9th century, but reached its most recognizable form in the 13th century. This form of neumatic notation is most associated with Gregorian chant, and many plainchants were recorded using neumatic notation.

Neumes were quite similar to the musical notes we see today. They were markings on a staff whose position indicated pitch. However, there were a few key differences. One was that neumes did not convey rhythm the way our modern notation system does. Another was the existence of several different shapes of neumes, each of which had a different meaning for the musical gesture. Compare this to today's music notation system, where all note heads convey rhythm and have the same basic shape. Like the modern Western system, neumes rely on a staff for framework. However, in neumatic notation, the staff uses four lines and three spaces. Also like the modern system, each staff is equipped with a clef to indicate the position of the specific notes. However, unlike the Western system, the clef does not specify a specific note; rather, it tells the reader the position of a note of the solfege scale. In this chant, the clef is indicating the position of Do, the primary note of the solfege scale. The music can be then sung in any key, depending on the singer's voice.

A neumatic score is read in much the same way as a Western score: the position of the heads of each symbol indicates the pitch. There are several symbols that indicate an individual pitch, such as the punctum. Other symbols indicate multiple notes as part of a gesture. The clivis, for instance, indicates two notes rising, while the podatus indicates two notes falling. There are other symbols for groups of three or more notes, as well as several symbols whose exact meaning has been debated by historians.

Staff-Based Nonstandard Notation

In the 20th century, modernist composers sought ways to expand the sounds the musical staff could express. One strategy was to use the staff to indicate music that wasn't rigidly tethered to the music in other parts of the ensemble, to indicate on the staff music that a performer could play out of sync with the rest of the ensemble. The rest would be a musical line that interacted with the material around it in random, unpredictable ways. This type of music came to be called aleatoric music, music which leaves elements of the performance to the performers or to chance. Some important composers who used aleatoric strategies in their work include John Cage, Witold Lutoslawski, and Earle Brown.

Aleatoric music is often written using box notation. In box notation, the composer writes the aleatoric material on the score as usual, but encloses it in a box, often linked to an arrow. The box separates the material from the rest of the score, indicating that it is not related to the rest of the music rhythmically. The material in the box is repeated for the duration indicated by the arrow, usually out of sync with the non-aleatoric material around it.

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Additional Activities

Try Nonstandard Musical Notation Symbols Out:

You've learned about several forms of nonstandard musical notation. Now, let's see if you can learn to read some modern nonstandard notation. Using the composers and notation styles listed in this lesson, see if you can find a piece that is playable on your primary instrument. This link will give you 20 graphic scores to get you started:

All of these scores leave some aspects of the performance up to the musician. What kinds of sounds do the scores evoke for you? Do you find some scores more intuitive to parse than others? Do you think graphic notation is effective? Why or why not? Consider these questions while you play.


You've tried out graphic notation for yourself and you have a sense of what it's like to read modern nonstandard notation. This lesson also talks about neumatic notation. Write a paragraph or essay answering one or more of the following questions about neumatic notation, or about any other form of musical notation that is culturally or chronologically outside of the Western tradition.

  • How does this notation system work?
  • Can it be applied to multiple instruments, or is it specifically for singing or a single instrument?
  • In what ways is it similar to Western standard notation?
  • Is this style still used in any cultures today?
  • How does this style impact the kind of music that can be written?

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