In the summer of 1996 I had the opportunity to visit Bali and while there decided to take a short course of 3 or 4 lessons on the bamboo xylophone, known as a tingklik. I was a little surprised when the teacher started teaching me using a tuition book which involved following a particular form of notation that had been devised by the book's author, an academic from USA. This particular learning experience influenced my thinking on how we teach musical instruments.

The image on the left is the first part of the score I was asked to follow. It contains some conventional western music symbols - crotchets, quavers - together with numbers to indicate the pitches, which corresponded to numbers on the tuned bamboo tubes which made up the instrument. In addition, there are verbal instructions relating to which hand to use, reinforced by the stem direction of the note symbols, while the rhythm is described as a 4 beat pattern. In a way, all the information needed to play the piece is there, and easily accessible but, although I had experience of playing from tablatures and chord charts as well as from conventional notation, I found the score almost impossible to play from. In the end, I asked my teacher if we could abandon the book so that he could teach me the tune by ear and by letting me watch him. He was perfectly willing to do this, and I am happy to say I went on to learn the tune successfully. However, I was led to reflect that here I was in a strange country, playing unfamiliar music on a new instrument from a notation I hadn't seen before, and that this was a lot of learning to do simultaneously. Yet it is what we often ask young children to do when they start off learning - a new instrument, tunes they don't know and having to follow notation they haven't seen before. If this was hard for me as an experienced musician, it is certainly a lot to ask of a young child, and surely it would be better to develop an approach that enables them to use more of their innate musicality - such as learning by ear, watching & copying movements, developing their musical memory. I'm not against the idea of musical notation, or of its use in educational settings, but it must be kept in its place alongside other ways of learning.

As well as thoughts about the place of notation within music education, I also began to consider what makes a 'good' musical notation - what is it about this notation that makes it difficult, and would there be other ways of notating the piece that would be easier to learn from or to play from?

My first choice of alternative to the 'original' was a form of grid notation (sometimes called Time Unit Box System, to create the acronym TUBS). As the numbers were written on the tingklik, this is easy to follow. The rhythms in the piece are relatively straightforward, and by separating out left & right hands (similar to piano notation) you can see more easily which hand plays which notes.

Alternatively, you could use the western letter-names associated with these pitches (click here to see) - this would enable you to play the tune on, say, a xylophone or metallophone such as is found in many schools, which have the note names engraved on the bars.

I tried out a few other grids - one which aligned the grid to the notes on the tingklik (Example 1) and one which gave a visual indication of pitch (Example 2) but neither seemed as user friendly as this one, nor did any other ideas I explored.

So what can this experience teach us in terms of devising an effective notation?

The 'original' Grebag notation was too cluttered, drew on too many different elements (stave notation, numbers, verbal instructions) and did not sufficiently relate visually to the music or the instrument.

To be successful, a notation system needs simplicity and clarity, in particular:

  • clear visual indication of timing, rhythm, pulse, metre; with a time line that is easy to follow

  • clear visual indication of tune shape/pitch, or clear connection to the notes on the instrument being played

  • specific playing instructions (e.g. LH, RH) as appropriate, in relation to the instrument