Different ways of notating music for ocarina

What is the first thing that comes to your mind from the phrase 'music notation'? You may automatically assume 'sheet music', but it is far from the only option.

Fundamentally, 'notation' is just a means of communicating how to play a song, and viewed in that way, one can see that there are many ways of notating music for the ocarina, including:

  • Audio recordings.
  • ABC notation.
  • Ocarina tabs.
  • Number notation.
  • MIDI / piano roll notation.
  • And of coarse, sheet music.

We will be introducing these options and their individual pros and cons.

Audio recordings

Perhaps you wouldn't consider it notation at all, but a recording is possibly the best form of music notation there is.

Notations like sheet music are 'instructions', telling you what to do on an instrument to get a sound, while an audio recording is the sound.

Audio literally demonstrates how someone intended something to sound, down to the finest details. A recording of a performance captures all details of that performance, including ornamental and other expressive details, which can be really hard to represent in other ways.

Pros:

Using audio recordings to notate music has a ton of advantages:

  • You can hear exactly how someone phrases and ornaments some music.
  • You can record parts of live performances to learn from them with little effort.
  • It is extremely easy to use a smartphone or portable audio recorder to record yourself playing something to remind yourself in the future.
Side Note

In the case of recordings to remind yourself, the quality of the recording or even how well you are playing may not matter that much. A really poor recording can still be really useful.

Cons:

Using audio as a form of music notation does have a con, in that it requires ear training, including:

  • How to find notes by ear.
  • Understanding the stylistic and expressive intent of the performance.
  • Recognising ornamental techniques and translating them to your instrument.

It is also worth noting that audio demonstrates how something should sound, and not the techniques required to produce that sound. Audio and video combined may be the best way of documenting a performance.

Ocarina tabs

Ocarina tabs notate music by showing how to finger the notes of a song on the ocarina.

A diagram showing the fingerings of the notes G, A, and B for an alto C ocarina.

Visually representing fingerings can be very intuitive for new players, and makes it easy to quickly get started playing music on the ocarina. Yet this notation also has a lot of downsides.

Pros:

  • They are intuitive for new players, as they allow one to play without needing to understand scales or notes.
  • They allow one to communicate exactly what fingering to use, which can be useful in complex music to suggest alternate fingerings.

Cons:

Despite being intuitive, ocarina tabs have a ton of cons:

  • Tabs imply that using the correct fingering means one is playing the right note, which is not true, given that pitch varies with blowing pressure.
  • Tabs do not communicate the logic of scales, which makes it impossible to understand the relation of ocarinas in different keys.
  • Tabs do not show rhythm or stylistic ornamentation at all, and the player must know it from prior experience.
  • The verbosity of ocarina tabs makes them unsuitable for notating intermediate to complex music.
  • By the nature of how they work, tabs are unable to communicate fingering differences between ocarinas. It's a problem as the optimal fingerings of sharp / flat notes vary between ocarinas due to chamber acoustics.

Tabs also encourage a player to consciously think about fingering. It isn't ideas as thinking about finger positions is a large mental overhead which gets in the way of playing musically. Finger positions should be pushed into the subconscious mind as soon as possible.

You may find ocarina tabs useful in the early stages of learning, or as supplemental information suggesting alternate fingerings for a small part of a more complex score.

The function of notation, Emic vs Etic

This is a good point to mention that music notations can serve different functions:

  • Document how something should sound.
  • Describe what to do to get a sound.

The terms 'Emic' and 'Etic' describe this difference:

Emic music notation

Emic notations are 'insiders' notations. They tend to describe what to do, but assume knowledge and often omit information. Essentially, a form of 'shorthand'.

Examples of emic notations include:

  • Ocarina tabs
  • ABC notation (covered later)

Emic notation is useless unless you had someone explain what it means, and can then fill in the missing detail yourself.

Etic music notation

An etic notation by comparison attempts to notate the full details of exactly how something should sound.

Examples include:

  • Audio recordings of skilled performances.
  • Sheet music within the classical tradition

Both sheet music and audio recordings can be used for both emic and etic intents. A quick recording of yourself for reference would be emic. Folk musicians also often use sheet music for emic notation, and play it differently to how a literal reading would imply.

Sheet music can be very etic too. Classical scores try to notate how something should sound, and Bartók's transcriptions try to use notation for a similar intent as an audio recording.

MIDI / piano roll notation

Midi notation literally represents music as a graph. Up / down being pitch, and time increases linearly towards the right. Notes are represented as boxes, whose length denotes how long the note should be held.

Pros:

The primary advantage of midi notation is that it is extremely easy to enter on a computer, smartphone or tablet just by clicking and dragging the note boxes around. It is really easy to use MIDI notation to jot down a melody, and immediately hear how it sounds.

Cons:

Midi notation is bad at notating expressive details, and bad at representing note transitions. Midi is based on a 'piano' world-view where notes have a definite start and end. The ocarina and other wind instruments do not work like that:

  • There are a lot of different ways of moving between notes, like pitch slides, legato / staccato.
  • The tone varies depending on how quickly you close a hole, and quick closing creates a percussive 'thud'.
  • MIDI notation is mathematically rigid in both pitch and rhythm, and experienced human musicians do not play like that.

MIDI notation can also be hard to read onto an instrument, although it is more common to play it by ear, or convert it to sheet music.

ABC notation

Abc notation is a textual music notation. The lower octave of the staff is represented using lower case:

BCDEFGAB

And the upper octave notated using lower case:

cdefgab

Lower and higher notes can then be notated witg 'or _ after the note.

A, c'

Sharps, flats can be notated with _ and ^ placed before the note letter.

  • A sharp: ^A
  • A flat: _A

Pros:

ABC notation is easy to write by hand, or type on a computer with no special software. With practice, one can learn to sight-read it on an instrument. It can also be easily converted to sheet music, and played as audio.

The format is very easy to automatically transpose, as it is computer readable.

If you are interested in playing Irish, and other European folk music, ABC notation is very convenient, as thousands of these tunes are available in the format online.

ABC notation started for notating folk music, but has developed to represent most of what sheet music can, at the cost of reduced readability when used in that way.

Cons:

In relation to sheet music, ABC notation can be more difficult to sight read as it is one-dimensional. Sheet music by comparison can be read by looking at the shapes formed by the notes.

Also the music available in the format is mostly limited to European folk music, but that does not stop you from using it for other things if you wish.

Sheet music

Sheet music works by representing pitch as vertical position, and timing through variations in horizontal position as well as the shape of notes


X: 3
M: none
L: 1/1
K: C
"C" C "D" D "E" E "F" F "G" G "A" A "B" B "C" c "D" d|

Pros:

Sheet music is extremely common and widely available. Music can be found for essentially any genre of music, and it may be the most widely used music notation besides audio.

Being two dimensional is a big advantage as sheet music can be read by looking at the shapes of notes on the page. With practice, you can recognise common patterns of notes, and instinctively know how to play them.

It is also very versatile, you can use sheet music for quick emic notations, or complex and detailed etic ones. As long as you follow known standards, other people will know what you mean, as sheet music is so common.

Finally, you don't have to read music well to start getting value from it.

Cons:

The way sheet music notates keys makes transposing music, and thinking about transposition much more complicated than it actually is. Key signatures obscure that transposition is just a shift within the chromatic scale, and MIDI notation expresses this more cleanly.

Sheet music is also quite mathematically ridged, and can't easily notate subtle changes in pitch, or rhythm. Human musicians make subtle changes to both rhythm and pitch for expressive reasons, and in most cases that can only be learned from listening to a performance.