Different ways of notating music for ocarina

What is the first thing that comes to your mind when you hear 'music notation'? You may automatically assume 'sheet music', but it is far from the only option. There are quite a few different ways of notating music, including:

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

All of which having their own 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.


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

  • You can hear exactly how someone phrases and ornaments some music. Listening to skilled players is a great way of developing expression in your playing.
  • 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.


The main con of using audio recordings as a notation is the need for ear training:

  • 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. Due to which audio and video may be the best way of documenting a performance.

Ocarina tabs

Ocarina tabs notate music by literally showing how to finger the notes used in the music.


The main benefit of this notation is that it is intuitive for new players, allowing them to quickly get started playing something.


The big con with ocarina tabs is the inability to handle differences in fingerings. It's a problem as the fingerings of sharp / flat notes vary between ocarinas, especially ones in different octaves.


  • Tabs imply that using the correct fingering means one is playing the right note, which is not true.
  • Tabs do not show rhythm or stylistic ornamentation at all.
  • Tabs being really verbose makes them unsuitable for notating more complex music.

Tabs may be useful in the early stages, but they are useless without an audio performance to inform rhythm, stylistic and expressive elements. It is also advisable to learn the fingerings, and switch to a different form of notation.

Needing to consciously think about the position of all of your fingers is a large mental overhead. You really want to push fingerings into your subconscious mind, and free yourself to think about other things.

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. However emic notations are extremely useful for quickly notating something to remind 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.


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.


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:


And the upper octave notated using lower case:


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 _A


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.

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.


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 'shape recognition' with a bit of practice.

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 horisontal 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|


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 pattern-recognition. 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 make use of it.


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. Rhythms are notated using divisions of halves, quarters etc, and subtle variations are cumbersome to notate.

For example rhythms may be swung, some notes played subtly longer than others, and notating that gets messy. These cases are usually handled by treating the notation as emically, playing something different to what's written.