On Guitars and Musical Notation

This old article from 1997 has been re-written and greatly expanded in 2017.

Have you ever noticed that almost every trained piano player can leaf through books of sheet music, and not only sight-read songs they have never heard before, but do it the first time through, without mistakes, capturing the rhythm and feel of the songs amazingly well? My aunt can do this. I have seen dozens of examples of a piano player competently leading a sing-along of a song they have never heard. Yet I have never seen a guitarist do this perfectly who was reading notes. (Guitarists can generally read chord charts and improvise accompaniments to songs quite well.) Concert guitarists memorize their pieces, and unless they have had some time to look over the piece, they will almost certainly stumble somewhat when trying to sight-read something completely new. This underscores a rather important issue in guitar education that I have never seen or heard discussed. Are guitarists just worse at sight-reading? Are they lazy? Why can horn players and flute players and all the other instruments in the orchestra do just fine with the notation, while the guitarists lag behind?

I see the cause of this problem as being strictly mathematical. It is obvious (and well-known) that the system of notes and clefs and staffs that we use (known as "standard notation") was devised specifically for the piano, and is extremely clumsy and non-intuitive for the guitar. In fact, I think that for the piano, standard notation is what an alphabet is to language, and when a guitarist tries to use this same notation it is like hieroglyphics. The notation system was set up in the first place for the keyboard, and its essence is to make a pictorial representation of the piano keyboard, to essentially "encode" the playing of the music on paper. (This relationship is underscored by the fact that it has been possible for years now for a piano player to play into an electronic keyboard and for almost perfect sheet music that generally requires only minor corrections to come out the computer's printer. Attempts to do this with guitar music have remained unsuccessful and approximate, which supports my claim that the translation of guitar music to and from standard notation is not a simple mapping, and follows no algorithm that a computer can employ. As a lifetime guitarist, I can assure you that it takes hours sometimes to find the best fingerings for groups or sequences of notes.)

Standard notation is just a graph of pitch against time, with the x or horizontal axis being time, and the y or vertical axis being pitch. Since the piano is a one-dimensional instrument, running from left to right in pitch, reading standard notation consists of simple doing a 90 degree rotation of the pitch axis. Notes that appear in higher vertical positions on the page are played further to the player's right. And the clusters of notes that form chords show the physical shape of the fingerings of the chords on the piano keyboard. The two clefs represent the left and right hands of the player. The accidentals (sharps and flats) show black keys.

Apparently this rotation is easy enough to learn to do that schoolteachers and church keyboardists everywhere can do it quite well. There is simply no intuitive relationship between the music staff and the guitar fingerboard. There are between 1 and 3 places on the guitar where any given note can be found (with some exceptions), and there are almost always several different fingerings for a sequence of notes. Guitar notation adds some extra symbols to help, putting notes played with the thumb with stems down and notes played with the fingers stems up. Small numbers net to the note indicating the string on which a note is played are usually added, as often are small letters p i m a to indicate which digit of the plucking hand is assigned to the note. But this makes the guitar notation more of an encryption to be decoded than a natural and pictorial representation of the playing of the music.

The wind instruments in the orchestra that also use the standard notation system are themselves one dimensional, and so unaffected by standard notation's limitations. The violin and viola and cello are somewhat 2-dimensional, although only 2 notes (called "double-stops") at a time can be played with the bow, as compared to the 4, 5 and 6 note chords guitarists play. I would venture a guess, not having ever learned to sight-read or having been in an orchestra, that string players have a noticeable harder time sight-reading non-linear (with double-stops) music than do the keyboard players. And the mathematical simplicity of the way violins, violas, cellos and basses are tuned make the adapting to standard notation simpler also. On those instruments, it is always the same music interval from one string to the next, making the geometry of playing the instrument more uniform. The tuning (and thus the geometry of fingerings) is irregular on the guitar.

Mathematically speaking, the guitar fingerboard is simply not one-dimensional like the piano, and attempts to render it into a one-dimensional form, such as standard musical notation, is necessarily going to cause ambiguities and distortions, and dramatically interfere with the player's ability to sight read. (Map projections that attempt to depict the earth on a piece of paper also force dimensional distortions, as we all know.) A 2-dimensional piece of paper can show a reasonably good represenation of one-dimensional keyboard graphed against time. It is clear to me that guitar players will not be able to sight-read as well as keyboard players until a 3-dimensional notation is developed. This would then show how the 2-dimensional guitar fingerboard behaves when graphed against time. Instead of a note with a stem on it showing its duration, there would need to be something like a guitar chord grid with a flag or a stem. It may be that computers will allow us to do this, and it may need to actually be a movie-like thing, and I encourage exploration of this idea. And even if it is developed, I have no illusions that it will come to be adopted any time into our present system of music education and performance, and guitarists will have to remain philosophical and put up with the way it is.

© 1997 by Harvey Reid