The Trouble with Trebles

By S.E. Barcus

10-25-2020

I was on the Facebook Composers Group recently, and got into an interesting discussion about staves and clefs and whether or not they could/should be improved upon. 

Hossein Bar proposed we have one clef, the treble clef, for both hands at the piano, for easier learning, and gave this as an example.

I was amazed at the hundred or so comments so vehemently against the idea!  Most talked about how easy it was to learn two clefs, so why bother.  Many just loved the symmetry of the grand staff, with middle C between both staves.  One smart-aleck, Dan Titchener, posted a quite funny YouTube video:

“English would be easier if all vowel sounds were consistent (https://youtu.be/A8zWWp0akUU) but I wouldn’t speak like that, because no one would understand you and it sounds hilarious….”

Now I figured, judging by such a passionate attack on the idea, Hossein was probably on to something.  (I especially loved the violist’s complaint that we should all learn each other’s clefs — said the musician who makes everyone else learn their weirdo alto/viola/C clef!)  Making things more standard, simplifying things – that all seemed like a fair, good, interesting idea. The pound did become the kilogram, and the yard, the meter, after all (in some places…).

Unfortunately, it is, to Dan Titchener’s point, likely impossible to change a language that is so enculturated already, and that is found useful enough by most.  Although — Titchener’s analogy was off – Hossein was not saying the old music keep the dots in the same place and change the pitch.  He proposed standardizing how it is written.  (And as an aside — I’d love it if English standardized the way it was written….  I mean — “through”, “threw”, “thru”… good grief. Poor English-as-second-language adults, who have to learn these vestigial anachronisms!)  In other words, because speaking and singing are the primal first forms of expressing our ideas and feelings (well, ok, gestures probably came before or coincided with these…); and because the written word and musical notes followed much farther along, are much newer, and are not nearly as natural and thus much more prone to error (there are always problems trying to represent what is naturally spoken or sung into some tangible visual thing); then we need to keep the SOUNDS of language and music as they are.  As they are naturally, innately produced by us.  And we should never propose — nor stay so irrationally adhered to — a conformity to any flawed system that is not successfully captururing/representing those sounds.  Which could look like some 1984 New Speak nightmare, forcing our natural expressions into grotesque shapes. The proposed innovation of Hossein, then, does not suggest we mangle the spoken word — or the sounds of music — to fit some Procrustean alphabet or clef, respectively. I think it attempts, instead, to try to create a whole new bed that perhaps fits more and more people sensibly and comfortably into it, people of any/all sizes and abilities, etc….  (All that said, though — the video was frrrreaking HILARIOUS. Really genius….)

Because it is so enculturated, I think Hossein will have to form a cult, a following, and then get lucky and have a great composer write in his proposed manner, and maybe then in a 100 years it will challenge the status quo of the bass and treble clefs.  I still say we should keep challenging our assumptions, however, and appreciate Hossein’s proposal for this reason alone!  I’m sure Romans thought their number-writing system was SOOOOOO much better than that Hindu-Arabic numerical stuff!

The passionate (and at times nasty) criticisms were mainly based on: 1) the futility of overcoming the current system, probably true, see above.  2) The difficulty adapting hundreds of years of music into a new system — although come on, with digital technology we can re-write old music into a new system quickly, just as we can read ancient hieroglyphs today, and have changed Galileo’s original Renaissance units to metric units etc.   Alexandre Kharlamov had the point that, “Technically, Bach used soprano, alto, tenor and bass clefs everywhere, and 3-4 staves for well-tempered clavier. We already reduced it to two-clefs two-staves system for keyboard works and choir reduction. So, it’d be unfair to say that there’s not been any improvement going on lately.”  Which seems a great point.  So perhaps evolution shall continue….

Criticism #3 — people think the current way is already “easy”.  But this is a biased opinion based on what they already know.  Yes, of course, we can all learn two clefs at age 5.  Yes, “All Cows…”, and “Every Good Boy…”, seem to work well enough, and most (pianists, anyway) have now “learned” to play fairly well by sight-reading using this understanding….

But what would be interesting is to get some cognitive scientist, a Jean Piaget child epistemologist type, and have 2 groups of kids –(heck, do it with new-learner adults, too, since we learn language differently when we are young and old) — and have them learn in the two different manners, and see which group learns quicker….  Power it well, lots of people, to avoid bias and for the lazy folks here and there in both groups etc….  If Hossein’s method is objectively shown to bring the joy of learning and playing music to more and more people??? I’m all for it… I’d be willing to re-learn how to read music in a new way, if it brings more people to music.  Written music shouldn’t be some Latin language we keep to our priestly selves, this should be for everyone….

Criticism #4 centered around defense of the current system as “more elegant”, and a system that has already naturally evolved to simplify things.  Yes, the symmetry of the Grand Old Lady Staff (gosh — such a moniker!) looks nice rounded around middle C.  Charles Burns told me:  “The thing about a bass and treble clef working together as a grand staff, is that they “meet up in the middle”. It forms one consistent logic from top to bottom, with a single C ledger line in the middle. When a composer needs to, they use different clefs in either the top or the bottom. But I’ve yet to see a compelling case for changing the default. Honestly, once you get used to it, it’s a pretty easy system to deal with. But hey, if you’re a composer and want to write with a treble and a tenor clef. Go right ahead. I’d imagine you’d get a lot of complaints from your pianists though….  And arguing that the note names should be the same for both staves is just as much an aesthetic argument and the logic of having a grand staff centered around middle C symmetrically though, isn’t it?  I mean, C4 just isn’t the same thing as C2. Octave equivalence is an aesthetic choice. And not one that all composers follow….”

Arguments that I just loved!  (In case you haven’t noticed – the “Composers” group on Facebook is pretty intellectual!  I love it!  You can spend a few hours there debating interesting and thoughtful people, and come out with an article for your blog at the end!  “Leverage” all your social media time, people!)

To Charles, I said, yes, it was indeed partly an aesthetic argument — but also an epistemological one.   Shouldn’t we be curious as to whether or not we might be able to make music truly easier to learn, and easier to play, with some new method?  If we could prove that — with the cognitive science experiment, above — what would each of us do with this knowledge, with this evidence?  Honestly?  Probably nothing, at least in our lifetimes, given America still does not use the metric system….

But who cares!  I’m gonna play the game, too, anyway!! Here is my own modification of Hossein’s single clef idea, so as to keep the “satisfying middle C”, and all just by adding a sixth line (AH! A SIXTH LINE?!  IT’S CHANGING EVEN MORE!  MY BRAIN CAN’T HANDLE IT!!!!)  I call it, “The New Trebles”.

New Trebles Clefs

You’ll note that each one encompasses 2 octaves, so there would only be 4 staves needed total (the lowest one would have notes that do not exist on the piano at the lower range — but are useful if you are dealing with electronic music that has no limits etc). Signify each clef with numbers 1 to 4, and you have the whole piano keyboard.  So, a C major scale would look like this:

C major scale on the New Trebles Clefs, through middle C

ORRRRRR……….

How’s about a clef that NEVER NEEDS ACCIDENTALS??!?  (WHAT?!?!?)  A “whole tone clef” aka “augmented clef” aka “12-tone clef” or something?!?!? Every line and space is a half-tone? It, too, can have a “satisfying middle C”.  And each staff would be EXACTLY one octave!

12-Tone Clefs

Now this is aesthetically satisfying. (I see why Schoenberg became entranced by this stuff like some numerologist or something!)  I used “12” for “12-tone clef”.  You’d have 7 octaves so 7 staves.  So, a C major scale, with middle C in the middle of the example, would look like this:

C major scale on the 12-Tone Clefs, through middle C

Now unfortunately, I just wrote out the beginning of Mozart’s Sonata in C Major K. 545, and … it looks ridiculous.  Notes are stretched out way too far apart, and you’d need 4 staves to play the piano.   This method is becoming something more akin to a piano version of guitar tablature….

But maybe the New Trebles will work out?  I’ll scratch out the Mozart and see how it looks and get back to you….

So … that’s it.  Wasn’t that fun?!  How about you share any new staves or clefs you dream up!  I promise I’ll go all OCD on ya and give you feedback!

See ya.

Copyright S.E. Barcus

Check in with S.E. Barcus on Facebook and YouTube, or email them at barcusse@gmail.com.

The Trouble with Trebles

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