The Trouble with Trebles

By S.E. Barcus


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 ( 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


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

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The Trouble with Trebles

Yuja Wang don’t give a shit.

Ms. Wang, preparing to take her classic whip-bow.

LA Philharmonic brings back the piano prima donna.

By S.E. Barcus

Perhaps you do not know who “Yuja Wang” is…?  Well, judging by her commanding performance at the Walt Disney Concert Hall February 18, 2020, in Los Angeles, along with her confident demeanor and skyrocketing fame over the past decade … I really do not believe that she gives a shit.

As we minions gathered within the sultry wooded panels of Frank Gehry’s beautiful hall, awaiting our Beijing-born diva, I glanced at the program.  Ah, a sensible, linear progression of piano history tonight, from Baroque to mid-19th century, then to a mélange of 20th century pieces to fill the 2nd half of the night.  Nice and reasonable.  Except for that one little issue that Ms. Wang gonna do what Ms. Wang gonna do.

She entered, adorned with one of her usual eye-catching dresses, some goldish sequinned thing, and after one of her “I-acknowledge-that-you-exist”-quick, whipping bows, she sat down, alone on the stark stage, just her and the beautiful Steinway — and we were off!  She started orderly enough, with the 1st piece on the program, a delicate delicate DELICATE little Baldassare Galuppi piece, the Andante from his Sonata No. 5.  With hindsight, it seems tenderness would bookend this night.  If you’re foolish enough to think that Ms. Wang is just all flash and virtuosity, she demonstrated that she can also equal anyone in terms of gentleness, such as with this quiet, precise little piece.

But then, oh dear, the program immediately goes out the window.  As the crashing waves of the second piece — Maurice Ravel’s impressionistic “A Ship on the Ocean” (“Une barque sur l’océan”) — came flooding in, we realized … uh … this ain’t no Bach.  We hath leap-frogged over the Intermission and 19th century entirely!  Wang’s gone rogue!  Wang’s gone rogue!

Now Beethoven might have sneered at this “programmatic” sort of piece by Ravel, but this one is just fabulous.  If you didn’t know the title, you would likely name it the exact same thing, as tumultuous seas interplay with gentle calm waters.  A genius display in terms of showing off what one piano and one performer can produce.  Following was Alban Berg’s “sort-of B minor” atonal Sonata Op. 1 (the only piano piece to which he gave an opus number), where she and Berg manifested as much emotion and technical skill as anything the tonal world ever gave us, just as rocking at times as the Ravel, and just as tender at others as the Galuppi.

Ah! We then returned to Baroque, and J.S. Bach’s C minor Toccata and Fugue.  Simple and clear, like the Galuppi, with a fun and accessible fugue that had none of the monstrous complexities found in later Bach (or Beethoven!).  If only Ms. Wang knew how to play that big opulent organ staring at us in the back part of this concert hall!

But then (a whiplash-inducing back-and-forth!), we were yanked back to the 20th century again – to Scriabin and his Sonata No. 4, with his own back-and-forth between soft and crazed.  Amazingly – (is it just me?)  — somehow this Russian piece at times presages by decades a nascent Gershwin in tonality and style.  She ended the piece pronto / tout de suite / bing-bang-boom.  Did she just completely ignore those last few rests at the end!?   Yuja Wang don’t give a shit.  And neither did we.  That ending produced spontaneous — practically reflexive — rousing applause to end the first half of the night, as a great performer knows how to do.

If the second half of the night had kept with the program of early 20th century music, I had hoped that – given her M.O. – she might come out adorned in some extraordinarily bizarre costume reminiscent of the Bauhaus Ballet, which was concurrently on exhibit at the Disney Hall, the display designed by Frank Gehry.  But no, her costume change (and with the consciously performative Ms. Wang, that’s what these have become – “costume changes”), was into some crisp white skimpy 80’s dress.  “Stripper-wear,” one previous article has called her attire, shaming classical artists the way they tried to shame the Madonnas of pop culture decades ago.  Perhaps she provokes like this to create a David-Bowie-like aura, a product, a “performer-package”?  Perhaps she does it to sell tickets?  Perhaps she is like some cultural “nouveau riche” — a person raised in a repressive Communist China who woke up a global citizen, with fame and fortune? … Who knows?  But I believe that if Ms. Wang didn’t want to wear sexy clothes, she wouldn’t.  Or, to put it another way, I don’t think she gives a shit.  Because, meanwhile, her audaciousness and coolness are only matched by her being one of the greatest pianists in the world right now, likely the top of her generation.  I mean, my God – look at this ridiculously hipster cool promo?!  Just look at it, and be dismayed!

Ms. Wang don’t care if the building is burning.

In the second half of the night, Ms. Wang started with a few Chopin Mazurkas sandwiched between a few Brahms Intermezzos (or perhaps that’s the other way around?), luxuriously transporting us back to a French salon.   No strangeness of the modern age, no strict Baroque rules.  Just lounging with a couple of mid-19th century masters for a bit.  Perhaps, like me, you saw from the program that we would hear — and be able to compare/contrast — the composers similarly-styled short pieces back-to-back in the same keys.  There would be two A minor pieces, one from each composer.  And then two C# Minor.  And two F major.  (And a C major/E relative minor thrown in for good measure….)   But like the rest of the night, the program turned out to be misleading.  The A minor Brahms Intermezzo was not played at all, as she started right in with the trill and passionate melancholy of the A minor Mazurka instead, followed by the very Chopinesque Brahms Intermezzo in E Minor.  Followed by — just to throw you off again — the C-sharp Mazurka and C-sharp Intermezzo, just as programmed!

She asked that we not applaud between the pieces, but instead take them all in as a whole (like listening to Ms. Wang’s own personal ordering of a book of … I dunno …  Wang/Brahms/Chopin Preludes, or something…?).  For myself, though, it was very hard to not applaud that C-sharp minor Intermezzo, which seemed the most moving piece of this group, at least for me, filled as it was with such an operatic-like pathos.  The last Chopin piece was a pleasant dance, with its nice “surprise” bouncy ending.  Was it the F major as planned?  Of course not.  It was a piece not in the program at all — Op 33 No 4 in B minor.  Completely off script!  I love it!  It was as if Ms. Wang was saying, “if you, the peons in the audience, want to appreciate my work and art, you have to earn it.  You, too, have to work for it.”  (Yes, I had to look up what the piece was – come on, I don’t know all these Mazurkas by heart!)  I think Ms. Wang must have learned a lesson or two after playing Beethoven’s Hammerklavier.  “What is difficult is also good and beautiful.”  For composer, performer, and audience.

I’m not sure it was intentional, but Ms. Wang-as-musical-curator prepared us nicely for the 20th century piece to come….  To have a B minor piece slide into the F major Brahms finale for the section (the gallant and promenading Romance) was creating an augmented 4th tonality.  A tritone.  A “Devil in music,” if you will.  And something loved by Scriabin, and so a perfect tonal-modulation to ready us for her penultimate piece of the night.

She took a quick break, then came back, and – no terse polite bow this time – she practically stormed out – sat down – and immediately attacked the low rumbling fortissimo trill to start Scriabin’s Sonata No. 5, even as a few people were still mid-clap!  She was acting, of course – doing performance art, essentially.  She was the arrogant and egomaniacal Scriabin himself, like a method-actor getting into character.  And it worked.  She played the piece perfectly as far as I could tell, angrily pounding out the difficult Rachmaninoff-like chords, careening into the ending with arms outstretched on both sides of the keyboard like a goddam fireworks spectacle!  The audience, needless to say, went absolutely freaking nuts.

BUT!  She was not done.  Finally – at the very end – the most under-appreciated impressionist of them all, the brilliant Catalan composer, Federico Mompou, and his Secreto!  Lullabies are odd.  We know they should be happy and loving, yet they are always grounded by a melancholy.  Ms. Wang’s performance of the Mompou piece had this quality.  Somewhere between that and a sort-of mysticism, and a range in dynamics from p to pp to ppp and hell, I’m sure there was probably even a pppp in there somewhere.  Like the myth that Inuits have 100 words for snow, it’s like she has 100 levels of pianissimo.  After a night that ranged across styles and across centuries, variegated in skill and emotional levels, to end the program with such a brief and precious little jewel?  Very nice.

Not that she was “really” done.  This was Yuja Wang, who has been known to play more encores than you’d hear at a Bruce Springsteen concert.  (She only gave us two, however – I feel somehow we were not worthy…?)  The first encore was the crazed and phenomenal show-piece, Prokofiev’s Toccata, which is like some Bela Bartok “Diary of a Fly” jacked up on ‘roids.  The piece ended with the biggest bang of the night, bringing down the house.

But then, with the absolute true finale, she returned to the melancholy sweetness of the Galuppi or Mompou, leaving us with her often-played-encore, Schubert’s “Gretchen am Spinnrade”, as rendered by Liszt.  All this softness this evening?  I quite liked it, even though she was sending us off with a cruel joke – “you have to leave now, back to the incessant monotony of your spinning wheels.”

In sum — if you haven’t heard of Yuja Wang, or haven’t heard her play, you are missing out.  If she continues this near-perfect ascent as a pianist, she will gobble up more and more stardom until by the time she has achieved Pavarotti status, you will have missed your chance at being in with the cool kids because you knew her beforehand.  So, come on – be a cool kid!  Get to know Yuja!  She da bomb, yo!

Not that she gives a shit what you think….

Copyright 2-20-2020

Yuja Wang don’t give a shit.