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Centre for Music and Science


As musicians we tend to think of musical notation as having the single, simple function of transmitting musical ideas from composer to performer.  But musical notation is actually many different things with a wide range of uses.  As noted in Grove Music Online (2001), it can be a memory aid, a means of communicating musical ideas, a method of preserving music, a textual representation enabling study and analysis, or a text that can be decoded on the fly so as to realise in performance the musical sounds and structures that it specifies.  It can be used in many ways: it can be read and re-read repeatedly while a performer learns a piece in the course of practice; it can be decoded at sight in the course of a performance; it can be written in an attempt to represent every nuance of a composer's intentions so that a performer can reproduce something close to the composer's wishes; it can constitute a sketchy depiction of musical ideas and structures that may be the starting point for a more formal and finished score; it can constitute a skeleton that may be elaborated improvisationally in performance according to pre-existing musical conventions; and so on…

Musical notation captures in symbolic form aspects of music that we, as members of the culture in which the music is embedded, think are relevant to ensuring its transmission and historical continuation.  Different notations have emerged from different musical cultures, each focusing on the particular structures and features held to be important within their specific musical tradition.  The form of notation in use in the western tradition has taken shape over about a millennium and has retained pretty much the same form for the last four or five hundred years.  It uses symbols to represent pitch, duration and metrical structure, with discretionary additions denoting grouping, dynamics, tempo, articulation and a few other elements.  Given all the jobs that it has to do, standard western musical notation is a compromise; it is not, perhaps, ideal for any of the functions that it fulfils, but as a notational system it has persisted as the least bad option.

Our project explores whether standard notation can be redesigned so as to make it more effective for at least some of the purposes for which it is employed.  Our primary focus is on music reading, and more specifically on performing music at first sight —sightreading— an activity in which success has been shown by a considerable amount of excellent prior research (Sloboda, 1974, 1978; Waters et al., 1998; Lehmann & Kopiez, 2016) to be highly dependent on experience and expertise.  That previous research has not generally explored whether the visual form of the notation rather than the experience and proficiency of the performer can be manipulated so as to make music reading more fluent and accurate; however, our own experiments (Stenberg, 2017; Stenberg & Cross, 2019) suggest that simple but systematic and structured modifications to standard notation —such as the insertion of vertical blank spaces across the staff systems delimiting informational units— can lead to increased fluency and accuracy in sightreading.  Our project aims to extend these findings to a wide range of levels of expertise and musical repertoires; we are undertaking cognitive and behavioural experiments (including eye-tracking measurements) to explore the effects of the modifications on the processes involved in performing from musical notation for  musicians.

We are also building on longitudinal studies that we have been undertaking, exploring how users and scores interact (an area that has attracted surprisingly little research attention to date, though see Payne & Schuiling, 2017) and evaluating whether, and if so, how, practitioners' uses of scores can be made more effective.  We are teaching musicians how to use digital music processing systems to reconfigure the scores from which they and others will perform, and evaluating the pedagogical and artistic effects of performers having more agency over the music's visual representation.

If our results fit with our previous findings, our studies should have impact upon the worlds of skilled musical practice and music education and on research in the cognitive neuroscience of reading and design, potentially transforming how musical scores are designed and used in practice. It might even be the case that our results suggest ways of making music notation easier to learn to read.

The project is being conducted by Professor Ian Cross (Principal Investigator), Dr Arild Stenberg (Senior Research Associate, Dr David Duncan (Research Assistant) and Miss Katya Ness (doctoral student and research assistant).  It is being carried out in the Faculty of Music at the University of Cambridge, at the Royal College of Music and at the Conservatoire royale de Bruxelles, and is funded by a research grant from the Leverhulme Trust (RPG-2022-217).


Bent, I. D., Hughes, D. W., Provine, R. C., Rastall, R., Kilmer, A., Hiley, D., et al. (2001). Notation, Grove Music Online. Oxford: Oxford University Press [].

Lehmann, A. C., & Kopiez, R. (2016). Sight-reading. In S. Hallam, I. Cross & M. Thaut (Eds.), Oxford Handbook of Music Psychology (2nd ed., pp. 547-557). Oxford: Oxford University Press. []

Payne, E., & Schuiling, F. (2017). The Textility of Marking: Performers’ Annotations as Indicators of the Creative Process in Performance. Music and Letters, 98(3), 438-464. []

Sloboda, J. (1974). The Eye-Hand Span-An Approach to the Study of Sight Reading. Psychology of Music, 2(2), 4-10. []

Sloboda, J. (1978). The Psychology of Music Reading. Psychology of Music, 6(2), 3-20. []

Stenberg, A. (2017). Legibility of musical scores and parallels with language reading. PhD Thesis, University of Cambridge. []

Stenberg, A., & Cross, I. (2019). White spaces, music notation and the facilitation of sight-reading. Scientific Reports, 9(1), 5299. []

Waters, A. J., Townsend, E., & Underwood, G. (1998). Expertise in musical sight reading: A study of pianists. British Journal of Psychology, 89, 123-149. []

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