MUSINGS / 翻简谱，靠谱吗？Cipher notation – lost in transcription?
16 Jun 2019
翻简谱，靠谱吗？Cipher notation – lost in transcription?
Contributed by Wang Chenwei
ENGLISH VERSION (abridged) (原中文版在下)
The two main types of music notation in the world are absolute-pitched notation (such as staff notation) and relative-pitched notation (such as cipher notation). Most Chinese orchestra musicians start learning their instruments using Jianpu (Chinese cipher notation), making Jianpu their “mother tongue” notation. However, orchestra scores are mostly in staff notation, as it is harder to see the pitch relationships among numerous staves with Jianpu, and because existing Jianpu notation software is woefully lacking in functionality. Most part scores are thus generated in staff notation too, and those not fluent in reading it have to transcribe the scores into Jianpu by hand.
The following may be lost in the transcription process:
Time: Each part score takes around 1-2 hours to transcribe. The time spent on 10 scores (10-20 hours) could have been spent on practising reading staff notation and becoming fluent in it.
Accuracy: Wrongly transcribed notes are inevitable, and sometimes undiscovered even after the performance.
Register: As octave transpositions are indicated in Jianpu by dots above and below the notes, register is a relative measure. Players of transcribed scores often unwittingly play notes or passages an octave too high or too low.
Performance indications: When writing Jianpu between the staves of a staff notation score, musicians often only transcribe the pitches. In theory, one can refer to the staff notation for other performance indications, but in practice, these are often neglected.
Advantage of Jianpu: The main advantage of Jianpu is that it can express the scale degrees of tonal melodies, thus enabling the player to appreciate the tonality of the melody more clearly. Orchestral parts, however, often consist of arpeggios and other accompaniment figures which are not optimally expressed in Jianpu.
Confusion between relative and absolute pitching: Some players learn to read only one key in Jianpu and transcribe all other keys relative to that one, leading to a false understanding of tonal relationships.
Although Jianpu as a notation system cannot be said to be “superior” or “inferior” to staff notation, the inability to read staff notation poses significant practical problems in Chinese orchestras. It might be worthwhile for Jianpu “mother-tongue” musicians to strive for fluency in staff notation, as the initial effort will pay off in the long term.