15-year-old Bach’s arrangement of An Wasserfluessen Babylon by Johann Adam Reincken
Projet Concernant de Nouveaux Signes pour la Musique
A few decades later sits a Genevan philosopher on vacation reflecting on the invention of a simpler, more efficient notation:
Deprived of his pupils in that rural retreat, he began to ponder upon the trouble it had cost him to learn to read music. The fault, he decided, lay in the unnecessary complexity of accepted notation. Revolutionary that he was, he thereupon decided to devise a simpler method of writing down music which should supplant the existing system.
During the years that followed Rousseau perfected a notation of numerals designed to indicate tonal relationships. Upon that basis and with the aid of a few additional symbols he satisfied himself that not only simple melodies, but even a full orchestral score could be set down on paper.9
This was the beginning of Projet Concernant de Nouveaux Signes pour la Musique,10 a proposal for a new music notation that Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) presented to l'Académie des sciences in Paris on August 22, 1742. It was a type of cipher notation, similar to the Spanish tablature, using numbers to indicate scale degrees. Rousseau felt that the traditional staff notation contained too much information, mostly unnecessary, and therefore, wanted to invent a simpler universal notation. His system may have been good for early stages of singing but was inadequate to contain all the information needed for complex instrumental writing. Even Jean-Philippe Rameau (1683-1764) pointed out that the “absence of pictorial element in his cipher-notation deprived an instrumentalist of a valuable property of staff notation—its capacity to show at a glance the ‘shape’ of a phrase.”11 Rousseau’s system employed numbers for each scale degree and used dots(·) to indicate which octave: a dot over the number meant upper octave and a dot under the number, lower. Sharps and flats were indicated by a slash (/ for sharp and \ for flat) through the number. Bar lines (|) indicated measures, and the dot (·) was used to indicate dotted rhythms. It had a movable solfa with an indication of starting note in a specific octave. Rests were indicated by zero (0). In short, it was possible to notate instrumental and vocal music in his system.12 The following are his points from Projet defending the new system:
In the first place, musical notation will be two three times easier to understand.
1st Because it will consist of fewer symbols.
2nd Because these symbols will be simpler.
3rd Because without further study the characters of the notes themselves also represent their intervals in relationships—instead of which, in ordinary notation, these relationships and intervals are very difficult to arrive at, and call for long experience and practice.
4th Because a single character can have no more than a single name—instead of which, in the ordinary system, each degree of the scale can have seven names, one in each key; which what causes such confusion that pupils can only overcome in after expenditure of much time, pain and trouble.
5th Because time values are more clearly showing than in ordinary notation, and the values of the rests and notes are also set out in a match simpler and more rational manner.
6th Because the key always been made known, it is always simpler to prelude and established the key: which is not the case with ordinary notation where pupils are often absent themselves by singing inaccurately, through not knowing the key in which they should be singing.
In the second place, this notation is more convenient and easy to write down, and takes up less space. Any kind of writing paper is suitable (no special manuscript paper is called for) and ordinary type is sufficient to print it: and so composers will not be put to such great expense in having their pieces engraved, nor the public in buying them.
Finally, composers will find this further advantage no less considerable; that arising from the simplicity of the notation, their harmony and their chords may be known simply by inspection of the symbols, and without those leaps from one clef to another which demand lengthy experience and which few attain so perfectly.13