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Proposed: A (much) better octave designation notation for The Horn Call

Steve Eddins
Posted on Saturday, September 23, 2023

Whenever I receive my latest issue of The Horn Call in the mail, before reading the good stuff, I grimace and shake my head sadly at the bottom of the one of the early pages:

Horn Call octave designation system

Octave designation notation used by The Horn Call

(In case you can’t read it clearly, that symbol on the left is supposed to be a subscript prime.)

This is called Helmholtz pitch notation, and it is an objectively terrible system.

In my practice journal and other notes, I use scientific pitch notation, also known as international pitch notation, or American standard pitch notation:

scientific pitch notation

Scientific pitch notation

Scientific pitch notation is a far better notation system than Helmholtz.

Scientific pitch notation is easier to read.

There is no need to distinguish between an uppercase “C” and a lowercase “c”, which can be difficult, especially in handwriting. There is no need to count sequences of tiny prime symbols.

Scientific pitch notation is easier to understand.

There is no need to memorize the seemingly arbitrary octave ordering associated with different parts of the Helmholtz sequence: subscript primes (more primes is lower), uppercase, lowercase, and superscript primes (more primes is higher).

Scientific pitch notation is easier to write.

The subscript octave numbers in scientific pitch notation mix much more easily with the accidentals, such as F4. In fact, because each octave is designated by a simple digit, even using subscripts is not strictly necessary. The commonly used typographical and hand-written variations F4, F4, and F(4) are all easily recognizable as the F above middle C, which could itself be written as C4, C4, or C(4).

Scientific pitch notation is easier to say.

Although I’ve been thinking about the pitch notation system in The Horn Call for a long time, I only realized the issue of speaking the notation aloud very recently, when I was listening the Alyssa Widener’s YouTube video, “4 Exercises for your High Register.” Starting at about 02:35, you can hear her refer to “C3”. Then, starting at about 03:00, you can hear her refer to “G5”. I suppose that the corresponding Helmholtz pitch notations might be spoken aloud as “uppercase C” and “G double prime,” which is just unbearably awkward.

Next steps?

So, what do you think, dear readers? Is there any chance of convincing the IHS to leave the outdated and awkward Helmholtz system behind?

I wonder whether sending a letter to the editor of The Horn Call would be worth the effort.