Development of ABC-Notation

The Ailler-Brennink Chromatic Notation*
by Albert Brennink


After 40 years of intensive research work and more than 30 publications, the ABC Notation is a complete notational system. The existence of 20 music books printed in chromatic notation provides sufficient proof of its usefulness. Following a review of the historical developments, we will give an introduction to the main characteristics of this notation as well as a complete list of publications.


Albert Brennink, an architect by profession, has occupied himself with music since childhood; his instruments are piano and harpsichord plus organ and voice. Early on he became irritated by the inadequacy of our traditional music notation and experimented with alternative solutions, trying the keyboard notation Klavarskribo, published in 1931, for instance. **


However, as a result of these early experiments he came to the conclusion that we need a notation based on the chromatic scale which shows pitch in exact proportion. After more research work and some discarded experiments, his efforts finally resulted in the complete system of his ABC Notation.


In 1975 his system was ready for printing. He visited 12 music publishers in person and all of them turned his booklet down. Therefore he saw himself compelled to start his own music publishing company. In 1976 the EDITION CHROMA was founded in Frankfurt am Main, West Germany (as a branch of dipa-Verlag + Druck GmbH). The booklet with only 26 pages appeared in print for the first time in 1976: Albert Brennink Die Halbtonschrift oder Die chromatische Notation, eine graphische Darstellung der Musik. The booklet was printed in a two column layout, showing German and English side by side; the English title was The Chromatic Notation, a Graphical Representation of Music.





In the following year, a charitable non-profit foundation for the reform of music notation, 'Fondation Chroma', was founded in Montreux, Switzerland, the author's residence, and the publishing company moved from Frankfurt to Montreux VD, Switzerland. In 1978 the French and Italian version of the booklet was also published: La Notation Chromatique, l'écriture par demi-tons, une representation graphique de la musique and La Notazione Cromatica, una rappresentazione grafica della musica.


Accompanying the first booklet, in 1976, the first three Contrapuncti of J.S. Bach's The Art of Fugue were also published in Chromatic Notation as an example of more complicated music.


A press conference was organized at the Frankfurt Book Fair and a review by the notation expert Karkoschka appeared in the Swiss music magazine Schweizerische Musikzeitschrift. But there was little reaction. However, one remark in Karkoschka's review struck the author: “Once more, one of around 50 new notational proposals.” If there were already so many proposals, what did they look like?





* The system of ABC-notaion is available for common use. In case of public application the authorship is to be mentioned: "Music notation by Albert Brennink".


** Klavarskribo, P.O.Box 39, NL-2980 AA Ridderkerk, Netherlands


To obtain more information Brennink organized an international enquiry for new notations, starting with music magazines in Europe. After emigrating to Canada in 1979, he did the same in North and South America and overseas. In 1983 the results were published simultaneously by 'Fondation Chroma' in Montreux VD, Switzerland (the German version) and by 'Chroma Foundation' in Victoria BC, Canada (the English version) under the title: Chromatic Notation, the Results and Conclusions of the International Enquiry by the Chroma Foundation.


The international enquiry brought more than 100 proposals for alternative notations. Many of these concerned improvements to the traditional notation, for instance by marking the note heads instead of having accidentals. Others showed new instrument notations for the strings of a guitar or for the keys of a piano. We have only collected notations that show the chromatic scale with exact equivalency of the note steps. Here we have to distinguish between two kinds: firstly, the graphical representation of half steps and, secondly, the graphical representation of whole steps.


The difference is that with a half-step graph each half step moves up or down; while with a whole-step graph only the whole steps move up or down; every second half step, however, stays on the same line and a different note head shows the half-step move. These whole-step notations do not fulfil our first criteria and are not dealt with in detail.


The final result showed 24 half-step notations and eight whole-step notations. The half-step notations then went through a further evaluation, for which the staff system became the main criterion. As a final result, two staff systems of four-line staves plus two ledger lines for each octave seemed to be the best solution, the systems published by Albert Brennink in 1976 and by Franz Grassel in 1983.


To demonstrate the usefulness of the ABC Notation, Brennink had planned to show piano pieces by Arnold Schoenberg and contacted the Schoenberg Foundation in Los Angeles. The author's son Lawrence Schoenberg gladly gave his permission, but the publishers, who had the first rights to publish, refused. As the 70-year waiting period after the author's death had not yet elapsed, Brennink decided to create his own dodecaphonic music.




While the international enquiry was still running, he published the composition Blütezeit or Blossom Time. He composed a cycle of songs based on his own lyrics in the form of a cycle of sonnets. As the musical basis he used the two whole-tone scales and in this way new music, real six-tone music developed. Thus in 1983 the first musical composition in ABC Notation was published: Blossom Time, A Cycle of Songs for Voice and Piano. The book contains 22 songs; all lyrics are in German and English, translated by Alex Page, Amhurst, Massachusets, USA.


The first performance by Michael Kreikenbaum, baritone, and Joachim Hess, piano, took place on 3 November 1986 at the Kurtheater Bad Homburg. The musicians played according to the ABC Notation. A second performance took place on 27 April 1988 at the School of Music in Cologne (Musikhochschule Köln), and a third one on 18 August 1988 at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, England, in connection with an international conference of the Music Notation Modernization Association, MNMA. Up to now the Blossom Time song cycle has been performed 12 times.


The abbreviation MNMA brings us onto a new subject. The international enquiry set a ball rolling which is still rolling today: the idea of improving music notation. Musicians who were discontent with the old notation suddenly had a contact point and were able to find like-minded individuals.


In this way, on 29 June 1983 Thomas S. Reed with his wife Mabel and two children came from Kirksville in Missouri, USA, and arrived on Vancouver Island in Canada to meet the organizer of the international enquiry. From the first meeting on, a friendly cooperation developed. It was possible to make great progress in the research activities because Tom Reed had already gathered around him a circle of notation specialists and had been sending out his 6–6 Newsletter for many years.



After the first contact and further consultations, the idea of organizing an association for alternative notation research arose and Tom Reed took on the task of heading up this organization. In 1985 in Kirksville, Missouri, USA, the Music Notation Modernization Association, MNMA, a charitable (non-profit) organization, was founded. The members were amateur and professional musicians, teachers, composers and other notation inventors. At its peak the association had 130 members in 17 different countries.


Independently of this organization, in 1987 Gardner Read published a Source Book of Proposed Music Notation Reform at Greenwood Press Inc. with 99 notation proposals. Within this list, alongside Brennink's notation, there is another notation with four line staves per octave; it was published in 1904 by Johann Ailler in Stetteldorf am Wagram (Austria). Since this discovery Albert Brennink's notation has been called the Ailler-Brennink Chromatic Notation.


Meanwhile Brennink's research work continued and, after improving some details, he was able to present his ABC Notation as a final edition. In 1992 the English version Equal Temperament Music Notation, The Ailler-Brennink Chromatic Notation, results and conclusions of music notation reform by the Chroma Foundation was published; and in the same year the German version Wohltemperierte Notenschrift also appeared.


In this book 56 chromatic notations are examined and as a final result the ABC Notation, with all its characteristic details, is presented. In a later chapter musical examples are compared in the old and new notation, and finally whole-page music pieces are shown in the new notation. In 1994, the French and the Chinese versions were published and became the standard work in the field of music notation research.






While this publication opened the doorway to a new era of music representation, the year 1993, with the computer program NoteWriter and its adaptation for the ABC Notation brought material and tools for building a new world of music books. As well as publishing his own compositions, Brennink also edited and published 20 music books from Bach to Debussy, including such comprehensive titles as J. S. Bach's The Well-Tempered Clavier, I and II with 48 preludes and fugues. He proved that the ABC Notation is not only easy to read and clear and instructive for theory studies such as voice leading, but can also become a visual, aesthetical pleasure due to its simple graphical representation.


In 2001 Brennink also published a Tutorial for piano and organ playing according to chromatic notation, with the co-operation of Joachim Hess, pianist, and Carsten Lenz, organist, volume I. In this book, the ABC Notation is explained in detail. In the part for beginners, the first exercises are not on the keys C, D, E, but on the black keys F-sharp, G-sharp, A-sharp, because this is the most obvious group of keys on the keyboard and easiest to recognize. The notes have the names of the system 'do-re-mi' with new names for the black keys. The book is for beginners, not for small children.


After having published his book on architecture Structural Architecture (later also in German), Brennink created his last music book in 2009: J. S. Bach The Art of Fugue in Proportional Music Notation. Instead of using the term 'ABC Notation', the author writes 'proportional notation', because proportional representation of pitch is the main element of his notation. An introduction in German and English begins with the words: “Make structure visible and make it pleasing the eye”. These words originate from his architectural philosophy, but are equally valid for music.



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