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123 Notation - Musician's Shorthand

Music Shorthand for both experienced and learning musicians

Can't remember how that tune starts? In a session and you hear a tune and want to make a note of it so you can find it later, perhaps you will find 123 notation useful. You might only need the first few bars as a reminder. You don't need to be able to read music to be able to very quickly learn and use 123 notation.

123 Music Notation - What is it?

123 music notation is a simple to use shorthand that can be used to very quickly write down a tune.

It was created by Phil Wilson in the 1970's and is particularly useful for reminding you of how a tune starts or for when you are in a session or a concert and you like a tune or song that you hear and you wish to quickly jot down the notes so you can go away and find them later.

How we write in 123 notation

123 notation works by writing down the notes simply as numbers. Forget what each note actually is or the key or the timing. We keep it simple thinking only of the realtionship of the notes to each as we do in "doh ray me."

We start by working out the base note of the tune, this is 1 and we go up the octave 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 then the upper octave of the base note is 8. For notes above 8 we start again but put an apostrophe after the number as in 2'. Going down below 1 we put a coma after the note as in 7,

Our full range is therefore: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 2' 3' 4' 5' 6' 7' 8' giving us 3 full octaves to work with.

An example of writing 123 notation

Writing down "Happy Birthday to You" the tune starts on the 5th harmonic below the base note 5, so start there and add the notes:

5,5,6 5,17, 5,5,6,5,21 5,5,5317,6, 4431 21

Note that we write the notes sort of as we hear them, if there is a slower note or a pause between notes leave a gap. If you are writing jigs you can write the notes in 3s, with reels in 4s. If you can recognise longer or missed notes you can put in a hyphen -.

If we can we can make a note of the key. Look around is there a guitarist or another instrument that will tell you the key the musicians are playing in. If not you could ask someone. If you can't determine the key you can pobably find it out later.

So we hear a tune and we write down the first few notes: 5 878 686 531 216, 5,11 7,12 313 1--

With some investigation we find that it is the Blackthorn Stick, a commonly known jig played in the key of G. You learn the tune and remember that it starts 5 878 686.........

The tunes in our tune library on this site all have the 123 notation to help you.

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