MOVES intervallic notation

MOVES is a simple and logical notation for melodic fragments or exercises based on intervals. With it, you can write down a melodic idea without deciding what key it is in. At the simplest level it consists of the number of halfsteps/semitones in each interval, preceded by a (+) or () to indicate rising or descending. The symbol (=0) or a forward slash (/) would be used to indicate a repeated note.

So starting from your note (yn):

yn =0 +2 -2 +5 -1

… spells the first six notes of Happy Birthday (leaving out note durations for the moment).

 Notating Rhythm

The basic idea is simple: all moves are assumed to be quarter notes (crotchets or single beats), and then:

>” increases duration by one quarter note (when not inside parentheses)

How you notate short notes will depend on your platform. With pen and paper you can use underline or double underline to indicate short durations, and dots to lengthen notes by half or three-quarters of their value. If you are typing and don’t have double underline use the traditional Japanese convention and strikethrough the moves like so:

yn . =0 +2 -2 +5 -1 >
Hap-py Birth-day to you

If you want to notate a melody in order to tweet it on Twitter, you will not be able to use underlines. So you will have to use parentheses to group the moves that go into one quarter note:

(yn -2 -1 +1) +2 > > -2 +7
What’s it all a-bout, Al-fie

The rule is, all elements inside parentheses have equal value and add up to one beat. So there you have a phrase beginning with four 16th notes, (for those of you who don’t remember the song.)

To indicate an eighth note followed by two sixteenth notes, put them all inside the parentheses with a > after the eighth note.

(yn > +12 =0) (=0 > -12 =0) (=0 +10)(=0 -1)
High on a hill was a lone-some goat-herd

As for Happy Birthday, the sixteenth note on the second syllable comes after a dotted eighth note. The logical way would be to triple the length of the first note inside the parentheses.

(yn >> =0) +2 -2 +5 -1 >
Hap-py Birth-day to you.

In the case of an eighth note following a dotted quarter note, placing a > inside the brackets gives it the value of a dot (if there is only one other move inside the brackets).

yn  (> -2)(-1 > +3)(+5 > +2) +2 > -4
Glo-     ry    glo-   ry   Hal-   le-   lu-    yah

Lastly, we can use a simple underscore “_” to notate rests.

Notating Key

Simple. Instead of yn at the beginning, write the name of the starting note:

(D >> =0) +2 -2 +5 -1 >
Hap-py Birth-day to you.

There, so now you can tweet a Happy Birthday to all your friends and make sure they all sing it in the same key!

Using MOVES as a practice tool

We can turn any melodic fragment into a chaining pattern, so that we start the melody again from the note we ended on before, like so:

{=0 +2 -2 +5 -1},

… where the wiggly brackets tell us to keep repeating the moves enclosed inside them.  In MOVES, this is called a “link” and if we do the sum of the numbers in the link, we get the “linksum“:

0 +2 -2 +5 -1 = +4

What does this tell us? Well, it tells you by what interval the pattern transposes each time you go through the cycle. In this case, we see it rises 4 halfsteps (a major 3rd) each time. This is useful to know for a variety of purposes. For a start, since 4 goes into 12 three times, chaining it three times will get you singing it one octave higher.

Or it might be that you want to practice something in all keys on your saxophone. One way to do this would be to make sure your linksum is not a factor of 12. Here you might want to chop off that last move in the link, so that the linksum becomes +5, leading you through the cycle of fourths.

{=0 +2 -2 +5} × 12

You decide where you want to slip down an octave to avoid soaring into the piclasonic.

The link need not always begin with a =0 move.  An exercise in quartal triads descending in halfsteps would be notated {-11 +5 +5}. The +11 move is called the chaining move. It is what determines the transposition interval at each pass. Obviously at the very first iteration you just ignore it and play your note.

Diatonic MOVES

MOVES notation is not restricted to the chromatic scale. The same notation can also be applied to the steps of a diatonic scale, or in fact any random stack of intervals (an “array“). To nominate an array, we simply place the intervals in ascending order inside the curly brackets, this time without the plus or minus signs.  The major scale would look like this:

{2 2 1 2 2 2 1}

The curly brackets indicate that this array is understood to stack upon itself, in either direction.

Note that the array does not have to add up to 12 (=one octave). You can write the diminished scale as {2 1} or the whole tone scale as {2}. I call these “short scales“. The fun thing about them is that they don’t even have to add up to a factor of 12. They can thus become self-transposing. Coltrane played a lot with the short scale {3 2} in the Love Supreme suite, and went on to explore many others.  If you keep stacking it you will visit all twelve “houses” (I don’t use the word “key” here because this is a transposition, a relative concept, and anyway the array might not necessarily imply a key center or tonic).

What use is MOVES?

Practising from MOVES notation is a powerful tool for the “classically chained” musician to wean himself away from reading dots or playing scales, and develop new mental muscles that are vital to acquiring melodic autonomy and the instrumental mastery you need to play whatever is in your head. Along the way it fills in any gaps in your ear-training and interval recognition. And last but not least it is generative (can be used to create ideas) and can be written on the back of an envelope.

And tweeted to your friends or the world at large.

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18 Responses to MOVES

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  17. This is interesting! I’m surprised this kind of system isn’t more prevalent. Do you know of other interval systems and have you done any comparison? (Surely there are medieval examples too). Have you trained in reading your own system and/or gotten feedback from people who have worked for a while reading your system?

    I hadn’t found this system, but needed something similar, and so have been developing one with letters o through z for the various intervals, caps for up, with numbers the reciprocal of duration (relative to a measure), suppressed when repeated, tick marks to augment by an octave. The first two phrases of happy birthday:

    4 o12 | Q3 q T | p1.5 s4 o12 | Q3 q V | q1.5

    which reads, play a note for a 1/4th of a measure, then repeat for a 12th of a measure. New measure. Go up a major second for a third of a measure. Down a major second for the same duration. Up a 4th, same duration. New measure. Down a minor second for 2/3 a measure, down a major third for a 1/4th of a measure, repeat note for a 12th of a measure…

    O is up an octave. O’ is up two, o’ is down one.

    Thought I’d share and say hello.


    • jazzpanflute says:

      Thank you for you comment Andrew. I use the numbers because the simple arithmetic operations they permit can be useful both for designing exercises and for transferring them to logical instruments like my whole tone panpipes, violin or guitar. They can also be translated into finger signs (pointing up/down) to conduct, say, a choir or a class of students. For durations I use easy to understand dashes, dots and single and double underlines. I offer the method to anyone who wants to use it, but don’t have the time to research prior art or make comparisons with other methods. We all want to get ahead and play music, right?


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