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How Music Applies to Data Visualization

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In this blog, we mostly write about data or information visualization in the context of software development. The feel for visualization can be formed while skimming cute vizzes… or by studying books. I will try to show how someone who digs into data visualization profoundly has an advantage over those who go with shortcuts. The example I will use is from the field completely unrelated to software development. It might seem a bit stretched to consider music sheets a “visualization”, but notation does visualize music in that someone with a good ear will decipher the visual symbols and then reproduce them with their inner hearing, or in play.

Classical Music Notation

In classical music, notes are played exactly as shown in the sheet, with the precisely measured pauses and sustains. A performer is supposed to stick to the composer’s intent all along the way. Even more so in an orchestra, where each instrument has its own role and function. Some instruments are responsible for melody, some for harmony, some for bass lines. It would be weird if a bass tuba decided to incorporate both melody and bass (an extreme example).  Keeping the order of notes in play is the main job of classical music notation. This is how the first few measures look in a J.S. Bach concerto for 2 violins, string orchestra and continuo (clavier is shown instead of the string orchestra and continuo part):

bach concert for 2 violins

Tab Notation for Guitar

Visualization with tabs is rooted in several factors. Sometimes people don’t get a chance to learn classical music notation, and then at some point in their life they want to learn guitar playing. For the most part, they want to do it fast, skipping the classical notation which looks complicated to them. Bass clefs, treble clefs, sharps, flats, pauses, grrr. The tab notation was invented for such people. They can see which fret is it, which string, and little by little play melodies that way. This notation is usually used for transcribing solos and improvisations.  Here’s an example of tabs used for visualizing the melody line in a composition by Yngwie Malmsteen:

trilogy suite malmsteen
The numbers in the area circled in yellow indicate frets, the lines stand for strings, and someone who wants to mimic the great Yngwie can persevere, and copy the melody line exactly the way Yngwie played it. Matching a note with a certain fret is an extra burden for a guitar-player who is unfamiliar with the classical notation, that’s why the fret number visualization works best for them. Still, this tab notation is just a workaround and has some limitations. The guitar student is going in the dark, copying the string of notes with no awareness of the harmony behind it. Those who know classical notation feel snobbish about tabs, and for a reason. However, tabs do help to get started with playing tunes, even in this limiting way, and for some people this can be enough.

Ted Greene’s Diagrams for Chord Melody Guitar Play

The late Ted Greene was a unique guitar music player and teacher who played chord melody fingerstyle guitar. Chord melody style implies playing chords and melody at the same time. There’s no set-in-stone way for a guitar player to play chord melody. Unlike the case with the classical pieces in an orchestra, or the guitar melody line played solo or in a band,  the chord melody guitar-player is supposed to play both chords and melody simultaneously. Ted spent quite some time inventing his custom visual diagrams, as most his students were unfamiliar with the classical notation, and mixed the chord boxes with melody lines.

white christmas by ted greene

Each box represents a grid of strings (the vertical lines) and frets (the horizontal lines). The order of playing notes is explained in the legend. This snip includes the same piece of music in classical notation.  The chord-melody visualization in boxes helps to explore guitar visually. With guitar, one can change keys moving several frets up or down, and keep the same pattern of fingering. Guitar players refer to this as “playing in boxes”. If someone says that playing over a blues pentatonic box is boring, this means they’ve had enough of improvising over that pattern. With guitar, the classical notation is not always necessary, as guitar is the most visual instrument there is. Remember Jimi Hendrix who played with his visual thinking only. Ted Greene’s approach to visualizing guitar play is somewhere in between, it incorporates boxes and prescribes the order of playing melody lines. If you’re interested, here’s a detailed writeup on Ted’s notation style and a link to Ted’s web-site.


We can see that the classical music notation is the most abstract visualization of music. With this, one can read notes for any instrument, be it a string instrument, or a wind instrument, or a keyboard. The knowledge of this notation (and music theory) makes it easier to learn several instruments. I’m speaking from personal experience, as my piano background helped a lot when I studied guitar in my high school years. Besides, only the one who holds this most abstract visualization in mind can be a director of an orchestra. Visualization with tabs and boxes is guitar-specific. There’s no way one can visualize notes for wind instruments or for keyboards in the same manner due to the specifics of those instruments. The most abstract approach is the most universal one, that’s why it is essential to learn things at their highest level of abstraction. This also stands true for visualizing data and information. Anyone can skim cute vizzes. But only someone with profound knowledge will be able to create unique visual representations. That’s what the Over Medium option for learning in my article Data Visualization 101: A Basic Guidance is about.

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Published at DZone with permission of Olga Kouzina, DZone MVB. See the original article here.

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