Create Piano Roll Notation with a Spreadsheet

Perhaps the simplest alternative notation for the piano keyboard is  “piano roll” notation,  based on the punched paper rolls that operate the actual keys on player pianos.  In this notation, there is one column for each of the 88 keys on the keyboard (or at least as many as you need for a particular piece).  Duration is represented by the length of the “hole” or mark, using a uniform time scale. This notation is commonly used in computer software, probably because it’s easy to implement.  Today there are piano tutorial programs available that use this notation, including some free ones: But I was looking for a printable yet readable notation.  It seems straightforward to use standard spreadsheet software to create the Piano Roll, as in the following example: Piano Roll Example: Minuet 2:25-32 from Bach’s Anna Magdalena Notebook. I use a single grand staff, with no extra space between “bass” and “treble” (Left/Right hands).  Columns representing the black keys are shaded gray.  When playing the music, I found it difficult to distinguish the boundaries between the groups of 2 and groups of 3, so I ended up with shading the Db Eb lines differently than the Gb Ab Bb lines. Noteheads could be entered using any appropriate symbol, such as asterisk or a large bullet from a symbol font.  (Monospace fonts, such as Courier New, work best, with the character aligned to the top center of the cell.)   Since I’m just learning to play, I found fingering numbers useful.  I ended up using the finger numbers as the “noteheads”, putting a finger number on every note. Since I’m using a single grand staff, and the finger-number noteheads do not have stems, when reading the music I became confused whether “1” represented the left thumb or the right thumb. So I decided to use different numbers for the two hands, eventually settling on  6 7 8 9 0 for the left hand fingers pinky through thumb.  This matched the left-to-right order of the computer keyboard keys, while preserving the traditional numbering for the right hand, even though it requires “crossing hands” to type it the way you would play it.  (It make a certain mathematical sense also, if you count down from 5, the right-hand pinky, modulo 10). Bar lines were created with the cell border feature. I found using a sub-bar level grid line at each “count” improved readability with more than two or three notes per measure.  In this version of piano roll, the notes do not have stems.  It occurs to me that the stems must play a significant role in allowing the eye to determine which notes are to be played at the same time, especially in a notation like 12-position piano roll where the noteheads are more spread out than in traditional notation! Instead of indicating duration with a long line, as in a physical piano roll,  I used noteheads only at the start of the note (note on), and assumed the note would continue until the next note for that voice/hand.  Otherwise, another symbol was added to indicate continuation or ending the note: dot – sustain the note while a new note is added % (rest) – release the note before the next note occurs caret-dot: <. – staccato: strike and release note immediately Since my eyesight is not a keen as it once was, I used the largest font size that would fit on the page, 14 point. I was able to get readable, playable “scores” 48 notes long with a four-octave range (full grand staff) on a standard 8.5 x 11 inch page with 1/2 inch margins.  (That’s equivalent to 16 measures of quarter notes in 3/4 time, adequate for beginning songs.) I’ve created piano roll scores  with Microsoft Excel on a Windows Vista computer and also with Apple Numbers on a Mac running Snow-Leopard. To create a score, I open a blank spreadsheet, then create the “score paper” by squaring the cells and shading the black note columns. I add horizontal bars for the measures and counts.  Then I add the notes (finger numbers in my case) by click and type. Some teachers or students may prefer to orient the staff horizontally for playing, to be more consistent with Traditional Notation.  (I’m not sure this is a good idea–two similar notations may confuse the student more than help.) But if you do want horizontal notation, the spreadsheet could be created with “staff spaces” horizontal in the first place. Or,  if your spreadsheet software supports it, you can rotate the characters in the cell 90 degrees.

About DrTechDaddy

"Dr. Tech Daddy" is Joe Austin, a retired computer science professor. My interests include: software development (web and mobile), STEM and music education; learning to play the piano; mathematical foundations of computing; popular theoretical physics; model railroading (G, N, Thomas); Lego robots; history and theology of the Judaeo-Christian Church.
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