The Shorthand for Music and Dance – The written remains

By Jorge Bravo, Azat Ambartsoumian and Diana Campi

Generalmente si ritiene che l’uso della stenografia sia rivolto soltanto alla registrazione degli interventi in parlamento o delle tetimonianze in tribunale, ma ve ne sono molteplici applicazioni, enfatizzate nella letteratura classica e dal premio Nobel Ostrom.

Vi sono inoltre sistemi stenografici che registrano i suoni e i movimenti.

I sistemi stenografici della musica furono sviluppati nell’800 e 900 in Europa e nelle Americhe: Jean Kutahialian parlò per primo di stenografia della musica e agli inizi del 900 Angel Menchaca in Argentina creò un sistema di annotazione musicale.

Esiste anche la stenografia della danza: fu sviluppata dalle antiche civiltà in India, Egitto e Grecia e standardizzata tramite lettere e simboli astratti dei movimenti della danza classica nel 400-500 in Italia, Francia e Spagna. Seguirono ulteriori perfezionamenti del sistema fino al 900 e attualmente se ne utilizzano quattro:

  • Annotazione di Laban
  • Annotation di Conte
  • Annotation di Benesh
  • Annotation di Wachmann

Dagli anni 80, tutti i sistemi di annotazione importanti si sono evoluti in software.

Mentre oggi la stenografia della musica non si usa più, quella della danza è ancora in uso.

First of all, we would like to thank you for the opportunity of speaking at this Intersteno Congress, one of the most important meeting of professionals in the use of words, held in this beautiful city of Berlin, in Germany, a country with a rich tradition in the art of shorthand writing and home to Franz Gabelsberger, creator of the great Gabelsberger shorthand system.

This presentation, as well as that held 4 years ago in Ghent, takes place the same year that Intersteno president, Fausto Ramondelli, has made a trip to Argentina. The first time there he visited the Special Collections section of the Library of the National Congress, which includes the Palant Collection, composed of books and magazines about shorthand from all over the world. His visit prompted us to start a project for microfilming and digitalizing all books and magazines on the subject, which is in accordance to new Argentine regulations.

As we always say in our radio program “Palabras Dibujadas (“Drawn Words”) – in which we talk about Shorthand and the profession of stenographers- we want remember here the words pronounced by Caius Titus at the Roman Senate: “Verba volant, scripta manent”, meaning “words fly, writing remains.” A very significant statement, isn’t it? Because it points straight to the importance of shorthand.

In general, when we think about the use of shorthand, we think almost exclusively of its use for recording speeches in parliaments or testimonies in court procedures. But there are more areas of application for stenography. In fact, we can mention the importance that it had in classic literature. We’ll mention some cases, although there are many. Charles Dickens, for example, who in his autobiographical book “David Copperfield” recounts his difficulties in learning shorthand and writing rapidly, regardless of what he later became a parliamentary and judicial stenographer. Or Fedor Dostoevsky, who used the shorthand – through his secretary and future wife, Ana Grigorievna – to write some of his works, as “The Player”, in just 26 days. And it would be possible to mention many other intellectuals who also used shorthand or who emphasized their importance, such as Tolstoy, Bernard Shaw, Spencer, Newton or Mrs. Elinor Ostrom, the first woman to win the Nobel Prize in Economics in 2009.

I repeat: “The writing remains”. Thanks to the creative genius of some, shorthand has helped not only words to remain in writing. We say this because there have been shorthand systems used not to record words but to record sounds and movements too. What do we mean by this? We’ll try to explain:

When Diana — who is here with me — Azat — who also participated in this research — and I, received Fausto Ramondelli in the Library of Congress, he was surprised with the book La sténographie de la musique (The Shorthand of Music), by Jean Kutahialian, published in Marseilles, France. In this book the author develops a shorthand system for writing music.

From there came the idea of investigating about this subject, which we did not know. And what happened during our investigation? We find that there is also a shorthand for dance, which is still used today in some countries.

Then, if you agree, we will mention some examples.

What is the purpose of musical notation for an interpreter? To serve as a guide for reading and recreating the work that the composer imagined at the time of its creation, allowing his work to transcend. Western traditional notation was born to that end.

While there were previous experiences, these systems came to prominence mostly during the late 19th century and early 20th century both in Europe and in the Americas. The fundamental idea was to replace the classic musical notation system ̶ with its scales and notes ̶ by other faster systems that could make it possible to listen and transcribe a composition even simultaneously.

There were notable proposers in Europe, such as in Spain, France, Italy and Germany. In the Americas we can mention Argentina, Mexico, Perú and Uruguay. In the case of Spain, prominent stenographer Francisco de Paula Martí also invented a system of music shorthand that was only published after his dead by his son Angel Ramon Martí in 1833. Later, in 1895, fellow Spaniard Serafín Ramón Guas y Ezcurdia published Método teórico-práctico de taquigrafía musical (Practical and Theoretical Method for Music Tachygraphy).

Going further back in history, Russeau himself was, according to some, a pioneer innovator with regards to musical notation.

In Italy we found Lodovico Roletti, with his book “Nuovo sistema de Stenografia Italiana e Francese e nuovo mecanismo per la Stenografia Musicale” (New system for Italian and French stenography and new system for musical stenography).

In France, in 1949, Jean Kutahialian published La Sténographie de la Musique (The stenography of music). There are copies of the latter two books in the Palant Collection of Shorthand Writing of the Library of the National Congress of Argentina. And in this, our country (Argentine) we found two notable authors who created systems of music shorthand: Rafael Hernandez and Angel Menchaca, who was director of stenographers at the National Senate. The systems created by them are of the chart type and have in common the use of petal-like signs instead of notes.

In one chapter from his book Cartilla Taquigráfica (Shorthand primer), published in 1892, Rafael Hernandez explains his music shorthand or True Shorthand, in which he lays the foundations for this system and claims that its purpose is to facilitate the learning of music. In his system, which is written in only two lines, the value of each note is kept.

Meanwhile Menchaca, who published four books on music notation ̶ in 1904, 1906, 1909 and 1914 ̶ said: “I intend to combine two methods of writing: one for speech and another for music, representing sounds in their most varied combinations in a simple, easy and unequivocal way”.

His system of music shorthand was known not only in Argentina, as it was also published in London and Paris. Taking advantage of his participation in the 2nd International Congress of Stenography, which took place in Paris in 1889, Angel Menchaca gave a lecture at the Sorbonne in Paris and afterwards visited the United States and other places of France, Belgium, England and Italy, where he was even decorated.

Among the main features of his system, we can name the following:

  • The use of a twelve notes alphabet.
  • The use of a single line of writing. This facilitates reading because it replaces the more than thirty positions of the traditional system by only two.
  • The division of the general scale in dozens, which makes it possible to determine the location of any note more quickly and precisely.
  • The use of fewer signs, since it suppresses the pentagram, the supplementary lines, the spaces, the seven keys, the sharp notes, the dotted octaves, the division of the bars, the ties, the double, triple and quadruple dots, the indications of the bars and almost all nomenclature related to the movements, etc.
  • The name, duration and pitch of all musical sounds are expressed in a fixed manner, without the need for independent auxiliary signs.
  • The notation is one and the same for all voices and all instruments.
  • It does away with the complex array of chromatic and diatonic intervals, major and minor, augmented, diminished, super-augmented and sub-diminished.
  • All scales of the traditional system are reduced to three series.
  • All bars are replaced by a single measure of time, the same that marks the rhythm for all movements.
  • It gives real time durations to all sounds.

Although the Menchaca system had some diffusion in Argentina and was taught in some schools, with a number of musical performances in a lyrical theatre of Buenos Aires Province, it met with opposition. Beside many supporters, the system also had its detractors.

Regardless of the level success experienced by the systems created by these different authors, our purpose was to highlight the amount of work they have developed in this area. But it doesn’t end here. In fact, there is another kind of art that makes use of shorthand for its representation. It is the shorthand for dance, which will be briefly explained below.

In the case of dance, there exist different notation systems that make it possible to write down movements and thus make them understandable for further reproducing them at any time. Although the earliest record of dance notation dates back to the ancient civilizations of India, Egypt and Greece, it was not until the 15th or 16th century that it began to be developed as a universalized system. Ballet saw the first attempts to systematize its notation and make it universal.

It was in De arte saltandi et choreas ducendi (On the Art of Dancing and Conducting Dances), in 1455, that Domenico di Ferrara, along with one of his disciples, Giuglielmo Ebreo, described the different dances by means of letters and symbols.

Thoinot Arbeau (an anagram of Jehan Tabourot) proposed in his book Orchsographie (1588) one of the earliest systematizations for describing steps and figures through letters, words and illustrations. The use of letters or verbal abbreviations, which will be found in later treatises, reflects the crystallization of a terminology derived from the oral transmission of dance, and implies the common knowledge of a specific vocabulary.

An unusual event at the time was the discovery in Cervera (Spain), in 1931, of two pages dating from the mid 15th century showing the first attempt to transcribe by means of abstract signs the horizontal and vertical movements of a dancer. Specifically designed for dance, this symbolic notation anticipated the shape of things to come.

Towards 1674, Pierre Beauchamp, conceived a notation system representing the movements on the ground and described the action of the legs in relation to the rest of the body and the music. In this way he was able to graphically describe temporal and spatial information, based on the characteristics of the human body and its symmetries and taking into account the mechanical needs of its bipedal locomotion. Thus, it began to take into account both the horizontal progression of the dance and the gestures made in the vertical plane.

Inspired by the Beauchamp system, Feuillet published in 1700 his Chorégraphie ou L’Art de décrire la dance (Choreography or the Art of Describing Dance). Fellow French dancer Jean-Georges Noverre’s observations on the importance of individual gesture in dance would be taken into account by further notation systems during the 19th century, which tried to transcribe, with increasing precision, the different body movements.

During the 19th century, Arthur Saint-Léon published the “Sténochorégraphie” (Stenochoreography, 1852) and Friedrich Albert Zorn published Grammatik der Tanzkunst (Grammar of dance, 1887). They were both based on a pictographic representation where head and body could be clearly dissociated. The duration of each movement was specified by a corresponding musical notation. August Bournonville also used a very succinct notation system of his own and in his Etudes Chorégraphiques (Choreographic studies, 1855) he acknowledged his interest in the “Sténochorégraphie”, although he criticized it as too complex.

Based in the analysis of the human body, this system was superior to the choreographic concept of dance. It was used in Russia by The Imperial School of Dance of St. Petersburg, where it played a fundamental role on the instruction of dancers. This system helped transcribe and preserve many of the works by Marius Petipa and other choreographers of the Marinski. Famous dancer Nijinsky personally used it at the beginning of the 20th century to write down all of the choreography for his ballet L’après-midi d’un faune (Afternoon of a Faun).

The advances of scientific and technical knowledge as well as research on sound, space, colour, forms and movement and the synergy between theory and creation, advances of knowledge in medicine and anatomy and the development of abstract symbolic expression allowed the development of various notation systems for movement and dance. Currently, four systems are mainly used:

  • Laban notation (1928)
  • Notation of Conte (1931)
  • Notation of Benesh (1956)
  • Notation of Wachmann (1958)

Laban developed and interpreted concepts about movement and dance. Because the whole theory would be too long to cover here, we would like to point at least some of the more relevant aspects:

“Labanotation”: is a way of remembering a set of movements by means of symbols. It establishes a technique of reliable written language for movements, dynamics, space and all the actions the body must perform.

“The icosahedron technique”: this allows studying dancers to see the points toward and from which they must move, improving their precision in performance.

The four main aspects of the movement technique are the following:

Time: it is sudden (quick) or sustained.

Weight: movement maybe strong or light. The factors of time and weight mark the dynamic quality of the movement.

Space: is related both to the way in which the movement takes place and the direction in which is done. The concept of kinesphere, the “personal space”, also belongs to this category. It is an imaginary sphere built with all the points within reach of the body at its maximum extension, keeping the feet on the ground.

Flow: this factor is present throughout the entire movement and gives the sensation of being bound or free.

Laban defines the archetypes or simplifications that he uses as “fundamental shape forms”: a straight line, an open (curved) shape, torsion (S) and rounded shape, which are derived from the basic form and the spiral shape, truer to the actual organization of the body and many forms present in nature.

Another important aspect of choreographic notation is that of copyright. In some countries, courts would only support the right of the choreographer over his work if it has been previously written down. This is a strong point in favour of all systems of notation that allows a work to be registered. We may point as well that, in some countries, audiovisual systems are not currently as safe as it is notation.

All important systems of notation have evolved into their own software, beginning in 1982 with the DOM, followed by the Shorthand dance notation, Morris dance notation, etc.

The applications are:

  • Dance Forms – dance animation software for Mac OS X and Microsoft Windows
  • Expressive Character Animation – Expressive Ballet animation using Benesh Notation
  • LINTER – a UNIX and X windows for LED that generates animation via the nudes animation system
  • BALLONES – ‘Ballet Animation Language Linked Over Nudes Ellipsoid System’ a lexical computer interpreter of Classical Ballet terminology
  • Country Dance animation project – Java and XML animation – using Labanotation (development on hold).
  • Morris Dance notation uses the ABC music notation language and related software for UNIX, Macintosh, Microsoft Windows and MIDI applications.

This is a very brief synthesis of our research. Today, rather than bore you with the more technical aspects, we wanted to share with you the knowledge the existence of these systems of shorthand notation for two branches of art. Those who are interested, can contact us for more information.

In the case of Music, besides the acknowledgments, the authors were forced to make many corrections and unfortunately, in the end, we can say that musical shorthand today is no longer used.

But shorthand notation for Dance is still used, now mostly for choreography, both in Europe and America. We have contacted a choreographer who uses a shorthand notation system and we intend to continue researching on it and maybe next time we may bring someone proficient on this system to talk about it.

Finally, we would like to know whether any of these two systems had seen some kind of development in your countries. You can write to us with any information you may have to the e-mail address Thus, we will continue to build on the history, the present and the future of our profession and contribute to the growth of our beloved Federation, INTERSTENO, with research that will consolidate your work and your presence in the world.

Thank you very much for your attention!