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Applying Classical Music Notation to Turntablism


There's a debate going on about skratch notation between two schools of thought. On the one side is the Turntablist Transcription Method (TTM) which Qbert frequently uses here at QSU, and on the other side is the classical notation approach that people like DJ Radar and Alexander Sonnenfeld have developed.  DJ Raedawn, who developed TTM, recently posted an essay online about 10 flaws of applying classical music notation to turntable based music.  Alex wrote a rebuttal in response which I'm presenting here because I hope to see this conversation expanded further. 

I'm not on either side of debate, just a facilitator, but it should be known that helped edit this a bit because English isn't his first language and I wanted the points to be clear (hopefully it is, leave a comment with any questions and I'm sure he'll be happy to expand further).  Personally I think both systems are useful and ultimately bring awareness to the turntable as an instrument and scratching as a musical language. So enough build up, here it is:

     Response to DJ Raedawn’s Arguements Against Applying Classical Music Notation to Turntablism

by Alexander Sonnenfeld

In response to DJ Raedawn's, "Critiques of using Classical Music Notation to describe DJing/Turntablism/Modulation based music" which he recently posted online, I'm writing this in order to defend my arguments for using the classically rooted system of the S-Notation, a scratch notation system which I have spent the past 14 years developing.

I’d like to make it clear that I’m not writing this in order to start a fight against the TTM.  As I said in my interview with QSU, I think TTM is a great graphical solution to notate single patterns. And while it is absolutely true as Raedawn claims, you cannot accurately transcribe the performance of a turntablist by using classical music notation, I would like to make the following points:

S-Notation, like the TTM, is a orthographical way of notating scratching.  In other words, it’s a method of representing sounds by written or printed symbols.  Unlike the TTM however, S-Notation follows the orthographical rules of classical music notation for the purpose of being able to “communicate” with musicians outside of turntablism.

It's important to understand that S-Notation was specially designed to describe the motion sequences of a turntablist (scratching, fading, beat juggling, drum skratching, etc.) by applying concepts of classical music notation.

At the root of all music is about how rhythm, pitches, and harmony play together.  By applying classical music notation, it makes it possible to transfer the content of traditional music theory into turntablism, and improve this furthermore by the endless musical possibilities of turntable-based music...

S-Notation is a sort of hybrid system based on two areas of influence: traditional music notation and turntablism. The goal of S-Notation is to make it possible to notate all the intricate musical patterns on the instrument (turntable/mixer) using the universal language for every other kind of music.

In order to legitimize the turntable as an instrument, I think it is absolutely necessary to evolve scratch notation into traditional music terms so that it can be studied and approached from a tradional music point of view.

It has taken 14 years to develop the S-Notation system, and it’s still in process due to the fact that turntablism (as compared to other instruments) is still a really young musical art form.

In 2011 I published my 300 page thesis Bewegungslehre to explain the functionality of S-Notation, as well as its possibilities for analysis and composition.  I'm going to use some images from my thesis for the following points, so all graphic credits go to Ivo Wojcik, the illustrator of the Bewegungslehre

Raedawn claims classical music notation:  

1. ...can’t notate which part of the sample/recording/record that the DJ is using.

By using S-Notation it is possible to define all possible positions of the sample (or several samples) by using a given order of colored notes. The below picture illustrates the different color positions on a record sample. 

s notation

The predefined coloring of the sample is part of the analysis of the recorded sound material (named as Anatonie).

s notation

In using this coloring process it is possible to perform specific sound-material based on S-Notation, which is crucial because turntablists work with all kinds of recorded material. (This analysis also includes basic values of musical parameters: time-value, pitch, volume, etc.)

By using a colored template for the record or buttons on the turntable (there are different methods possible) it is easy for the player to recognize the colored areas (chronological positions of the sample) by playing thru the sample.

s notation

Just as every classical music instrument has a type of visualization to help the player (keyboard, buttons, fret for guitar, etc,), it’s important to create a visual aide for the turntablist in order to visually differentiate the different areas of the sample.

The following notation shows a drum skratching performance by using a bass drum / snare combo.

s notation

The black notes indicate the record motions of the bass drum; the red notes indicate the snare.  The notation above the staff indicates the crossfader performance (transformer clicks), which in this case is played consistently in a 1/16 note pattern.

Using TTM Notation, the vertical axis of the staff represents record rotation (the chronological position of the sample).  

s notation

This is in contrast to the musical tradition to use the vertical axis to define the pitch of the note.  In S-Notation, the position of the symbols inside or outside the staff gives an indication on the pitch (which is modified by the intensity of the hand motion on the record).  Higher pitch sounds are placed above the center line of the staff and lower pitch sounds are placed below the center line of the staff.  The distance between the symbol and the center line indicates how low or how high the sound is, compared to how the sample sounds when simply releasing the record.

The use of the following S-Notation line-system is divided into different degrees of pitches (%) in order to include the use of unconventional recorded sound-material or concepts of "new musical art" and composition strategies:  

s notation

Furthermore it is also possible to notate pitches based on the traditional method of using different clefs:

s notation

Raedawn claims classical notation:

 2. ...can’t notate mixing, backspinning, or beat juggling. Only the crude rhythms can be written which doesn't tell the DJ exactly how to make the sound; just the end result which could be created in a number of ways. For example a turntablist wouldn’t know the difference between one drum sound from another be it a snare, kick, hi-hat or another sound.

Like I said in the beginning: S-Notation describes all techniques displayed by turntablists using concepts based on classical music notation that have been modified to account for the particularities of turntablism.  For example, a beat juggling performance requires two staffs, one upon the other (for the left & for the right turntable).  Due to the corresponding linear timing between the two staffs, it is possible to detect which turntable (voice) is "on" and which is "off".

As I explained in #1, the coloring of the symbols makes it possible to define the single segments (bass drum / snare/ hi-hat) of the sound material.  

s notations notation

Note: the use of round noteheads indicate the release mode thru which the record plays without using the hands.  I could not detect in the TTM an accurate way to discriminate between the record motion pushed by hand, and the record motion played in a release mode (simply letting the sample play).

Raedawn claims:

 3. ...can’t show the actual continuous fluid motion of baby scratches (the most basic fundamental skratch). It cuts them into "choppy" notes... additionally can’t show scribbles, tears or any type of variations of faderless skratches accurately. It can only show a choppy crude rhythm that sounds nothing like what’s actually being heard.

S-Notation provides its own repertoire of symbols to describe the direction of record motion and also the playing style (for example hand-mode or release mode).  It also includes a wide spectrum of symbols to describe the characteristics of the record motion path (for example constant, logarithmic, exponential).  Other parameters such as time-value, pauses, articulation, etc., are based on traditional music notation.

Concerning the Direction of Record Motion:

Single movements on the record are divided into forward motion (named as Note) and backward motion (named as Eton).  A movement is integral when a Note & Eton are performed back to back (with the same pitch & duration) or when an Eton & Note are performed back to back (with the same pitch and duration). These motions are respectively called Noteton and Etonote.  To simplify the notation, each symbol (Noteton & Etonote) has a distinct particularity.

The following notation shows the breakdown of a Baby Scratch (Noteton) using the single record motion of forward (Note) and backward (Eton).

Note Eton = Noteton


Here is the breakdown of a Reverse Baby Scratch (Etonote). Above the staff you can detect the respective time value.    

Eton Note = Etonote


By using the symbol of the Noteton it is also possible to transcribe basic scratch patterns such as, "Baby Scratch" (1/8 note):

Baby Scratch


"Double Time " (1/16 note):

Double Time


and "Scribbles", which are basically just Baby Scratches played in a much higher speed & duration (1/32 note):



By using the S-Notation symbols for single movements (such as Note and Eton), it is possible to transcribe every possibility of tear patterns. 

Here are some common tear patterns written down in S-Notation:

1f/2b Tear       


2f/1b Tear       


Clover Tear


The following diagram shows groups of four record motions played as a tuplet (quartol):s-notationThe code above the staff indicates the sort of arrangement of single record motions as one group.  

S-Notation uses the same concepts as classical music notation because it is well established and more commonly accepted by musicians outside of turntablism. The idea is not to enforce a classical dogma on turntablism, but rather to have a way to visually notate our music in a way that ia commonly accepted by other genres of musicians.  This will facilitate musical collaborations and inspire compositions because turntablists will be able to speak a common language as other instrumentalists.  

Raedawn claims:

 4. ...can’t accurately transcribe the Direction of the Record since any rhythm could be made with any backwards or forwards movement of the record. Although Stephen Webber amongst others have added "record direction" annotations to their notations, in the form of an up or down arrow etc, Problem #1 & #3 arises again since the motion in relation to the record is unknown. For instance, is the Baby Skratch using the "Fr" part of "Fresh" or the Whole "Fresh" sound. Additionally, the Speed/Slope of the movements are unknown. For example, A DJ would not be able to know the difference between a fluid "wavy" baby skratch and faderless Tear skratch which has a distinct linear slope.

Rebuttal of these arguments in  #1 & #3...

Raedawn claims:

 5. ...incorrectly describes crabs as mere triplets.  A 3 finger crab is actually making 4 sounds since each "Click" is dividing the original sound.  So one click makes 2 sounds, 2 clicks makes 3 sounds, 3 clicks makes 4 sounds and so on.  Western notation cannot accurately transcribe where the "Click" takes place.

This argument refers to the first line on Stephen Webbers book Turntable Technique: The Art of the DJ.

S-Notation distinguishes crabbing and other scratches into so called “basic fader performances”.  Each of these six basic techniques are indicated by their own symbol, which is written above the staff in correspondence to the record motion.  Here is an overview of the basic crossfader performances, which include the acoustical result of playing the "Fresh" sample as a quarter note.

Single Crossfader Movements:


Open Motion


 Close Motion


Integral Crossfader Movements:


Open & Close Motion 


Close & Open Motion (Flare)



Special Type Movements:


Transformer Click



Inverted Transformer Click 


The acoustical difference between all these techniques become apparent by the comparison of the following waveforms.  Every technique (besides single movements) are being played in a time value of a 1/16 in correspondence to the "fresh" sample (1/4 Note).   


Here we see the decoding of the performance into the single steps and two methods to simplify the transcription.  In order to group these basic movements into a simplified form, the S-Notation provides so called “group symbols” for the purpose to create more comprehensive sequences (for example: 2, 3, or 4 clicks).  

To notate the crab performance, numbers are used to denote the finger-sequence (2, 3, 4, 5, 6, etc.).  At the example, a 4 finger crab is played in conjunction with a quarter note but there are of course many different forms of playing styles possible:


1.  The fullly encircled “4” means that we start with a closed fader, then brush 4 fingers over the crossfader and end with a closed fader to produce four sounds.


2.  The half encircled (open brace) means that we start with a closed fader and end with an open fader to produce four sounds. 


3.  Here we start with an open fader, then we close and brush 4 fingers over the crossfader and end with a closed fader to produce 5 sounds.


4.  This is the notation for the so called “4-finger-crabflare”, which produces 5 sounds as well.  The starting position is an open fader, then close to brush 4 fingers, and the final position is an open fader.

Beside the basic transcription of the crab performances, it is possible to make a decomposition of the single steps of these sequences using transcription methods of S-Notation.

Raedawn claims:

 6. ...complicates site reading comprehension since it separate staffs for the rhythm of records and the fader making things quite confusing as well as adding a number annotations to visualize SiMULTANEOUSLY. Using classical western notation, one would have to read 2-5 symbols at any one point in time just to crudely describe one simple movement/sound.

This is another argument against the book by Stephen Webber.  Although it is no argument related to S-Notation, I would like to take this opportunity for a graphical comparison between TTM and S-Notation.  We see below the transcription of the same scratch performance using both methods.


The TTM staff makes it very difficult (beside the issues of pitch) to anticipate the rhythmical position and duration of record motions (horizontal time line divided into little boxes) due to the fact that you must count the boxes for the purpose to determine the duration of the record motion (especially at tuplet).  Furthermore the indication of cut-points by the crossfader are quite confusing and hard to read/write for the purpose of longer compositions or sight reading while playing.


Using S-Notation there are different methods to simplify the transcription enormously.  One example is when a same crossfader motion is repeated;  it is written only once above the record motion symbol, until the crossfader motion changes (see above). 


It is possible to breakdown the same performance into the single steps using a more detailed description of the crossfader sequence, or in other words “cut-points” of the motion (Note: this is also an argument against Raedawn’s claim #5).  The above notation shows the first quarter of the previous sequences (3-click orbit flare played two times through).

Raedawn claims:

7. ...fails to promote Skratch Literacy by means of promoting the memorization and mathematic conversions of century old symbols Over that of a Holistic Skratch Approach. It "forces" new sounds into an Outdated Box leaving students without the proper tools needed to notate what’s being heard. For example... Why must a DJ from Egypt have to learn Italian to say transcribe a change in Volume. DJs are very exact and the Void between a Forte (loud) and Piano (soft) is very VERY important. One notch too loud could be unlistenable and in the case of effects like tape delay and feedback, the Sound mistake/problem would be multiplied!

S-Notation provides additional line-systems to transcribe volume, EQ-volume, effects or balance of the sound material.  That makes it possible to define all parameters of music into certain degrees of intensity.  For example, here is the classification of the volume system (dynamics):


Here we see the the transcription of an echo effect plus an image of the acoustical result as a soundwave. The line-system for dynamics is always written under the S-line system to indicate the correspondence concerning the time while playing.

Raedawn claims:

8. not being used by the worldwide DJ community. Why? Their systems further complicate an already outdated system for the sake of maintaining the Classical European/Italian approach. The proponents of using the classical approach such as Stephen Webber, DJ Radar & Raul, and Tonspielzeug etc are Eurocentric and Exclusionary/Elitist in nature. The added complexity and crude approximation of what's being heard by these systems has proven to thwart its use by aspiring DJs.

The TTM is the most commonly used graphical solution to describe scratch patterns in its outlines for a reason; it’s quite easy and clear for those who don’t want to spend too much time on music theory.  But in my modest opinion, S-Notation could help with describing every motion on the record or faders in more detail because it is based on the rules and design of the standard music language.  

You can’t expect to understand the methodology of the S-Notation without taking the time to learn it.  Like any other languages and due to the infinite possibilities of turntable/mixer instrument, it is a process of learning.  Turntablism is still a new musical art form, but it still deserves its own science and fundamental cannon of knowledge.  Turntables are not just a Hip Hop instrument or a tool to create a showy effect in a club, it's an instument - period.  

Raedawn claims:

9. ... was created by European Monks to describe their songs and not that of the turntable and other modulation based instruments. Thus, it ultimately fails to meet the demands of modern Musicians who use a variety of new instruments.

The best method to analyze and memorize a sound characteristic is still audio-recording; in this case you could use waveforms to indicate the acoustical result of a scratch in detail.  S-Notation is most importantly (such as the TTM) a language to describe the motions on the turntable/mixer for the purpose of repeating and memorizing.

Raedawn claims:

10. ...tells turntablists/modulation musicians to overlook all the names and symbols that must be Disregarded in order to Read it.

S-Notation is still evolving due to the fact that turntablism is also still evolving. Turntablists can modulate these basic systems we've developed based on their preferences.  No laws – it’s all about the music and the possibility to communicate by speaking and writing a universal language.

Finally I want to say that I’m not a proponent of Eurocentricity, Exclusionism, or Elitism – I’m just a simple human being who coincidentally lives in Berlin ;-) Peace and tolerance for every human kind!

- Alexander Sonnenfeld, January 2013