“The turntable is an instrument? But you're just playing records!” So goes the claim of the naysayer of turntablism as an art. DJ Babu of the Beat Junkies coined the term turntablist to describe (in his words) “a person who uses the turntables not to play music, but to manipulate sound and create music.” So is the turntable an instrument? In the hands of an accomplished scratch DJ, many would indeed say yes.
Nevertheless, one of the barriers to the turntable being accepted as a legitimate instrument has been the lack of a recognized method of transcribing the “notes” that a turntablist plays. In almost every other form of music, musicians have the ability to write a piece of music that can be played by other musicians through the reading of sheet music. This skill is not essential to be a musician; however, it remains the primary means by which traditional musicians can play a song with other musicians.
Although having a scratch-notation system will not make you a better DJ from a performance perspective, being able to notate a piece of scratch music on paper is useful for archiving scratch combinations that you may want to personally reuse or share with fellow DJs. Fortunately, two schools of scratch notation have formed in recent years: one based on traditional music notation and another with more simplified symbols and a notation grid.
Stephen Webber, an author and professor of music production and engineering at the Berklee College of Music, has created a system based on traditional notation symbols. Released in his book Turntable Technique: The Art of the DJ (Berklee Press), Webber's system uses a modification of traditional bar lines to represent fader and record movement. Incorporating traditional symbols such as rests, quarter notes and eighth notes, he also introduces a couple of new symbols as well as modifications to traditional symbols to represent some turntable- and fader-specific quirks. Furthermore, he makes use of arrows underneath the notes to indicate the direction of the record movement. Explained in great detail in the book, the resulting notation is fairly complicated, and the learning curve could be particularly steep — especially for those not familiar with traditional music notation.
Similar in intent to Webber's system is that by DJ Radar of Arizona-based Bombshelter DJs. Radar's system appears to be designed to integrate the rhythm of scratch music into traditional music scores, as evidenced by its use for his Concerto for Turntable, a project in which Radar performs with a classical orchestra. The system is based on traditional music notation, with some of the symbols adapted for the specifics of recording fader and record movements. Although not much detailed information is available, you can check out a pictorial representation at www.concertoforturntable.com.
THE NEW SCHOOL
Documentary filmmaker John Carluccio (Battle Sounds) first conceived of his scratch-notation system when he attempted to draw a picture of a scratch routine in 1997. Taken with this idea, he subsequently collaborated with Ethan “catfish” Imboden and Ray “DJ Raydawn” Pirtle to further refine the system. The resulting Turntable Transcription Method (TTM) uses a grid with forward and backward movements of the record represented by respective up and down sloping lines. The angle of the slope represents the speed at which the sample should be played: The fewer grid squares it crosses horizontally, the faster it should be played; the more vertical grid squares the line crosses, the more of the sample should be played. Essentially, each square on the grid represents a 16th note. Breaks in the lines represent fader-clicks, and gaps represent silence, or a closed fader.
The system itself is fairly intuitive — the method of transcription simply makes sense. The barrier to entry for those not familiar with traditional music notation is fairly low, as the system requires no prior ability to read music. Within minutes of reviewing a sample notation, you could most likely perform the scratches described with reasonable accuracy (provided you have the skills). The TTM Website (www.ttmethod.com), although incomplete, provides a great amount of information and even includes a complete transcription of Grandmixer DST's scratching in the famous Herbie Hancock song “Rockit” (including a video clip that highlights the notation as the song excerpt is played). Downloadable PDFs of blank staffs are also provided for use in transcribing your own scratch routines.
Similar to Carluccio's system is that by The Allies' DJ A-Trak. Instead of attempting to make use of traditional music-notation symbols, A-Trak also adopted a simplified approach using upward and downward sloping lines to represent the direction of the scratch. Fader-clicks are represented by slashes on the lines, and closed fader gaps are represented by the absence of a line. A-Trak has stated in multiple interviews that he initially created the system for himself simply as a means to record a particular scratch or combination for his own reference. He does, however, feel that it may be of use to others. For a good summary, look for the A-Trak interview on the UK turntable site Spin Science (www.spinscience.org.uk).
So does all of this mean that turntablism really requires a notation system? The answer is probably no, and the genre has evolved quite nicely without one up to this point. It's also uncertain whether any of these systems alone would be enough to convince skeptics that what they are witnessing in turntablists is true musicianship. As it goes, some people get it, and some people don't. Despite this, the Turntable Transcription Method would probably still be useful to most turntablists, and it is certainly well-thought-out and documented. You should check it out — if for no other reason than curiosity.