Tongan music notation

Tongan music notation

The Tuokinaungafasi or Tongan music notation is a subset of the standard music notation, originally developed by the missionary James Egan Moulton in the 19th century for singing church hymns in Tonga.

The notation

Tongan music from the pre-European times was not really music in the current sense but rather a non tonic recital (like the 'pater noster'), a style still known nowadays as the tau fakaniua. Therefore when the missionaries started to teach singing, they had also to start with music from scratch. They found the doh-ray-mi-fah-sol-la-si-doh scale sufficient for their needs, avoiding the very complex and difficult to learn international music notation. But due to the limited number of consonants in the Tongan language, the note names were localised into to-le-mi… Unfortunately the word 'tole' is the sexual s _vu. fasi okinao e tuokinai okinao e okinaotu Tonga (national anthem), we find as first measure: |3:-3/5:5|6:4/5:-5|

Every vertical bar (|) is a measure seperator (often double at the begin and end of a stanza). As this music has a 4/4 time signature, there appear 4 beats, every beat seperated by a colon (:) or slash (/) (they are equal, but the slash is usually used in the middle and the colon elsewhere). The timesignature also tells that every beat is a quarter note. Therefore every single digit in a beat is a quarter note. When 2 digits appear they are each eighth notes and so forth. No digit at all, or a zero, is used for a rest, while a dash is a tie. The first measure of the example above thusly becomes: a C note for 3/8 duration, another C for 1/8, followed by two quarter E's.

|3:-|-:-| is an example for a 2/4 timesignature; 2 beats in a measure, every beat a quarter note long. This results in a whole C. Note that the tie dashes can extend into following measures, unlike the international music notation where the note is to be repeated and then tie arcs are needed. Some Tonga musicians following that example, would also write a 3 in the second measure instead of a dash and also would then need tie arcs.

More time signatures

In 2/4 (like |3:4|) and 3/4 (like |3:4:5|) and 4/4 (like |3:4/5:6|) time signature every beat is a quarter note. Two digits (…:34:…) makes each a eighth note; have four digits (…:3456:…) and each is a sixteenth. Three digits (…:345:…) are possible, the first one being a quarter and both others each an eighth, but might be confusing. Some musicians put a comma or dot inside the beat (…:3,45:…) to remind the singers of the unequal duration. But the real use is with a tie (…:3-4:…), to have a 3/8 note followed by a 1/8.

2/2 and 3/2 signatures are rarer, but work the same as the …/4 signatures excepts that all beats are twice as long. One digit in a beat being a half note and so forth.

Occasionally one finds 6/8 (like |3:4|) and 12/8 (like |3:4:5:6|) time signatures. Then every single digit is a 3/8 note, while the most common occurrence is 3 digits in one beat, (…:345:…) each of them of course one eighth. Also here two digits are possible, the first one being a quarter and the second an eight, but again with all the pitfalls as the 3 digits in the …/4 notation. It is mainly used for (…:3:-4:…) meaning a 5/8 note followed by a 1/8.


*Hebert, D. G. (2008). [ Music Transmission in an Auckland Tongan Community Youth Band] , "International Journal of Community Music", 2(1).

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