The Limits of Musical Notation (And Why It Is Not Racist)

For a while, I have been promising to write a post about music notation. Here it is:

The concept of primary importance is this: the notation is not the music!

A piece of sheet music is no more “music” than a book is a “story.” Both sheet music and books are physical things and contain code that communicates the music or the story, However, the music and story are beyond the physical and can be heard and told without the presence of the physical; they are primordial. The written notation or text may give a map of the music or the story, but it all comes to life in the mind of the performer, reader, story-teller, and audience. Alone, the sheet music and book have no power, because they are not the music or the story but rather lifeless sheets of paper.

We know that stories have been passed down for ages through oral tradition. No written words were needed. Likewise, music was passed down for ages without notation. Notation is only an approximation, a translation so to speak. It’s allows the abstract musical idea to be preserved in a fixed format. (In contrast, a recording preserves a specific performance, like a photograph preserves a specific point in time.)

Notation is a form of written musical language that allows performers who have not yet heard the music to be able to perform it. Even when using notation, each performance will be slightly different due to the nuances individual performers bring to the piece as they interact with the music. This is not unlike how readers will read stories differently out loud or imagine scenes differently in their minds. When I was studying music in college, my saxophone teacher required me to listen to various recordings of the piece I was learning so I could hear different interpretations of the piece. The reason why so many different interpretations exist is because the notation is not the music. It is only a guide to the music. The music is a sculpture of sound that comes into being as it is performed, morphing slightly with each performance. (Pieces that are fixed media are of a different sort of art that does not require notation to tell performers how to play the music.)

There are different systems of music, and if they have a written tradition, the notation will be different. This is not an issue of one being better than another. Is each system exclusionary? Yes. It excludes those people who don’t know how to read that notation. This is because it is a language. I cannot read Japanese; neither can I read koto music. I need to either learn Japanese and Japanese musical notation, or I must have it translated for me into a language or notation I can understand. It may be that in “translating” one system of music into another system’s written notation, some of the nuance of understanding will be lost, not unlike translating a language. It is always best to read the music in the original notation if possible, but many of us are not versed in the notation systems of musics from around the world.

Some have argued that music notation is racist because it perpetuates the idea that a particular style of music (specifically Western/European classical music) is superior to other forms of music. I completely disagree, because notation does not have the power to do this. A language cannot control the story that is told. Rather, the author who is writing the story chooses the words that best tell it. Likewise, in music, notation is used that best or most easily/clearly communicates the musical ideas. Just because Black music in America, like jazz, has been written down using musical notation that originated in Europe does not make that notation racist. It only means that many who wrote down their jazz charts found the notation system suitable enough for what they were writing.

But there comes a point when the standard notation system breaks down and can no longer contain the musical ideas a composer has. At this point, the composer must invent a new way of writing down the ideas. This should not be a surprise. We have seen this happen throughout time in poetry: new forms, a movement away from strict rhyme, shape poems, and new uses (or a lack of) punctuation and capitalization.

Notation has always been in a state of flux. For example, the staves used to have more lines. Over time, the music changed as many unnamed people over the centuries contributed ideas on how to make the written music easier to decipher. Musicians collectively drifted towards certain notation preferences until a standardized system developed. This is not unlike how new words become part of the lexicon. But that standardization is only good for music that has already been written. Notation is still changing.

Even when standardized symbols exist, the application of them can change, similarly to how definitions of words change over time. Earlier this week, I came across a discussion on a notation forum about how one should indicate that notes be played an octave below what is written. Some answered, “8va with a dotted line below the notes, as opposed to the dotted line above the notes indicating that the notes should be played higher.” Others said the section should be notated with an “8ba” and still others said “8vb.” The last group said that, though they know “8vb” is technically incorrect, it has become so commonly used and understood that it should be accepted as suitable. That’s cool. (I think you know what I mean even though I’m not using “cool” according to the proper, non-slang definition.)

Then there’s that elusive “swing.” Sometimes, the word will be put at the top of the score like a tempo marking, except it’s not one. Sometimes the editor will put in parentheses that two eighth notes should be played like a triplet configured as a quarter note followed by an eighth note. But that doesn’t accurately communicate “swing” either. Swinging eighth notes is not something that can be fully conveyed on the page. The best way to learn how to swing the music is by immersing one’s self in listening to swung music and imitating the feel.

Notation leaves many things to the imagination. When I see the direction “ritard” in the music, exactly how quickly should I slow down? Even adding the qualifiers “poco” (a little) or “molto” (a lot) still leaves the performer to make decisions about how dramatically to play. When I am writing music, when is the term “rallentando” preferable to “ritard”? (Answer: there is no agreement on this.) Exactly how long should I hold a fermata? Should I have a short pause of silence after the fermata or go directly to the next note?

Again, like living languages, music needs new terminology and new spellings to reflect the new concepts that arise. Scientists are constantly reaching the outer limits of knowledge and making up new words to explain what they find there. Likewise, the explorers of the avant garde in music require, and invent, new terminology and symbols to communicate their discoveries. Before Bela Bartok, there was no Bartok pizzicato. Now it has a term and a symbol. There is still no agreement on how to notate a jet whistle produced by a flute. Nowadays, there are musical scores that look nothing like a traditional score. They might be a picture, or a graph, or a large hand-drawn circle. How does one notate an “open score,” a piece which can be performed with any instrumentation? Some modern scores look more like board-game instructions than a traditional piece of music. I have written such a piece myself, though it needs some more work before I make it public. Modern scores now often contain boxes, squiggly lines of all kinds, and markings in seconds rather than beats. New accidentals account for microtonal music, far beyond the familiar flats and sharps. Charts at the beginning of scores act like a map key explaining all the unfamiliar symbols the composer used in the score. It’s fascinating.

Music notation does not inhibit creativity for anyone, and thus it is not exclusionary. If the current standard notation does not satisfy the needs of the composer to communicate their ideas, it’s time for the composer to create a new way of notating. If that method becomes widely accepted, the history of musical notation will have altered, again. Some new ways stick; others don’t. It’s up to progeny to decide.

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A professional recording of my piece for string orchestra, Daughter of the Stars, is now available. It can be found here.

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