Pondering the shapes of musical notation

Posted on: August 5, 2011

In Wednesday’s (8/3) Opinionator blog in the New York Times, composer Pat Muchmore writes about the complex relationship between standard musical notation and music performance, illustrating with graphic examples from scores by John Cage and others where notes appear sideways, upside down, and in spirals and other shapes. “Musical educations are full of standard maxims, bits of shared wisdom intended to keep us true to our craft. One that I’ve been aware of ever since I began serious musical study in the 1990s is this: The score is not the music. As a maxim, it has its merits.… But it has its limits, too.… A performance that failed to hew to the majority of specified pitches and rhythms would surely not count, nor would a performance without even a hint of expression beyond that which is explicitly notated. … The note shapes are just that: shapes.  It’s a potent reminder that all notation is entirely graphical. …The system is actually brilliantly visual; higher pitches are higher on the staff, longer notes generally take up more space than shorter, simultaneous pitches are stacked together. Yet when we first learned the system it must have been so alluring and strange.”

Posted August 5, 2011