Tuesday, June 13, 2017

The flexibility of music notation

I've been reading and playing music since I was seven or eight, and over the years it's struck me more than a few times just how flexible a system music notation is. Here are a couple of examples:

Pitch

Firstly, there's more than one way to write the pitch of a note: it depends on what key you're in, whether it's a sharp or flat key. You can even change how you write a note within a piece, regardless of the key (this is called using the enharmonic equivalent). Modern music increasingly does this because of the complications of having many flats and sharps in a piece that doesn't have an official key signature.

I've been working on the vocal score of War Hero, a new opera by John Drummond, over the last couple of months (I'm a slower learner now, in my early seventies, than I used to be when I was in my twenties - unfortunately!) John sometimes uses key signatures, and sometimes doesn't, and in some bars there's a real mix of sharps and flats. Occasionally they've taken a bit of unravelling.

This isn't a new approach. On Sunday I played the accompaniment to a trumpet piece (Legend) by Georges Enescu, which was written at the beginning of the twentieth century. Enescu does the same thing. Even though his piece is mostly in a key with three flats, the score is littered with 'accidentals' - the name for those sharps and flats that don't officially belong in the key you start out in.

Of course there's nothing in the least 'accidental' about the additional sharps and flats in either John's music, or Enescu's. The word 'accidental' is a bit of a misnomer, in fact. In John's opera, he uses a particular chordal structure as the basis of most of the music, a structure that requires accidentals in order to make sense. Once you get used to this 'harmonic world' as you might call it, the accidentals form a kind of 'key signature' of their own.

I don't know if I'm explaining this very well! If you have any questions, ask me in the comments.

Expanding and contracting notes

A second thing that's struck me about the flexibility of music notation is the fact that time is very loose and fluid, by which I mean that a stretch of notes in one piece that might be marked Adagio, for instance (that means the notes are to be played slowly) can be played quickly in another piece that's marked Allegro, even though, on the page, the notes look exactly the same.

And even within a piece, a crochet, which is the basic unit of much music - the note from which we gauge the speed of all the other notes around it; a crochet, as I say, can be shorter or longer, depending on the context. If the composer asks us to play fast for a stretch and then pull back, as though we were reining in a horse we were riding, the crochet will obligingly stay the same on the page, but can be stretched out to accommodate the fact that everything has slowed down.

Musicians understand this, because after a certain amount of training it becomes intuitive. To someone to whom much of this language is already obscure, the idea is much harder to express. I remember it being like a leap into the unknown for one of my piano pupils, a few years back. Not quite as difficult as dealing with quantum theory, perhaps, but, in its own way, still a curious phenomenon in the way music works.

There isn't just one system of music notation

Having been trained in the old school of classical music, like millions of other musicians, I read a lot
of stuff on a page that makes no sense not just to non-musicians, but even to some other musicians. See the t-shirt to the side, which gives you an idea how complex some music can be.

I used play at church a lot. When we were at a Pentecostal Church I played from a single line that gave the tune, and added in the chords as I went along from the minimal symbols given above some of the notes. Some people find this very easy; I had to work fairly hard to make it come together, but in due course found it very freeing, and was able to improvise to a great degree.

Then we shifted churches, and they were using regular music with all the notes. This was fine too, because it meant that chords could be written out in full, and I found myself playing harmonies that I hadn't used in the previous church.

In due course they stopped using 'proper' music and gradually shifted to the extremely simple approach of just the lyrics on the page with a few chord symbols for the musicians. For some musicians this was enough and they could produce interesting music. For me, it was limiting: without a sense of what the composer intended (there was no vocal line with this format) you had to rely greatly on your ear and on what the other musicians - who knew the tune - claimed the piece should sound like. Tricky.

Jazz musicians use a similar approach, and often their music consists of nothing but chord charts. This is like having a skeleton in your living room, and having to explain to guests what it really looks like once it's got flesh on it. Effectively the musicians make up the music as they go along using the chart as a basis for sticking together. It takes practice to learn how to do this, but it provides something different every time the music is played.

I'd never heard of the Nashville Number System until today, but it's another form of music notation, perhaps even more skeletal than what jazz musos work with.

And in the past, keyboard players often used 'figured bass', which was no more than the bass line of the piece with symbols above it that gave an indication of what chord should be played. Good keyboard players could improvise on this skeleton and produce remarkable music. Unfortunately, most of it was lost, because there was no way to record it. Unlike jazz music of today.

The more you explore the subject of music notation, the more intriguing it is to discover how earlier musicians coped with remembering and recording their music, before the extraordinary system we have available today came into being. Something to discuss in another post, perhaps.
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