The Psychological Ramifications of Music Notation

The Psychological Ramifications of Music Notation

I spent the last couple of weeks re-notating a piece of music whose performance history thus far has left me unsatisfied in the hopes that the revised version will eventually yield a reading that is more in keeping with what I originally had in mind. The process of doing this rather time-consuming task (despite being aided by music notation software) has made me think about the aspects of notation that are designed to simply tell you what things should sound like versus notational schemes that allow you to always get the sound you want.

When I was much younger I was very intrigued by the Polish composers of the 1960s who used indeterminate notations in order to get very specific sounds, e.g. a common conceit at the time was to have a notehead in the shape of an arrow pointing upward or downward which signified the highest or lowest note possible. When such a notation is given to a group of string players or a chorus, the result is invariably a tone cluster at one of the registral extremes, since everyone will interpret what their limit is in a slightly different way. But when such a notation is given to a pianist, the result is the exact same note (unless, perchance, someone is performing the music on one of those super cool Bösendorfer pianos with extra bass notes). Which begs the question: if the result is always the same, why use indeterminate notation? Well, it is much easier to sight-read a highest or lowest note request than a ton of ledger lines. And it is also much easier to get an effective tone cluster from a chorus by allowing for random deviance rather than hoping individuals are able to each hit a different note a semitone apart.

What I did, however, had nothing to do with indeterminacy, but rather with speed. Christopher Rouse is notorious for writing metronome markings that are way faster than what he expects to get, gambling on the fact that if he writes exactly what he wants he’ll wind up getting something slower. So I took a partial cue from him. Wanting something very fast, I had originally written a chain of quarter notes with an ungodly metronome marking of quarter = 666 (long story) thinking that it would be easier to read a chain of notes written without a bunch of beams over them. But a metronome marking is easy to ignore completely, especially one that’s so clearly impractical. And as bad luck would have it, I got a performance that was, ironically, quite slow. So I changed the whole thing to sixteenth notes, which immediately shout out “play this fast” from the page. And while it will probably never be quite up to tempo—the 666 thing was a bit of humorous psychological gambit to get folks to play as fast as they possibly can—it should at least never drag.

But all this opens up a potentially even larger question. Are there things we do as composers in how we notate our music that unwittingly sabotage performances? Sometimes what we think makes something easier to read actually makes it harder. And, conversely, are we sometimes too devoted to the specific way something looks on the page even when a perhaps less visually attractive realization that translates into the same result is actually a better guarantee to get the desired result?

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9 thoughts on “The Psychological Ramifications of Music Notation

  1. rskendrick

    yes, we do sabotage!
    Frank, enjoyed your post. I have limited the performances of some of my earlier works by hypernotating the score when it wasn’t necessary to receive the end result. Since time is money, a performer may very well look at a complicated looking score, and ask themselves if its worth their time. So, I now ask myself if I’ve given the minimum amount of information to get the end result. For example, in my younger years, I might have a sixteenth note with a staccato followed by a dotted-eighth rest at a very fast tempo. Given the same situation now, I would use a staccato on a quarter, because it will sound the same and is expressed more efficiently.

    American Composer Ralph Kendrick

  2. colin holter

    For example, in my younger years, I might have a sixteenth note with a staccato followed by a dotted-eighth rest at a very fast tempo. Given the same situation now, I would use a staccato on a quarter, because it will sound the same and is expressed more efficiently.

    The difficulty, though, is that while this notational strategy might save time for some performers, with others it might actually take more time, especially in rehearsal—what if you have eighth notes, quarter notes, and sixteenth notes with staccato dots above them, and the player wants to know if they should all be played with the same duration? It’s a simple question to answer, but it takes a moment to clarify.

  3. stevenarntson

    Hello, I’m new to these forums so I hope I’m doing this right!

    I had a professor when I was an undergraduate who maintained that any composer who used note values smaller than sixteenths was doing so either to scare the performer or to appear impressive. For some reason, that really sunk in with me! I always try to avoid 32nd (&c.) notes when I can by creating faster tempi with larger note values.

  4. philmusic

    Music encompasses multiple ways to notate anything musical. Even the note “C”. I suppose one has to draw a line between being “too fussy” and being accurate. This comes with experience.

    Than again in many of popular music’s melodic lines and raps there is a rhythmic complexity that is problamatic to notate. It’s hard to read, yet not to hard to learn by rote.

    Go figure.

    Phil Fried, Skid Row University, Free Beer!!

  5. bdrogin

    I have never had any problems in notating my intentions and have always strived for performable score notation over, say, compositional intent. But, contrarian that I am, how about how to encourage the performer to ignore the notation? In performing my own pieces I will vary from performance to performance, so what do I care what my original “intention” may have been? If someone wants to perform very slowly something that I intended to be very fast, as long as it works, I’m happy.

    Barry Drogin

  6. jbunch

    Notation is fascinating to me..because it’s really a pyschologizing of musical structure. Our prejudices and preferences for handling notational questions are really symptomatic of our aesthetic principles about the non-practical aspects of composition.

    Someone commented that their teacher told them that anyone who used durations shorter than 16th notes where just trying to scare their performers. Among those who did so were Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Wagner, Schumann, Chopin…ie, the most performed/fetishized classical composers in Western musical history. Bach – for instance – used 128th notes in the slow opening movement of his Solo Sonata in g minor for violin. surely he could have adjusted the tempo and used 16th notes, but why didn’t he? Schönberg’s rhythmic notation in the Piano Suite op. 33 is horrendous, where are the beats? He surely went to no great length to make them obvious to the performer. Berg was much more efficient in this respect. From Baude Cordier to George Crumb, to Brian Ferneyhough, there is an endless supply of great art instances that are surely more complicated notationally than they need be. None of these composers (exception maybe Baude Cordier) are struggling to get incredibly high-quality performances.

    On a practical level, I’m not Brian Ferneyhough, so I don’t have access to his resources. The resources I have access to have their own set of constraints and limitations, some of them mundane, some of them more substantial. I’ve certainly avoided notating superfluously in my works recently (and seen an increase in performance quality and general understanding from the performers), but I must say I grow depressed whenever people start casting aspersions at complex music/notation as if it were somehow a fault of the composer when there is anything “fussy” or when there is a layer of reduceability left in the rhythmic design of their music. Is there any room left to marvel at the outstanding variety and flexibility of our rhythmic language? Does anyone else get excited over the concepts of submetric and supermetric hemiolas, etc.? If everything is reduced to the most simple means of notation, say good-bye to an advanced pixellation of metrical/structural hierarchy (one of the elements that makes Western music interesting to me).

    Lastly, regarding the psychology of music notation: It matters whether you have written an off-beat attack that falls a 16th-note or a quintuplet 16th-note after an un-articulated beat. It matters if fast means grace note runs, 64th-note runs, or double-whole-note runs at quarter note = infinity. These notations say something very constitutive about the role and meaning of the material in the context in which you place them. This kind of meaning matters. Everything that exists matters. Why shouldn’t it? Why reduce music to the lowest possible denominator?

    Some performers find it “worth the while” to learn “Bone Alphabet” or “Ephemere,” despite the fact that the notation is fussy, reduceable, and hyperactive, and despite the fact that they have to lug around all that equipment, etc. This is because they are trained/naturally inclined to think about music as a field of artistic discourse rather than merely as a “show,” or a form of “diversion.” Also, B.A. and Ephemere are incredibly rich sonic and intellectual experiences. But it’s probably true that if you are a shitty composer, you probably shouldn’t use 32nd notes because performers aren’t going to judge your work “worth the while.”

  7. colin holter

    Some performers find it “worth the while” to learn “Bone Alphabet” or “Ephemere,” despite the fact that the notation is fussy, reduceable, and hyperactive

    I’m going to go a step further: Some performers find it worthwhile to learn these pieces because the notation is so peculiar.

  8. eaj

    This kind of meaning matters. Everything that exists matters. Why shouldn’t it? Why reduce music to the lowest possible denominator?

    Nicely put. I rarely find myself saying this on NMBx, but I agree completely.


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