Most music today isn’t notated – that is, written down. Audio recording has taken over as the most commonly used method to engage with and distribute music. And that could be because most modern music makers don’t find traditional forms of music notation an effective tool to represent musical ideas.
But many musicians still enjoy the process of "reading" music from notation, and it provides and important archival source for the reproduction of music.
How can we make notation relevant to today’s music practice? Some composers are using technology to enable new notation methods.
But first, what does notation provide both composers and performers of music?
Composers traditionally provide a very prescribed set of information to musicians. Pitches, organised over time into rhythmic and larger formal structures, are set out on paper to be faithfully reproduced by performers.
In popular and jazz music, charts are often used, providing even more skeletal information, sometimes only a melody line and series of chords. This information largely relies on an engagement with tonality – an agreed order of pitches and chords that most people find ‘kind’ to their ears, creating melodies and harmonic backings that are pleasurable to listen to.
Beyond the notes
But what of all the other sounds – the textural, ambient and experimental? These make up a large part of popular and film music, and are sounds that are often created in the studio itself.
The sonic materials available to composers and performers alike has developed beyond the acoustic instruments traditional notation was developed to serve. Electronic technology has brought forth new sound worlds, as well as recording, playback and interactive software possibilities.
In notated Western music, the quality of sounds is largely left up to the performers – a prescribed instrument and some rough guide to volume is all that’s usually provided.
So, what about music where the emphasis is on sound colour, texture, intricate variations in volume? Or music where the structure itself is fluid, and contributions from performers are welcomed? Traditional Western music notation doesn’t serve these options very well, but computing may help us to find a way.
Screen-based computational design is driving innovation and creativity in a wide range of disciplines: architecture and the built environment, fashion and textiles, communication design, product design and fine arts.
Animated notation is one kind of music notation that engages computing to create scores for music. This is a notation for music that’s dynamic – it features movement, can facilitate interactivity, engage colour, and include audio built in to the score itself.
Building on the practice of graphic notation – a way of notating music that uses imagery not related to traditional music notation – animated notation provides a dynamic form full of possibilities for musical exploration. It can shift the emphasis of music composition towards texture and dynamics over harmony and melody, and provide a wider range of choices for performers, leading to performance practices that can incorporate improvisation and new sound worlds.
Animated notation highlights the skills of performers who engage with it, allowing musicianship to triumph over the necessity for a faithful reproduction of exacting details.
Many non-European traditions use systems of notation and representation that emphasise different musical elements, and facilitate this musicianship in doing so. Chinese Jiangnan sizhu music clearly notates timbre, but not durations; Indian tabla music notates timbre and duration, but provides no information for pitch choices.
In all notations, the elements that aren’t notated are left for the performer to interpret, making their contribution to the final rendition of the work important, but also unique to the different cultures from where the notation comes.
Animated notation allows performers to engage in a global concept of musicianship and collaborative music-making.
The burgeoning interest in the concept saw the foundation of the International Technologies of Music Notation and Representation (TENOR) series of conferences in 2015, and is next week being hosted at Monash University.
TENOR conferences provide an overview of developments in the technology of music notation, in which animated notation plays a significant part. These new approaches empower musical practices, revolutionising the way musicians make – and audiences engage with – music as a creative art.
Music could be unlocked from the left-to-right reading of two-dimensional documents and opened up into interactive, animated descriptions and internet communications.
Digital technology is providing a new set of tools that can be leveraged to facilitate a music notation that’s inclusive, collaborative and truly global.
Tenor 2019 is at Monash University's Clayton campus from 23-27 July.