Music Notation Today, Part 1: A Brief Manifesto

At Noteflight, I am lucky to watch the music world change and evolve every day. New information streams in from our team members, our friends, our users and our business partners. The changes in the way people are creating art, building technology and doing business are a steady source of wonder and, sometimes, disruption or even confusion.

In the middle of all this uncertainty, one thing is certain: it is an extraordinarily exciting time to be alive as a musician and a technologist. We’ve been lucky to launch our business at a moment when new possibilities are in flux, and old assumptions are being shattered. As a result, Noteflight is playing an active role in the rearrangement of the music world that is taking place.

I feel moved to take a moment, hit the pause button and reflect. I want to try and set down some observations today on the value of notation and on what’s been happening in the area of digital music notation. We’ll serialize these in the coming weeks.

Let me begin with a quick riff on why I love written music, and think it’s both important and fun.

Western notation began as a way to help people remember music. Before notation, people listened to music, memorized it, and played what they remembered hearing, adding their own improvisation and expression. After notation, they did the same thing but with a new ingredient: performers now had access to a far greater range of music to play, a range that was not limited to what one could hear in person or memorize by rote.

Notation also meant that composers creating music were no longer limited to playing it themselves, or working with the performers that they could meet in person. Written music became a channel, a vehicle for creativity in itself. It became a way to connect musicians to each other, musicians who could be geographically distant. As music notation evolved to become more exact and expressive, composers were able to capture more and more complex musical ideas, which built on each other. Notation was helping to form a musical web of composers and performers, feeding off of each other’s ideas and techniques. Noteflight, for its part, is taking this web of musical ideas and situating it within the modern-day Web.

One of the things that emerged from these new relationships between composers and performers was the Western musical canon of masterworks. Given the genius and the cultural importance of these works, it’s tempting to sometimes think of the purpose of notation as a kind of low-tech recording medium, a way for a master composer to specify every detail of a performance before it even happens. That’s partly true, and partly false. Paradoxically, notation remains the loosest, freest, most improvisation-friendly form in which music can be captured.

I am personally in love with the looseness and freedom that notation allows. Even our most complex masterworks contain vital room for the performer to move: a written piece can be played and interpreted in an infinity of ways. If it’s a classical piece, the tempo, dynamics, phrasing and many other aspects are fair game for the performer. If it’s a jazz, rock or folk piece, the choice of notes is left open too. Notation isn’t really music: it’s a set of ideas that can be spun out into infinite musical possibilities. Possibilities are really cool.

By comparison, audio is a frozen, static record of something that was played once. You can remix it, resample it and apply effects to it, but its musical DNA is a done deal. An audio recording contains the same ideas that could be written down in notation, but the recording is already telling you, “this is how it sounds.” In contrast, a score asks a question: “how could this sound?”

Next week: continuing with Part 2: “That 80s Software”.

4 Responses to “Music Notation Today, Part 1: A Brief Manifesto”

  1. Filed away for future snark « willkuhn.com Says:

    […] and art « For Barb Freedman Filed away for future snark April 25, 2011 Noteflight’s luddite manifesto, in which they creatively forget MIDI composition. By comparison, audio is a frozen, static record […]

  2. Music Notation, What is it Good For? How About Humans? - machine quotidienne Says:

    […] There’s a peculiar false controversy going on at the moment over music notation. First, the blog for online (Flash-based) browser notation editor Noteflight introduced a manifesto: Music Notation Today, Part 1: A Brief Manifesto […]

  3. joe Says:

    Just to clarify, since so many people seem to be attributing some extreme views to this piece: I don’t think notation is “better” than audio, nor do I think standard notation is the “best” notation.

    I’m only saying that notation has some wonderful attributes. In a time when recordings are the main element of our culture’s musical diet, maybe those attributes are worth calling out.

  4. Jeremy Olsen Says:

    I think our commenters are arguing against a point that Joe never made.

    The quoted section of the “manifesto” is simply pointing out that if you were conducting a symphony or running a jazz band rehearsal and instead of working from a score and parts you played everyone a recording, then (assuming all the players could get the correct pitches and rhythms by ear) you’d be communicating literally *everything* about how the song should be played. An audio recording is a statue of sound, a static record of a moment in the past when a piece was interpreted a certain way.

    What I’m sure Joe was trying to say is that notated music presents your ears with nothing but the sounds in your own head. It’s the same as reading a script versus watching a TV show where all the choices have been made. It’s also something like giving someone a map with the destination marked, as opposed to driving them there yourself.

    And in that regard I entirely agree that notation is a beautiful thing. I feel this point takes absolutely nothing away from synths, dub music, effects processing, MIDI or any of the other things mentioned here. It seems to me Joe only contrasted notated and recorded music to make a point, not to pit one against the other, which would be pretty absurd.

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