More Than a Score

Modern Notation for Modern Music

When thinking of a music score, most would likely envision a similar image: five lines on a paper with some circles on it.  This common sight is what is most often used in western music notation and has become the standard for formatting music scores throughout the world.  This allows the average performer to interpret the notes on the page without any discrepancy of notes or rhythm.

However, what if standard music notation is not enough express the meaning behind a piece of music?  Is there any way for the composer to express nuances of emotion without depending on the musician’s performance?  Few have responded to this question, but some have largely impacted the development of 20th-century music with the evolution of music notation.

Music has been written down on paper or stone for millennia, but the notation that we know today dates back about 1000 years to Guido d’Arezzo, a 10th-century musician known for contributing to the notation of Gregorian chant music.  Not much has developed in music notation since then, but some have artistically expanded on the ideas of Guido d’Arezzo. The best-known contributor of incorporating visual art into notated music is Baude Cordier, an avant-garde composer of the 14th-century period known as Ars Subtilior, or “subtle art”.  His chanson Belle, Bonne, Sage displays anything but subtle art, however, with his use of a heart-shaped music score.  This modern take on music notation essentially stayed buried in history until it was rediscovered by 20th-century classical composers.  Similar to the neoclassicism of composers like Stravinsky and Shostakovich, drawing from composers like Mozart and Haydn, modernists like George Crumb and Iannis Xenakis drew from the Ars Subtilior period.  George Crumb’s pieces directly associate to the methods of Cordier, using shapes like spirals, circles, and crucifixes to help display the meaning behind his music.  Other musicians draw from other artistic influences to notate their music.  Stockhausen, for example, draws from minimalism and uses a combination of characters without a staff to notate.  Iannis Xenakis, an experienced architect, based portions of his pieces on the mathematical functions he used to build structures.

Time has proved that the development of music is limitless.  Modern musicians have shown that we are merely breaking the surface in some aspects, including the visual art of scoring music.  Some of the most popular composers of the 20th century have contributed different takes on this development, but only time will tell if someone else will take these ideas even further.

For more information on this topic, see the Oxford Music Online essay on notation. Oxford Music Online can be accessed through under Online Resources> Reference Sources.

To find library materials on this subject, you can search the library catalog by subject for Musical Notation.

by Nick Lombardelli, UArts Class of 2015



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