Sunday, February 20, 2011

Music notation: what is it good for and do we need it to sing?

Do you have to be able to read music to sing? Lots of people believe so and are put off joining choirs as a result.

Mensural Notation

I don’t use written music when I teach, but does that mean I am limited in what I can teach? And am I making life difficult for those who can read music?

I want to make music as widely accessible as possible, so I don’t use unnecessary musical jargon or rely on sheet music. All the groups and workshops I run are open-access in the sense that everyone is welcome and no experience is necessary.

My argument is that the vast majority of the world’s folk or traditional music has never been written down and it is learnt by ear in the cultures that it originates from. And that is my repertoire.

I teach by ear

I don’t use written music when I teach. I teach by ear, singing each part in turn and getting people to sing back until they’ve got it. This is partly due to the fact that a lot of the repertoire I teach comes from cultures where songs are passed down orally from generation to generation.

Of course, what I do is artificial. If you came from the same culture as the song you would have heard it repeatedly since you were a baby. Gradually you would have become more familiar with it until you knew it off by heart. At no point would you have seen either the music or the lyrics written down. You would have learnt everything by listening.

Trying to replicate that in a choir or singing workshop is fairly ridiculous as we’re trying to short-circuit years and years of repetition. But we try, and after a few weeks it’s surprising how much has gone in. More importantly, people retain it for a long time. All without seeing anything written down. (OK, maybe I do put the lyrics on the wall from time to time, but it’s not our native language!)

So what do we need music notation for? (Liz Garnett has also written on this subject recently: On Musical Literacy)

what is musical notation for?

There are forms of music notation dating back to Ancient Greece and before. These simple ways of describing music visually consisted of symbols representing relative pitch and note duration. The original urge to notate music was probably for several reasons:

  • to be able to pass songs and music over long distances as accurately as possible
  • to remind the singer of how a newly learnt song goes
  • to make sure that we’re all singing the same version of a song
  • to help with the learning of a song which has a fairly monotonous melody

In 8th Century Europe, monks in monasteries regularly used symbols (known as neumes) to put plainchants down on paper. Because the notation couldn’t express exact timing or absolute pitch, the parchments served mainly as a reminder to those who already knew a tune. They were not that useful to people learning a new tune if they had never heard it before.

Gradually systems of music notation became more sophisticated until we arrive at the five-staff system that most people are familiar with today. This system originated in European classical music, but is not the only system around. There are other forms of notation in, for example, India, China and Indonesia, as well as alternative Western notation systems (such as Solf├Ęge) and graphic and pictorial forms invented for specific experimental compositions.

In many of the choirs that I have run, the basses often invent their own notation, a version of early neume-based notations. The length of a horizontal line reflects the length of a note, and the vertical distance between lines shows the relative pitch. Like early Western notation, this is just an aid to memory and can’t be used to learn a song from scratch. The basses tend to invent it because bass parts often don’t have a recognisable tune so they need to know where notes go up and down and how long they stay on it (rather like plainchant).

Since music notation has evolved and can now express complex rhythms, absolute pitch, and accurate note duration, it can be used as a tool for learning and not just an aid to memorising a song already learnt. It was also a useful means by which music could be disseminated over long distances before the advent of recording devices.

what music is notated?

It is important to remember that much of the world’s music is not written down. The vast majority of music in the world is traditional or folk music which is transmitted orally. When early song-collectors (usually Westerners trained in music theory and notation) arrived they would have to notate what they heard because they had no recording devices.

However, not only is it very difficult for Western notation to cope with complex rhythms, microtones, unusual scales or modes, but the song-collectors would often ‘edit’ what they were notating to fit in with preconceived notions of ‘proper’ musical structure. Sometimes a harmony would appear ‘wrong’ or each verse might have a different rhythmic structure which would get simplified when notated, or a tricky rhythm might be mis-heard. Also, since these songs came from living traditions, the song might be entirely different depending on which day of the week it was collected or who was singing it!

The vast majority of notated music is composed by a known individual (rather than being created by ‘Anon’ and handed down over generations) and of Western origin. This gives a very distorted picture of the world’s music if we only pay attention to written scores.

learning to read

Rather like when the bible was only available in Latin, the fact that you have to learn to read music means that it is easy for an elite to arise. Those who could read and write music became musical gate-keepers who decided what people could hear and what music got passed on. Inevitably it became a class issue.

The middle classes, who wanted to behave and sound different from the ‘rough’ working classes, promoted the idea that ‘proper music’ (i.e. notated) was ‘high art’ and anything folk or traditional was somehow less worthy. Because traditional music was passed on orally and not written down, it didn’t count.

Andrew Emmet has written in a comment on this blog:

“We have a lot in common, but I know one of our differences is that you choose not to have written music available. To me this is like reading a story to someone, but never teaching them to read.”

The implication in Andrew’s comment is that only music ‘literature’ counts. Only stories (or songs) written down in books are worth reading or singing. Stories and songs passed on through the oral tradition don’t count.

But the oral tradition is a living tradition. Books are fixed and set in time. Sheet music is like an insect in amber. There is no longer scope for change, embellishment, or additions.

Reading a book is one experience as is watching a movie. But seeing a live theatre production or hearing a great storyteller is something else. There is room for both, but one is not less than the other. It is, of course, possible to sing without being able to read music.

the notation is not the song

It is impossible to notate a song accurately whether it is a written version of a song heard ‘in the wild’ or the score created by a composer. If it were possible, then there would be just one, perfect, canonical performance of every song or piece of music in the world.

However, some people believe that the written score somehow represents a Platonic ideal that we strive to achieve. But we can never know exactly what the composer intended, or whether the piece of music we have in our hand is an accurate representation of the song it is notating.

next week

Next week I’ll consider the pros and cons of using sheet music, and in a later post I’ll consider what to do in a ‘learn by ear’ choir if someone insists on having the written score.

In the meantime, do let me know what your attitude is to sheet music. Do you use it? Do you find it useful or does it have its drawbacks? What kind of repertoire do you sing? Do you use an alternative system to the popular five-staff system? Do drop by and leave a comment.


Chris Rowbury's website: