Sunday, October 10, 2010

The song is not the sheet music!

Recently I wrote about an artist who thought that music resides in the musical notation.

Sight reading

I disagree completely – the sheet music is not the song!

songs are alive!

I ran a workshop recently where I taught songs from across Eastern Europe. Many of the songs are from traditions stretching back hundreds, if not thousands, of years and have been handed down orally from one generation to the next. Inevitably changes happen over time:

  • ornamentations are embellished,
  • new verses are added,
  • extra harmonies are introduced,
  • melodies are mis-remembered and slightly changed,
  • lyrics are mis-heard so the song changes its meaning over time

Songs are living entities which mutate and develop over time, never becoming stale or fixed.

At the end of the workshop – as is always the case – somebody came up to me and asked for the sheet music. She had learnt the song perfectly, but somehow thought that encoded in the dots she would find the real song, the proper and exact version.

Then there are the people who ask what the song means as soon as I start teaching it. “Difficult to say” I answer “it’s in a rather obscure Croatian dialect and in any case it’s full of poetic symbolism which doesn’t make sense in our culture.”

If only they had the exact, correct words, a decent translation, and the printed sheet music, everything would be OK. The song would become real in some sense, and they would have the definitive version.

It’s like trying to stop the sand shifting, or trying to freeze the waves. You can’t capture a living tradition.

chasing shadows and capturing the wind

If only these people understood that the sheet music is just an aide memoire. A feeble attempt to jot down what somebody heard at one particular time in one specific place. If they went back the next day, it would probably be different. (I have the score of a wonderful South African song which says that it was notated on a particular day from the singing of a particular woman – the implication being that if it had been a different singer on a different day, the score would have been different.)

The sheet music version of a song will inevitably be very different from the song as heard in the wild. Not only will the song change each time, but trying to notate the exact twiddles, tempo changes and microtones is impossible. We also unconsciously (or even consciously sometimes – stand up Cecil Sharp and Ralph Vaughan Williams!) impose our own culture and understanding of music when we notate.

We hear what we imagine to be a ‘bum note’ and automatically correct it. We don’t like (or understand or even perceive) the complex 11/8 rhythm and end up notating it as 3/4 or 4/4. The harmonies seem strange to our ears so we ‘correct’ them. The subtle and unusual vowel sounds of the foreign language are edited out and approximated to sounds that we are more familiar with.

songs that start off as notation

Even with composed songs (i.e. those which were created by one individual and notated) the sheet music will never tell the whole story. The composer aims to notate what she hears in her head in all its subtlety and complexity. But musical notation can never, ever exactly replicate what the composer intended.

No amount of comments, instructions, grace notes or note markings will ever accurately capture their intentions. There will always be scope for misunderstanding, ambiguity and interpretation. Otherwise we would get really bored with endless performances of the same piece of music. If truly accurately notated it would sound exactly the same each time.

Music-making is an aural activity and not a visual one. Don’t ever mistake the sheet music for the song!


Chris Rowbury's website:


Chris Rowbury


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