There are lots of different ways for composers to write their music down. Learn about some nonstandard strategies for musical notation, from the ancient neumes of Gregorian chant to the fearless experimentalism of graphic scores.
The Standard Notation System
You've learned that Western music is often written on five lines and four spaces, collectively called a 'staff.. The staff is used as a framework for black and white markings called 'notes.' This is the standard Western notation system. Composers from Europe, America, and elsewhere have used it since the 1500s to express their musical ideas. Nonstandard musical notation is considered to be any system for notating music which augments or ignores the Western notation system. This includes primitive systems for notation, which predate the Western system as we know it. It also includes avant-garde and modern experiments with new notational ideas, some of which use the 5-line staff as a basis, and some of which do not.
In this lesson we'll examine some of these systems and how to read them.
Before the 5-line staff was developed, composers experimented with several different systems for notating music. Among the most popular was the neumatic system, which records musical ideas using symbols, called neumes. Neumatic notation first appeared in the 9th century, but reached its most recognizable form in the 13th century. This form of neumatic notation is most associated with Gregorian chant, and many plainchants were recorded using neumatic notation.
Neumes were quite similar to the musical notes we see today. They were markings on a staff whose position indicated pitch. However, there were a few key differences. One was that neumes did not convey rhythm the way our modern notation system does. Another was the existence of several different shapes of neumes, each of which had a different meaning for the musical gesture. Compare this to today's music notation system, where all note heads convey rhythm and have the same basic shape. Like the modern Western system, neumes rely on a staff for framework. However, in neumatic notation, the staff uses four lines and three spaces. Also like the modern system, each staff is equipped with a clef to indicate the position of the specific notes. However, unlike the Western system, the clef does not specify a specific note; rather, it tells the reader the position of a note of the solfege scale. In this chant, the clef is indicating the position of Do, the primary note of the solfege scale. The music can be then sung in any key, depending on the singer's voice.
A neumatic score is read in much the same way as a Western score: the position of the heads of each symbol indicates the pitch. There are several symbols that indicate an individual pitch, such as the punctum. Other symbols indicate multiple notes as part of a gesture. The clivis, for instance, indicates two notes rising, while the podatus indicates two notes falling. There are other symbols for groups of three or more notes, as well as several symbols whose exact meaning has been debated by historians.
Staff-Based Nonstandard Notation
In the 20th century, modernist composers sought ways to expand the sounds the musical staff could express. One strategy was to use the staff to indicate music that wasn't rigidly tethered to the music in other parts of the ensemble, to indicate on the staff music that a performer could play out of sync with the rest of the ensemble. The rest would be a musical line that interacted with the material around it in random, unpredictable ways. This type of music came to be called aleatoric music, music which leaves elements of the performance to the performers or to chance. Some important composers who used aleatoric strategies in their work include John Cage, Witold Lutoslawski, and Earle Brown.
Aleatoric music is often written using box notation. In box notation, the composer writes the aleatoric material on the score as usual, but encloses it in a box, often linked to an arrow. The box separates the material from the rest of the score, indicating that it is not related to the rest of the music rhythmically. The material in the box is repeated for the duration indicated by the arrow, usually out of sync with the non-aleatoric material around it.
Across music history, adventurous composers have sought ways to break even further from traditional ways of music notation. Often, this leads composers to make up their own visual rules for how to represent sound. The result is graphic notation, notation which makes use of abstract visual symbols to convey musical information. These symbols can include shapes, paintings, or just about any other type of image. Graphical notation can make use of a traditional music notation system, or it can create an entirely new set of rules.
Graphic notation has been around since before the Western system. In the 1300s, composers, like Baude Cordier, bent the rules of the neumatic system to graphic ends. In this score, which contains the music for a love song, Cordier assembled the music into a heart shape. Graphic notation is also found among modern composers. One of the most recognizable graphic composers is George Crumb, an American composer well known for the visual nature of his scores. Although they're based in standard notation, his scores make use of circular staves as well as odd shapes and directions. Often the resulting shapes are intentional, using the staves to create an image or silhouette related to the work's expressive message.
Several composers have also done away with the standard notation system completely, opting to create new notational rules from scratch. Among these composers are Wadada Leo Smith and Anthony Braxton, jazz musicians who improvise off of scores which contain no notes or staves. Often these scores consist of painted shapes and lines, which the musician is asked to interpret on their instrument.
Nonstandard music notation is any system for notating music which augments or ignores the Western notation system. Systems like this have been around for the entire history of written music. Predating the Western system as we know it is the neumatic system, which uses neumes to indicate pitch and contour. The neumatic system is similar to the Western system, but has a few key differences; for example, the staff uses four lines and three spaces, one less of each than is used in our system today.
Another nonstandard notation strategy is aleatoric music, which leaves elements of the performance up to chance or to the performer. The result is music that interacts irregularly or randomly with the music around it. Often this type of music is written using box notation, which uses box enclosures to indicate the music that is supposed to be aleatoric.
Composers across the history of music have also experimented with graphic notation, relying on the use of abstract visual symbols to convey musical information. There are many different approaches to graphic notation. Early ones include those of composer Baude Cordier, who would mold his neumatic scores into recognizable shapes, such as a heart. Later approaches include those of George Crumb, who uses circular and angled 5-line staves to create striking visual scores; and of jazz musicians Wadada Leo Smith and Anthony Braxton, who use drawn or painted scores, which are often completely free of traditional notation.