See the Sound: Musicians’ graphic scores

When a musician writes a score that must be mechanically carried through, compelling the interpreter to follow it as if he was a machine… what is the sense to make it for a human being if it can be made for a machine? A music score that imposes such a severity has no sense. Ideas must be free and the musicians who will play must be creative

John Cage

If the artist is mostly limited only by the medium he uses, musician has also to dill with a sort of dictatorship of a composer, whose initial idea and its accurate notation, limits performer’s freedom. It was jazz that pointed the way towards his liberation and predominance of improvisation. Not surprisingly, some composers almost simultaneously to jazz flourishing came up with the idea of transformation of musical notation and accentuate on its visual aspect.

Here’s some brief information about major composers, who revolutionized traditional system of graphical music recording.

One of the pioneering masters, who felt necessity to reject from rationalism and strictness of common musical notation was John Cage. In his pieces he tried to realize the principle of indeterminacy from oriental philosophy: being familiar with Zen Buddhism, he brought its unique spiritual ideas and a liberating attitude towards existence to his own composition and performance.

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Karlheinz Stockhausen, began using graphic notation in 1959, working over his Zyklus. The score for the piece was written in such way, that it could be read from any side the performer chooses. It’s a striking sample of “opera aperta” concept Umberto Ecco introduced concerning postmodernistic culture: the preceptor is able to contribute into the object as well as the creator. In fact, the role of author was minimized due to such polyvalent form approach. Yet, other Stockhausen’s forms were less exposed to such expounding.


Initially, Iannis Xenakis trained as a civil engineer, gained experience in architecture and cooperated with legendary Le Corbusier. So, it comes as no surprise, his graphical notations make accent on the visualization of “texture” of sound and its duration, expressing them in long vertical sequence of graphical strokes, winding lines or geometrical figures. Xenakis was follower of experimental music and was close to the noise aesthetic of Futurism. Video with his composition Metastasis:

Composer George Crumb believed his main aim was to make scores “as simple and conventional as possible”, being assured that lucidity and laconism are essential for approaching to the essence of musical art; he uses traditional notation, but  pointing out that economy and clarity are vital to the performer’s understanding of the composer’s original intention. Makrokosmos, dedicated to the signs of Zodiac, is his monumental score considered to be one of the Crumb’s highest attainments.


Earle Four SystemsBrown was a major force in American vanguard post-war music. December 1952 is probably one of his highpoints. It is part of a larger set of unusually notated music called Folio. For it, Brown penetrated himself in studying of the Early Music, which has its own system of notation. The score includes exclusively  horizontal and vertical lines of various width. The performer has to interpret the score visually and turn it into to music. Brown attempted to create the effect of moving through space on a 2D surface. December 1952 was one of his most abstract work, whilst the later ones were contained more specifically musical information.


Sylvano Bussotti totally distanced from any symbols that resembled traditional notation, turning the note sheet into a living organism, with rhizomatic-like lines The score of Five Pieces for David Tudor (1959) is similar Rorschach ink-blots. That forces the performer to search himself for a suitable sound for this or that. Of course, the result will never be the same.


Often authors (for whom it’s hard to identify, whether they’re more musicians or artists) use note staff only as a background for their art work (in most cases abstract), without connecting it to certain melody. As a sample – see the scores by Jim Leftwich & Jukka-Pekka Kervinen:


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Composers had increasingly experimented with new types of sound which could not be represented on traditional five-line staff. Expand of electronic music require radically new system of notation. That prompted composers to look at painting and graphic arts for inspiration to elaborate  new graphic forms of notation. Jean-Yves Labat suggested one, visually similar to radially organized rays of color. This methods is devised for devised for the synthesizer. Labat explained the general idea of his system “I have been trying to develop a notation for synthesizer music that works through color… It looks strange because most people are brought up on academic music notation, but electronic music requires a whole new system of notation just like the old Gregorian”. At the center of these blocks of color is what appears to be a Eucharistic host from which the lines of colored blocks radiate outward. The Eucharist, it seems to suggest, is the center of the music. In Benedictine fashion Labat presents music as a potentially sacramental experience, the grace of which has transformative power”.


Sometimes, those graphical notation look can more like a post-modernistic game, when sort of cultural citations (mainly masterpieces of art) are used in compositions. Philip Sheppard’s Wave after Hiroshige drawing were a score was written after well-known print by that Japanese artist. Artist and musician Geoffry Warton’s poster depicting the Cologne Cathedral, but it is also a musical score (with lines placed vertically) a version of which has been performed by the Cologne Philharmonic Orchestra under the direction of James Conlon and Markus Stenz.


Partly, changes to the view of graphic scores were brought by scientific research that led to introducing and spreading of color music notational system. It  uses stimulative effects of different tints on our brain to elevate the efficiency of mastering new musical material. A row of experiments held in 1990s demonstrated color-coded notation improved memorizing of notation and rhythms among early music students. The system was patented in 2006 by David Kestenbaum and Victor Mair Hyman (text of the patent).

warton-01To sum up, I’d like to finish with an interesting quote by Pat Muchmore:The note shapes are just that: shapes.  It’s a potent reminder that ALL notation is entirely graphical, even though it’s as hard to see standard modern notation purely visually as it is to look at a sign in your native language and appreciate solely the contours of the familiar characters without their usual meaning. However, musical notation isn’t simply shapes that convey unrelated concepts as they do in written language. The system is actually brilliantly visual; higher pitches are higher on the staff, longer notes generally take up more space than shorter, simultaneous pitches are stacked together. Yet when we first learned the system it must have been so alluring and strange.  With every practice session and rehearsal—with every score read—we rendered it entirely transparent.  Each step closer to Parnassus undoubtedly made us better musicians, but it made those beautiful shapes more and more boring. Both composing and reading non-traditional notation can restore just a hint of that original mystery.  One of the greatest things art can provide is the warping of the familiar. It’s wonderful to see and hear new things, but it can be astonishing to see and hear old things anew”.

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