Musical praxis and notation

červenec 2012 Martin Celhoffer Studie 2012

As Goodman (1976, p. 113) suggests, in contrary to the music, performance is not an indispensable part of work in the written arts, such as poetry or prose. Accordingly, he sorted the written art into the group of “one-stage” arts, whereas music is “two-stage”, constituted from written prediction and performance. According to this concept, music, as a two-stage art, is written but done (completed) through the performance. On that account, the performance, as a final stage of work constitution, is dependent on written tradition. On the other hand, Goodman does not comment on whether it is possible to constitute a particular piece directly from a score without performance, for example as the conductor often has to do through interpretation, which is the process analogous to reading. However, the majority of all music that has ever been done came from silence and returned into silence without being written, had been only temporarily preserved through the oral tradition or improvisation. One of the most enigmatic issues is the question where are the limits confining interpretation and performance, written tradition and oral tradition. For better understanding, a visual representation of their relationships could be drawn as follows:
From this sketch, it could be inferred that the notation as a written representation of music is not in a direct relation with performance. The two sets are not overlapping. Therefore, it is possible to perform without notation and also to write music without performance. Moreover, to interpret the written and write it again, is a process of transcription from one notational system to another, or copying down the repertoire, where the repertoire is a ground for written tradition. On the other hand, the oral tradition may be defined as interpretation of the performance and performing again according to the interpretation. In this point of view, the interpretation seems to be the interface between written and performance.

Examining the key terms such as a performance, interpretation and notation, it seems necessary to point out the most disputable term – music. Does the music include all the above-mentioned sets, or is it only a subset of these? It comes across as an exclusively philosophical issue. Investigating the ontology of music might be an endless dispute. This task could be approached by examining the question of forgery. Goodman (1976, p. 112–113) wrote:

“Copies of the score may vary in accuracy, but all accurate copies, even if forgeries of Haydn’s manuscript are equally genuine instances of the score. Performances may vary in correctness and quality and even in ‘authenticity’ of a more esoteric kind; but all correct performances are equally genuine instances of the work. In contrast, even the most exact copies of the Rembrandt painting are simply imitations or forgeries, not new instances, of the work.”[2]

Accordingly, he divides the arts into two basic groups: autographic and allographic. In autographic work of art distinction between original and forgery is significant. The most exact duplication of work does not thereby count as genuine, e.g. painting. In Goodman’s view, music is an allographic art in which there is no distinction between original work and its copy. Given that any form of music can be copied without realizing that it is being a forgery, it seems that the entity of musical work lies in different form or structure of existence from sets mentioned above. As a result, the presence of music‘s phenomenon cannot be encompassed in a score alone.

Another issue, which should not be ignored in this writing, is a problem of transforming musical information from sound to visual form possible to be “read” from.

“The notation of musical materials depends on the possibility of dividing them into separate parameters, and these, in turn, into separate units which lend themselves to quantitative comparisons. The degree of clarity, in dividing a parameter into different sizes (e.g., different pitch intervals, ratios of duration, different kinds of vibration, etc.) varies among parameters, and is dependent in the arrangement of these sizes on a single scale as well as establishing the size of a basic unit, and the possibility of choosing different sizes which are multiples of a single, well-defined unit.” (Cohen – Katz 1979, pp. 101–102).

With reference to Cohen and Katz, according to these criteria, pitch and duration are the easiest parameters to notate. But defining pitch or organizing rhythm into conventional patterns may differ in accordance to culture. In contrary to pitch and duration, loudness can be noted on a single scale, but there is no clear-cut definition for a basic unit. This would be possible through electrical equipment, although it would be difficult to perform from score with precisely given dynamic units. Similarly, since there are no quantifiable units of timbre, it cannot be arranged on a single scale.

“The more it is possible to define a parameter, the more it is possible to notate and organize it within an entire composition. Cultures and styles vary from one another in the choice of parameters and in the choice of sizes within parameters. It is important to differentiate between different levels or stages in the organization of the musical material. There still does not exist an exact way to express quantitatively musical information. However, the examination of musical parameters in the initial stages of musical information chosen (e.g., the selection of pitches, ratios of duration, etc.) is meaningful.” (Cohen – Katz 1979, p. 102).

Our module tasks include three different examples of examining the issues mentioned above. The descriptive transcription is focusing on particular parameter or more parameters, for instance, harmony and rhythm. The transcription like this is useful for comparative study of particular genre of music. Therefore, in this case parameters should be clearly defined in order to be more ocular than in comprehensive notational system. The prescriptive notation should contain all the parameters included in performance. To a great extent, however, it is important to be acquainted with a specific culture. Ethnomusicologist Mantle Hood (1971, p. 42) advised to student interested in a particular genre of music, that he “must take stock of certain broad cultural requirements that are essential to his specialization.” Especially in vocal music, study of foreign languages, literature, mythology or religion is essential, since they play an important part in performance interpretation.

The annotation is to examine the differences between written score and performance. In this writing a piece that was initially written in tablature was chosen ex industria, as it opens another facet closely related to the main point. Namely, it shows that a lute tablature was derived directly from menzural notation by process of transcription named intabulation. Therefore, both tablature and staff notation are tussling with the same problems of interpretation. The both notational systems are in a close relationship and are interpreted at the same cultural background. The chosen piece is the opening part (bars 1–21) from Kapsberger’s Toccata terza from the collection Libro Primo d’Intavolatura di Lauto published in Rome in 1611. This collection is assigned to ten-course renaissance lute and was originally written in Italian tablature.

This example of notation has no phrase indications, no dynamics or tempo marks. The lack of these parameters also accounts for scores of keyboard music from this
period. In the Italian instrumental style of the early 17th century, such parameters, which can be described by term sprezzatura, were important. According to Castiglione’s interpretation of the term, due to the fact that spontaneity and effortlessness are its main features, a sprezzatura cannot have a dictation quality. Whereupon the interpretation of this style should be to a great extent free.

Additional feature of this music is improvisation, which was required by the composer. In elaborated examples in his Passaggi diversi published together with his collection Libro terzo di intavolatura di chitarone, Kapsberger presented this way of improvising over sustained base, as well as the way of arpeggiating the chords. This passaggi visually indicate the contemporary manner of improvising. A question could be raised regarding to what extent it is possible to cover these secondary parameters by notational system. For example, the first two bars from Toccata could be realized in the following way:
This is, however, only one specific possibility and composer’s intention was to keep the options for alternative interpretations open. He predicted simple chords in order to imply the theme or frame (which was to be developed by interpretation) for further musical conversation. Once all the musical parameters are put into score in exact visual representation, musical interpretation becomes realization without artistic utterance. “It is important to bear in mind that no system of notation nor any kind of preservation of musical information, be it the most highly developed, is truly comprehensive.” (Cohen – Katz 1979, p. 100). Therefore, notation limitations, as well as its role in the process of preserving cultural experience, should not be overlooked.


BERGER, Karol (2002): The Guidonian Hand, In: The Medevial Craft of Memory: An Anthology of Texts and Pictures, ed. by Mary Carruthers and Joan M. Ziolkowski. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.
COHEN, Dalia – KATZ, Ruth (1979): The Interdependence of Notation Systems and Musical Information, In: Yearbook of the International folk Music Council, Vol. 11, pp. 100–113.
GOODMAN, Nelson (1976): Languages of Art: An Approach to a Theory of Symbols. Indianopolis: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc.
HOOD, Mantle (1971): The Ethnomusicologist. New York: McGraw Hill.
KAPSBERGER, Giovanni Girolamo (1626): Libro terzo di intavolature di chitarone. Roma.
KAPSBERGER, Giovanni Girolamo: Libro Primo d’Intavolatura di Lauto, ed. by Richard Civiol. []. October 2005.

[1] Although there were and still remain attempts to conventionalisation of music (e.g. baroque affect theory and doctrine of musical figures).

[2] See also WEBSTER, William E.: Music Is Not a “Notational System”, in: The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, Vol. 29, No. 4 (Summer, 1971), pp. 489–497.

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