Western Music Notation 2.0
random trip report
Traditional classical music scores use Western Music Notation (WMN), the familiar system of staffs, note-heads, stems, ties, slurs, dots, dynamic markings, etc. Scores consist of fixed-format black-and-white printed pages. Things have remained the same for hundreds of years.
This essay describes some ideas about using computer technology (color displays, interactive software, the Web) to expand and enrich musical notation. I focus on classical piano music since that's what I play, but the ideas are relevant in other contexts.
The ideas fall into four separate but related areas:
The main things I currently use are:
Each one is mature and has a big community of users, developers, and/or contributors. I think any efforts to improve music notation needs to leverage these tools.
In practical terms, I propose that we:
By "nuance" I mean the deviations in timing, dynamics, and articulation between a score and a performance. In classical piano music, nuance is everything. If you play a chord with all notes equally loud, it sounds bad; you typically voice to the top and/or bottom. When Rubenstein plays Chopin, no two notes have the same dynamic level, and no two beats have the same length. In Chiara Bertoglio's performance of An Wasserflüssen Babylon, she staggers the voices to separate them; i.e. notes that are simultaneous in the score are not played simultaneously.
These kinds of nuance are difficult or impossible to notate in WMN. The monochrome, typeset nature of WMN doesn't really allow it. But with the features of computers and hi-res color displays, it's easy to imagine ways to notate nuance, either precisely or suggestively; I'll describe some below.
Of course, WMN already has various notations of nuance. You can write 'accelerando' and draw hairpins. These indicate a general idea, but they're vague and imprecise. And there are plenty of things you can't notate at all.
When I first talked about this with my pianist friends they were concerned that adding nuance to scores would eliminate spontaneity and unpredictability from live performance, turning pianists into automata. But that's not what I have in mind. Here some situations where notating nuance might be useful:
Let's say you want to indicate that the top and bottom notes of a chord should be played louder. There are various ways to indicate this visually. You could make the note-heads different shades of gray, or different colors, or different sizes, or they could pulsate in some way.
The idea that top and bottom are louder is semantics; the way it's represented visually is syntax. These should be separated, with some mechanism (sort of like CSS stylesheets in HTML) that maps semantics to syntax. The editor or composer specifies semantics; the performer selects the syntax.
OK, now some possible nuance notations.
Note-level dynamics (including chord voicing); possibilities:
Note: traditional scores are black on a white background. If we're going to use color and gray-scale, we might want to consider black backround; it may be easier to visually distinguish colors that way.
It should be possible to group notes (e.g. fugue voices), and highlight groups in different ways:
We might want to demarcate structural units (e.g. 8 bar phrases), perhaps with some indication of shape within a phrase (e.g. the high point). This could be used in "interactive scores" (see below) in various ways, e.g. show only the current phrase, or highlight it in some way.
We should be able to denote fluctuations in the underlying pulse. One way to do this is with "proportional notation", in which the horizontal space for a note is proportional its notated duration. We can then draw light vertical "grid lines" on quarters or eighths. The distance between lines is the duration of the interval, and the variation in this spacing shows fluctuation.
To make this easier to visually parse, we could tinge these vertical strips with red (faster than average) to white (average) to blue (slower than average). (Although this could conflict with other uses of color.) This color-coding could be used without proportional notation.
It would make sense to center note-heads on the grid line when they occur. Deviations from the underlying pulse (playing ahead of or behind beat) could then be denoted by offsetting note-heads from the grid lines. This is different from measure lines in WMN; if we use this notation, we'd need to change measure lines so that they pass through downbeat note-heads; things would be confusing otherwise.
The WMN notation for rolled chord is a wiggly line with an optional arrow. This can't express the speed or irregularity of the roll, or rolls that are neither up nor down. Proportional notation could express these.
A more precise notation of articulation (staccato/portamento/legato) would be good; an indication of how long each note sounds, or is held down. I don't have any ideas here.
Nuance typically has structure; e.g. a pattern of rubato might repeat over and over. You wouldn't want to have to tweak the timing of individual notes; you'd want to able to define some kind of template that you can then apply repeatedly. We'd need to figure out a GUI approach for doing this.
We'd also need a way to "layer" nuance - e.g. to combine measure-level rubato with a long accelerando.
Aside: in the 1980s I developed a programming language called FORMULA for doing exactly this sort of thing. But no one (except me and a few others) wanted to write programs to generate music.
The idea is that the performer should be able to control how a score is displayed in terms of
The idea is to separate the base score (i.e. what the composer wrote) from various sorts of annotations, such as:
These layers can be created by the composer, by an editor, or by the performer. Performers can add or remove these layers, as well as adding their own. They can use the same notational features as composers and editors; they'll no longer have to scribble in pencil.
Layers would be stored as separate XML files. MuseScore would support the creation, editing, and selection of layers. Performers and editors can upload their layers to IMSLP, which would offer a collection of layers along with each score.
With traditional scores, performers see 1 or 2 pages at a time. They have to keep track of where they are on the page, and they have to turn pages.
The idea of an "interactive" score" is that software can "listen" to the performer (via sound or MIDI), keep track of where they are, and display only the current part of the score: maybe a few seconds. Advantages:
This opens up new notational possibilities: for example, the displayed portion could change in size or color to indicate dynamics or tempo.
More generally: a "performance score" (what the performer sees during a performance) doesn't necessarily have to show everything. If the piece is mostly memorized, it might show interpretive info and a few key notes. A performance score could potentially be any sensory input: 3-D virtual reality, tactile feedback, etc. But for now let's stick with 2-D displays.
Implementing interactive scores would require integrating performance-following technology (audio or MIDI) with MuseScore.