Posted in Project 3: Exploring Chromaticism

Research point 2.4, Part 1a: The shifting function of musical notation through history – its dualities and ideology

The first task of this research point is to investigate the complex relationship between musical notation and performance practice, delineating factors which inform and shape the adaptation of notated music into musical interpretation and its actualization in performance. The aim is to write about 500 words on the topic, although as my research ended quite deep into the subject, I ended up diving the task into two parts, both consisting of about 1500 words. Here, in Part 1a, I will discuss the historical factors, which concerns the changing function of musical notation and how it relates to performance practice, while in Part 1b, I will write about more technical factors, which encompass analysis, intuition, memorization and physicality. As for the second task, it will be explored in the separate Part 2 post here.

To begin, music notation emerged from the need to support the oral transfer of musical ideas. While the ancient world developed various phonetic systems in which sounds are represented by letters, numbers and other signs, the modern diastematic notation of classical Western music saw the origins of its graphic symbols in the neumes of the ninth century, when the Church was searching for a more efficient and unified method of musical transference. (I wrote a detailed post about the neumatic notation for Composing 1 unit, which can be found here.) Over the eleven centuries of its development, the Western diastematic notation shifted its initial function as a memory aid to become a uniform representational system that enables detailed dissemination of musical works and their structural elements. (Lawson, 2002: 3) However, the history of this development in relation to performance practice and musical interpretation resulted in several dualities.

Firstly, as Dahl (2009: 69-70) indicates, while the earliest notated music served as ‘a memo for traditional elements’ to be applied in a ‘special context’ of the congregation, with the emerging individualism of the Renaissance, music notation paved way for the idea of music composition being independent from its performance contexts. Alongside this conceptual separation of the performance of a musical work and the musical work itself, music notation allowed the distinction between the creator of a musical work (composer) and its presenter (performer). In the Baroque period, although the notation became more accurate and the composers began to be more detailed in their performance instructions, the articulation and instrumentation were still more prescribed and the musical material was often sketched rather than fully notated, as in the case of basso continuo. (Lawson, 2002: 9) In this regard, in order to realize such a musical work, both the composer and the performer would often participate equally in the act of actualization of music with a mutual understanding of the musical conventions contemporary to their time (Dahl, 2009: 70)

Although to a lesser degree, according to Lawson (2002: 9) notated music still served more as a blueprint in the classical period, often giving an “incomplete idea of what was originally performed”, since the individual input in the performance of the work remained equally important to the role of the composer. In fact, composers, such as Mozart, would also tailor their music to the individual abilities of the performers (10). Even in the Romantic period, when performance indications became ever more precise, despite the revival of earlier music that established the notion of the ‘definitive text’ in the publishing of collected editions, there was a widespread belief that old music needed to be ‘updated’ with performer’s individual style of expression (11). Frequently, the tasteful variations of pitch and rhythm from the notated score, as well as the modernization of figurations in accordance with the contemporary tastes, were all considered to be a desirable part of performer’s contribution to the piece (Ritterman, 2002: 82). Among many practical examples, Wagner’s conducting was known to “make the music of previous generations sound more like his own.” (Lawson, 2002: 12)

During the same epoch of Romanticism, however, historical awareness surfaced by the mid-nineteenth century with a polarizing notion that the “contemporary performing styles did not necessarily suit the music from earlier times.” (12) Influential amidst this change of attitude was Clara Schuman whose “artistic subordination of her own personality to the intention of the composer” (Hanslick, 1963: 48) began a new performance trend, which challenged the old concept of the performer as the co-creator of a musical work and instead established the idea of the performer as the subservient interpreter. During the 20th century, period performance movement further privileged the respect for text whereby the idea of score as ‘the music itself’, and the performance being at best ‘an imperfect and approximate representation’ (Lawson, 2002: 4) of the true aesthetic meaning in the notation. Stravinsky and Ravel epitomized this outlook, demanding rigidly objective approaches from performers:

“I do not ask for my music to be interpreted, but only for it to be played.”

(Ravel cited in Long, 1973: 16)

“Music should be transmitted and not interpreted, because interpretation reveals the personality of the interpreter rather than that of the author, and who can guarantee that such an executant will reflect the author’s vision without distortion?”

(Stravinsky, 1962: 75)

Closing in on the present day, the relationship between the composer and the performer has been distanced into a binary opposition, whereby the objective interpretation is known to demand a radical reduction of performer’s personal input in order to elevate the status of composer’s intentions. Similarly, the subjective interpretation is considered to enhance performer’s individual expression under the cost of diminishing composer’s presence in the music that is being played.

Nonetheless, as can be seen from the historical summary above, as Lawson (2002: 4) denotes, ‘today’s overwhelming authority of the musical text’ against the performed music and the composer/performer binary opposition are not “characteristic of the history of performance as a whole.” In other words, as Taruskin (1995: 98-9) argues, the present-day ‘appetite’ to achieve historical authenticity and the strict accuracy in reproducing the score is not a result of antiquity, but rather, stems from a novelty. While the historical awareness contributed to a more intimate relation with the notation that includes its implicit parameters and unnotated conventions such as notes elegales and certain ornamentation (Walls, 2002: 22-23), it doesn’t only represent the development of appropriate styles of performance for different periods, but also introduces the danger of over-dependency on the score, being symptomatic of the modern obsession with not only the past itself, but a specific past that is characterized by endless repetitions of the familiar repertoires, which are heavily mediated. As Smith (1988: 51) writes, “schools, libraries, theatres, museums, publishing and printing houses, editorial boards, prize-awarding commissions, state censors and so forth . . . are all managed by persons . . . and, since the texts that are selected and preserved by “time” will always be tend to be those which “fit” their characteristic needs, interests, resources, and purposes, that testing mechanism has its own built-in partialities.” Along these lines, the notation, whose original function was to set down musical information, with approximate or sometimes more exact indications of how it may be interpreted, came to signify a certain musical ideology, in which the canonic repertoire holds a hegemonic authority over the contemporary musical life.

In this regard, many authors point out that the challenge of the performance practice in the new millennium is to achieve balanced approach to notated music, one in which the knowledge of the historical practice is important, but being ‘worn lightly’. In this sense, the notation is not there to weightily substitute or silence the personal voice and intuition of the performer, but serve, as Ritterman (2002; 84) suggests, an “approach, in which composer’s ideas are complemented by performers’ understanding – understanding of themselves as well as of the music they play.” In this sense, there seems to be a search for a perspective in which the factor of historical context doesn’t fully dictate, but compliment the performer’s musical judgment in choosing what circumstances are relevant or unnecessary to the understanding and performance of the score, which isn’t regarded as the music itself. This current within the present-day landscape of performance practice doesn’t reduce music to its textual representation, and instead acknowledges how it awaits to be physically realized, being “something imagined, first by the composer, then in partnership with the performer, ultimately communicated in sound” (Hill, 2002: 129). It also recognizes the genesis and revisions that surround many works, as in the example of Bach, which testifies how the composers of previous generations were ‘willing to adapt to circumstance’ and ‘the exigencies of real performing situations’ despite their preferences, often offering alternatives, such as in the instrumentation. (Walls, 2002: 30-31)

Having discussed the historical factor of the shifting function of musical notation that resulted in the dualities that separated notated music from performed music, composer from performer, objective from subjective performance, all of which also portrays the shifting ideology in music, in the next part (1b) I will discuss the more technical factors of analysis, instinct, memorization and physicality in the interpretation, but also actualization of the musical score.


Dahl, P. (2009) ‘The Rise and Fall of Literacy in Classical Music: An Essay on Musical Notation.’ In: Fontes Artis Musicae, 56 (1), pp. 66-76.

Hanslick, E. (1963) Music criticisms 1846-99. trans. & ed. Pleasants, H. London: Penguin.

Hill, P. (2002) ‘From score to sound.’ In: Rink, J. (ed.) Musical Performance: A Guide to Understanding. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. pp. 129-143.

Lawson, C. (2002) ‘Performing through history.’ In: Rink, J. (ed.) Musical Performance: A Guide to Understanding. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. pp. 3-16.

Ritterman, J. (2002) ‘On teaching performance’. In: Rink, J. (ed.) Musical Performance: A Guide to Understanding. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. pp. 75-88.

Smith, B. H. (1988) Contingencies of Value: Alternative Perspectives for Critical Theory. Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.

Stravinsky, I. (1962) An Autobiography. New York: W. W. Norton and Company, Inc.

Taruskin, R. (1995) Text and Act: Essays on Music and Performance. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Walls, P. (2002) ‘Historical performance and the modern performer’. In: Rink, J. (ed.) Musical Performance: A Guide to Understanding. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. pp. 12-34.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s