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Musical Notation

Musical Notation

January 27, 2019 10:04 pmComments are Disabled

Much has been said about the universality of music: something that has existed in one form or another in every human culture since arguably before we even descended from the trees.

I’m currently on page 8 of 20 learning George Gershwin’s Rhapsody¬†in¬†Blue for the piano, the most technically difficult piece I’ve ever attempted to learn (and very much struggling through it). For reference, I often listen to Gershwin’s own piano rolls recorded between 1916 and 1927, and along with being blown away at this man’s talent, I’m more than anything else fascinated by the usefulness–nay, brilliance–of musical notation.

For the same way that writing allows transit of thoughts and ideas across time and place, as long as the writer and the recipient share a common language, music notation has the ability to keep music alive long after the original composer and performers have died. It’s arguably ‘inauthentic’ insofar as it is an invented written language for a sonic medium, but it accomplishes what no other written language does, which is adapt and transcend all other languages. Music notation, of whichever form, is a more universal written language than any other, and can be taught to anyone regardless of culture, or even literacy.

Unlike renderings of original songs re-imagined as covers, notation is analog and asks the recipient to be somewhat faithful to the original spirit of the piece. It’s more prescriptive in this way than, say, guitar tabs, although musicians who read notation are not deprived of their license to add their own interpretation and personal flare.

Here’s the cool thing. It is only because of musical notation that we know how the Viennese of 1750 liked to listen to music. I’m afraid that since music recorded today is almost never notated, we run the risk of losing the flavor of our culture in future generations, should our ability to preserve our recordings ever falter. Gershwin was one of the last composers in the classical era, and one of the only composers of symphonic jazz, who notated his music in a way that it could be faithfully rendered to later generations regardless of recording ability.

Maybe that’s why it’s so cool to be able to play his music, along with his recording–it’s something you can’t do with almost any other great composer. Of the earlier composers, we have no record. And of the later composers, we have no strict notation.

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