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--Berlioz (Treatise on Orchestration)

 

 
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Looks Like it Sounds--
or, those bizarre squiggles we call music.
(part one)

Why do we write music the way we do and is it actually the best method? Dare we ask?
 


part two
part three
 

When the ancient Egyptians wanted to refer to the sun, they simply drew a picture of it.  

This is a far cry from writing a combination of squiggles and lines, as we do today. The word SUN doesn't actually look like the sun; we wouldn't know that it had anything to do with the sun at all unless we were told. Each of the letters represents a specific sound, but that still doesn't mean when you add them up they are going to automatically suggest anything.

SUN

These two very different approaches to language have their obvious strengths and inevitable weaknesses. There is something lost in not being able to graphically represent what you are talking about. Clearly a language like that is much harder to learn, endless combinations of arbitrary lines and curves with their numerous rules for organization, chances for misspellings, bad grammar, and the like make for some of that celebrated "modern anxiety." And you don't get to admire the pictures.
I'd like to see you try, however, to represent something like "inevitability" with a picture.


Wait, I just thought of one. How about a guy who has just stepped off a cliff? The only problem there is that pretty soon they'll also be using that one for the word "gravity", maybe the word "panic" and eventually, "lawsuit", given the various needs of our contemporary society. So the simple one-to-one relationship between a thought and its picture will get spoiled anyway. Leave it to us "moderns" to ruin that fun.



"Inevitability"

The charm of a pictorial language like hieroglyphics is that everything that needs to be communicated can be represented graphically, and means exactly what it looks like. None of this "except after g" or "sometimes y" stuff we have to remember today. The sun means only one thing, not something else if you draw a picture of a polar bear after it. Once complexity (or abstraction) rears its (for some) ugly head, you have to start looking for context and overall meaning and you still might not get it right away.
 

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The word "phonetically" means "how it sounds" or, to spell a word using letters that obviously make the sounds of the word. But, as is often pointed out, the word "phonetically" itself, isn't. If it was, it would be spelled "fonetikalee".

In a pictorial language, putting a polar bear next to the sun could mean the bear was sunning himself, or trying to eat the sun, or running after the sun, but it would not mean, say, swimming pool. Each character, both the sun and the bear, are still suns and bears, regardless of their relationship to each other. You don't add two characters together and they become something totally different. But, for some reason, in modern English, you put an H next to a P and they cancel each other and become an F! How does that make any sense?

Not that modern language has completely lost its pictorial element. We still use metaphors and figures of speech that present a strong mental image that creatively crystallizes abstract meaning. If we say, for instance, that somebody is "out in left field" we have caused the mind of the listener to glow with an image that seems to fill in the need for a sense of being able to 'see' what we are talking about. When we refer to somebody whose views or behavior is a long way from normal or from what we agree with, if we mentally paint that picture, it gives our meaning additional life, punch, or clarity.

Written music began life as a kind of pictorial language--then things started to get rather complicated.

When, in the ninth century, a fellow named Guido managed to devise a system for actually writing music down--you can read about that interesting story elsewhere on this website--the method he came up with was pretty simple. Put a line on a page. Now put a blob on the page representing a note. If the note is above the line it is higher than if it is on the line, still higher than if the pitch is below the line. High notes mean higher on the page. Actually, what we really mean by high notes is that they are vibrating more times per second--sound is vibrating air, after all--but people have always referred to high notes and low notes as a matter of course (it takes more effort to pop off a 'high' note because your voice box has to flutter faster), and when you go for a high note, people are much more likely to gaze up at the ceiling than they are to look at the floor. Besides, they didn't have scientists to tell them all this when Guido was around.


the Guidonian hand
(a method for learning the notes)

Imagine. It took nine centuries into the "modern era" to come up with something that simple. And there were untold centuries before that too, of course. Several millennia for humans (Western Europeans, anyway) to figure out how to write down something they could already do aurally, even while they could write--only a few of them, of course--in their own native languages.

 

I remember being taught in school that the origin of writing things down probably began as a result of the need to keep written records of things like taxes and what not. The real important stuff like how much the king had in his royal treasury. Music didn't turn a profit then anymore than it does now (ok, I'm splitting hairs; I'm leaving aside the bulk of our commercially successful but artistically thin recordings) and it does not seem to have been of much concern to anyone that it be preserved for posterity or even so it could be shared with anybody who wasn't the king of that immediate area.

Well, I'm oversimplifying. A lot. But the fact remains that music was not written down for a while in western cultures--at least that we are aware of. There are some fragments of ancient Greek music--one famed specimen is chiseled into a rock and is called the "Hymn to Apollo." I've seen it. There do seem to be some musical instructions, but these are mostly circles and triangles and other shapes above the words which give us no idea of what the music was supposed to sound like.

But the beauty of Guido's system is that once a one-note to one position-on-the-system-of-lines can be established, you can sing anything, whether you've heard it before or not. C is C. Or, as Guido would have thought of it, Ut is Ut. Good thing somebody came up with a replacement name for Ut.

Systems do have a way of becoming unpleasantly obsolete, however. As always, some things happened to music that Guido would never have thought of, and in some ways his system proved to be surprisingly adaptive and to hold up well even after so many later changes, and in others, the system was strained almost to the breaking point.

When Guido came up with his system, it was the human voice, that oldest of musical instruments, that was being taken into account. He didn't have a piano with a range of eighty-eight notes to worry about. Most people can't sing more than an octave or so, maybe two, unless they are trained singers. The church music of the time did not jump around very much, and mainly confined itself to an octave. Eight notes. So having four lines, and three spaces in between the lines seemed like plenty (the space above the top line being available for emergencies!).

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It later turned out not to be. No problem. A fifth line was added to the staff (which is what we call that flock of lines) and now there is room for nine notes, which is a little bit short of 88 if you are scoring at home.

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There are ways to get around this difficulty. One of which is to simply add staffs together. Once you yoke two of your systems together, you suddenly have space for around 19 notes. Now we are getting somewhere.

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Of course, in order to avoid eye-strain from having to determine exactly which line that a note is on--of the ten that seem to be run together-- we're going to actually create a little break right in the middle. Space is a nice way to clarify things. Besides, I dare you to decide, at a moment's notice, whether a note is on line 6 from the bottom or 7 from the bottom. So let's split things up for clarity's sake.

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Technically, the two staves are one continuous system, and there is room for one invisible  line between them. This, added to the spaces immediately above that line and below it, give us room for three notes that are actually between the two staves. We don't use this line unless we need it to put a note on, and that means that unlike the others, which run continuously whether we need them for reference or not, this one only pops up when needed, lasts a little over the length of the note itself, and disappears. It is like the volunteer firefighter of notes.

In actual practice, the two staves are separated by additional space for ease of reading, and so that we can jam several other kinds of musical instructions in there! (or lyrics) The two notes at the end are actually the same note--both the additional line extending above the bottom staff and the additional line extending below the top staff are known as "middle c" and the next note above or below them falls on the space adjacent to the first line of the other staff. So I suppose all that space you think you see between the staves doesn't really exist! I mean, if you're into quantum physics and whatnot.

 

This little line of ours in turn creates a new kind of being which we call a ledger line. If we can extend the staff toward the middle, why not above and below? And why stop at one? Ledger, or additional, lines can be added to the bottom of the lower staff, and the top of the upper staff to extend the number of notes we can call into being. They behave exactly like the one in the middle, and only show themselves when necessary. However, a good many composers have determined to abuse a good thing when they have it, and frequently use four, five, or six ledger lines with impunity. You are now perceiving that this may make things a bit hard to read. Trained musicians, having long become accustomed to the system of five lines and four spaces, can instantly read a note based on its location, just like you know what four plus four is without having to stop and consider the issue (let us hope)--but extending too many lines in one direction or another makes things too confusing, and besides, there is a better method. It is called 8va, or octave in altissimo--that is, an instruction to the performer to play what he sees on the page eight notes higher than it is actually written.  Since musical pitches have only seven names  -- A through G (again, what simplicity!) the eighth will again bear the same name as the first, when the series starts over. It will also, due to its association with a particular group of raised black keys, "look" the same as all of the other pitches on the piano with the same name. Young pianists often spend their first lesson trying to find all of the "Cs" and "Es" on the piano.

Thus it is a relatively simple thing for a pianist  to see an 'A' in one part of the piano, and to substitute for it the next 'A' above that. If this is still not high enough, the composer can write 15ma, indicating the note two octaves higher. Not sixteen, mind you. If you want to add an octave to the one you've already prescribed you have to remember that the bottom note of the succeeding octave is actually the same one as at the top of the first (abcdefgAbcdefgA) and not count it twice. If it is too late at night and you would rather not do the math, just trust me. It is 15 notes.

Now with that kind of flexibility we can put all kinds of high and low notes onto just two staves joined together. Often ledger lines are used for notes hovering just above the staff--two or three lines is quite common, but six is just plain ridiculous. So if you have a composer cousin, or dog, or neighbor's dog, or aunt's sister's neighbor's dog's flea's half-uncle, please tell them not to use too many ledger lines. I've premiered several new works in my time, and having to pick my way through all of those ledger lines when there is a perfectly good alternative just frustrates the snot out of me.

Our glorious system of random lines can tell us which notes are higher than which others, but technically, they don't point to a specific pitch; merely the relationship between the various pitches.  Sure, the note above the line is higher than the one on the line, but which note is it really? Which piano key should I play, in other words. Would you want to forever be known, not by a particular name, but only as the person who lives next to Fred? Your whole existence determined by your relation to somebody else? No individual definition, no fixedness. That fixedness is what clef signs give us; we'll take these up in part two. They may be silly looking, but they are very important.  There are several of them, and they each change the meaning of the lines that follow them in their own way. Thus a note on the bottom line may be an 'E' in one clef, but if you throw another one at it, it becomes a 'G'. And just like that we have crossed the divide from that happy and innocent time when a thing was a thing no matter what, and when it changed its meaning according to the context. Just like the primary difference between hieroglyphics and English (as we superficially understand them, anyway). But we will cover this in the next article, so if you want to imagine that the sun revolves around the earth, musically speaking, that the center is the center and that's that, until I get around to the next installment, why, go right ahead. I'll understand.

on to part two: clef signs

michael@pianonoise.com