Ah, a solution!

To notating at least dotted-rhythm music if not syncopated: Swung note

In other words, they just didn’t bother to write the dots. 🙂 It still doesn’t quite work for off-beat stuff, but let’s face it, most of the Haendel I’m working with anyway is swung.

Organ notation

Well, I have some blank sheet for the organ. We’ll see how it works out. I really have no clue what to do about writing things when the pitch is moved up or whatever. I think I’m just going to note which key is supposed to play middle C on all the manuals and the pedal with the 8′ stops out, and just write THAT NOTE down, and let the registration carry pitch information if need be.

Musical notation

I’m not even doing anything that complicated, and it’s still hosing up. Well, the software isn’t crashing or anything, I’m just not entirely sure how to notate something. I think I can manage some way to make the software show what I want, but I’m not sure if I can make it clear on the page what I want. It really makes me look at notation in a far more skeptical way, especially when players sweat tiny, little details about what someone meant by “gioioso” versus “con gioia” or whatever. I’m not sure there isn’t more “oh the hell with it, just do the best you can here” in some of the great works. I suppose it depends on the composer. Some of them were probably more easygoing, and others more picky (Beethoven).

At least the stuff I’m writing now that is causing this problem is recitatif, so it’s supposed to be somewhat metrically free anyway. I’ll put a note on top saying, “The pianist is invited to play the following section with relatively free rhythm,” or whatnot. The intro and the “Dove sei?” parts are/will be more firmly set down, but I’m not sure recitatif can ever be as pinned down as actual music.

Why tab isn’t music

There’s a young man who waits tables at a restaurant near my apartment who is a guitarist studying music formally in school. I don’t know where. Sometimes, when I go to this restaurant, I’ll bring a music theory book with me (or a book on languages, or a biography of a musician or singer), and sometimes I will bring blank sheet and doodle things down as I eat. He noticed this once, and as another musician, he began asking me about the stuff that I write and play.

Being a guitarist, he seems to read from tab mostly, and the idea of reading from sheet music is a new one to him. He mentioned a few things about it that made me think that he was approaching this idea in school, where they were promoting the idea of reading music and not tab. The school itself seems to be modern in feel, with a healthy and vital respect for playing by ear and improv, but they also appear well-rounded in that they value notation as well. Musicians need both, after all. As a pianist, I never questioned the value of sheet music; that’s what we use. There’s no such thing as “tab” for piano (more on this later). As a result, the idea of someone studying music formally who was only just weaning himself off of tab and onto notation was a novel one for me. (I don’t know many guitarists.)

When he advanced these ideas to me — ideas that were new to him — he said things like “written music is more abstract, right?” which it is. But that felt like a classroom quote rather than a real explanation of why musical notation is more valuable than tab. I began to think about why tab was insufficient for a serious musician.

Put bluntly, tab is machine operating instructions, not music. There are two parts to this:

1) Reading music unites you with other musicians who play other instruments. Tab means nothing to a violinist or an oboe player. Tab for an oboe would look very different, and tab for the violin would be crazy — no frets! And yet, when these instruments each play “Happy Birthday,” clearly they are doing something similar. Even though they sound different and are mechanically completely different, on some higher level, what they are doing is “the same.” Using the same notation reflects this sameness, and it ushers you into a fuller, more ecumenical world of other musicians all pursuing similar tasks in different ways, instead of keeping blinders on whereby you know nothing but your own device. Notation is the common language of all musicians.

2) You shouldn’t need to ask the composer where to put your fingers on your own device. If you are the master of that device, you should know how to operate it without being told how. Imagine someone back in the day playing something by Bach on a violin. What kind of impression do you think it would have left had that person gone up to Bach and said, “I’m trying to play something you wrote — where do I put my fingers?” Bach’s likely response would have been, “I don’t know. That’s your instrument, you should know that.” It’s not the composer’s job to tell you where to put your fingers. Composer write music; they don’t babysit amateurs. If you are the master of that device, you should know where to put your fingers.

Tab is operating instructions for a specific device, such that even someone who is totally deaf or doesn’t know what the hell they’re doing can still make a decent noise on it. If you want to play your instrument as well as a totally deaf person or an idiot, so be it. You need to shoot for more. Tab lies within the sphere of things that you, as a musician, must know within yourself. You must expand your knowledge of your instrument to enclose everything that tab represents, and stop using it if you want to be a true master of your device.

Now, the reason piano has no tab is that, in all ways that matter, sheet music is tab for piano. Unlike most other instruments, the piano is somewhat unique in that there is one note per “button.” I don’t press middle C for a C4, and then open the thing, press down 1/3 of the way up the string, and hit the same lever for a G4. G4 has its own separate lever. Thus, sheet music serves the same function for a piano as tab anyway: one note for each lever, and only one lever for each note. When you see a little dot in the first space at the bottom on the treble clef with a # next to it, there is one lever that you can press to get it. Tab would be redundant for a piano, not to mention insane since you are using all ten fingers most or all of the time, and the only way to keep track of that in your mind is to operate at the higher abstract level occupied by the notation anyway.

So for what it’s worth: learn notation. Seriously. You must be able to play by ear, you must be able to speak somewhat extemporaneously on your device (improv), and you must know how to read music. Skip any of these, and you’ll regret it. Even successful musicians who can’t do one will feel the lack and speak to it candidly. Highly talented young classical musicians who live and die by notation yearn to improv, and successful popular musicians almost always regret not pushing forward with “those piano lessons” as a child or learning to read and write music. Don’t shut yourself off from any aspect of music.

“Twilight” by Jeff Lynne/ELO (2)

Hm. It makes quite a nice rag in the middle. 🙂

And I seem to be working a bass up to Journey’s “Lights” in my head as well. I haven’t a clue what the melody will be; as I’ve said, it’s so relentlessly vocal that it will prove a massive challenge for a piano. A duet with piano and flute-or-violin may be as close as it gets, and at the moment I’m uninterested in playing duets although I may score one at some point provided I can work my notation abilities up to par.

I think I’ll practice with the left hand in the ragtime-“Twilight.” Ragtime bass is usually a fairly standard oom-pah type of thing, and that should give me a bit more structure to hang the dotted thises and thats from in the melody.

I also need to work on my “penmanship” in notating music. Right now, it looks like an old Scantron test with little blank and filled circles.

I laugh at my attempts at notation.

— which apparently consist of writing down the notes in order in little dots that resemble an old-style scantron test, where a filled dot means “shortish” and an unfilled dot means “longer than most.”

And very little else. Ties? Slurs? Bars? Dots? Rests? Nowhere to be found.

It mystifies me how I can sight-read (and if slowly, quite accurately) and yet remain at the level of a child in terms of notating music. Reading and writing are not the same skills. Granted, I’m still working out how I’d like the adaptation to sound, it would be nice to be able to write music as more than a memory jog. I imagine practice is the only thing that will help. Thankfully, it’s quite fun.

I’m also surprised at just how complex reading music notation is, really. I started so young that I tend to forget just how much information (and its variety) that is set down in your typical sheet music. I’m also surprised at the amount of tacit knowledge that a sheet music score assumes its reader has. Sharps and flats are added in a proscribed order (and why they are added in that order). Time signatures (“four beats to a measure and a quarter note gets one count”). The concept of the circle of fifths and how you add sharps and then flats as you traverse it. Relative major and minor keys, and how to tell which one you are in. (Although that can be a bit dicey sometimes in a piece like — surprisingly enough — “The Last Spring,” which seems to wander between Em and GM pretty ecumenically.) The positioning and duration of certain notes. It’s all rather a lot of information. Much of it I have without realizing; I never realized until recently that I was subconsciously just expecting 12/8 to be 4/4 in triplets until an idle browsing through Wikipedia brought it home that that’s precisely what it was. Perhaps I just unconsciously realized that every time I saw an 8 in the basement of the time signature that triplets seemed to be in the offing, I don’t know.

It comes across to me sometimes when I am forced to notate music instead of reading it and when I am forced to confront a new symbol, like the peripatetic alto clef. I am constantly forced to think consciously about the thing when I see it, and this must be how people who are learning to read music for the first time feel when they confront the treble or bass clef, or any other musical symbol. The difference in fluency for me is provided by the fact that I pick up languages and orthographies very quickly as a rule, and that I began to learn to read music when I was very young (before I began to study piano, if I recall correctly). I must have picked this up before I realized how much information it was, and it must have been presented smoothly. I have a new appreciation for music teachers, particularly mine for all the pedagogical gulfs I’m finding in adulthood. I can’t even remember how and when she presented this information to me.

Don’t schools teach “every good boy does fine?” as a matter of habit anymore?