just imagine Mozart , Brahms , Schoenberg , and the like sitting down and dissecting the same Bach fugue that I ’ m working on in my apartment late at night .
Not only does this link us to prolific composers and a rich musical tradition , but that piece of sheet music is the most direct link that music historians have to the mind of Bach . However , this glorifying of music notation can be detrimental . If we place too much importance on the score , we risk narrowing our understanding of music . While there is a lot to be learned from analyzing music scores , musical notation is a language , and like any language , it has its own limitations . When taken on its own , the western musical score is only a visual road map of a piece of music , not a one-to-one representation of a musical experience . If we want to get the full picture of a piece of music , we have to analyze the score in conjunction with other sources , like piano rolls or audio recordings .
The Musical Score as a Direct Link to the Composer For nearly a millennium , European and North American composers have used music scores to shape the western ear to the textures and modalities of common-practice period music . From Bach to Beethoven , Mozart , Chopin , and Brahms , composers of this era are revered for their ability to understand the boundaries of the western tonal system and find new ways of pushing those boundaries in musically aesthetic ways .
But here in the 21 st century , when we listen to these same pieces of music , we ’ re only able to capture a glimpse of these composers ’ full musical visions . While we may have heard renditions of Liszt ’ s “ Hungarian Rhapsody ” played by one of the many piano virtuosos of this century , perhaps even on a period-appropriate instrument , we will never know what that piece would sound like if Franz Liszt himself was sitting in front of you at a piano . For music from this era , the closest thing that we have to the composer ’ s pure vision is the musical score . Understandably , in many academic and conservatory settings , these musical scores carry with them a lot of importance , not only as a means of learning , analyzing , and reproducing the music , but because they are the most direct link that we have to these important composers .
Music & Math : An Analysis Without question , there is so much we can learn from analyzing a score . The harmony and compositional form of a given piece of music are laid out in a visual and logical fashion that allows us to easily dissect it . I ’ ve always found that dissecting a score is a very similar process to solving a math equation . This association between music and math is well documented and it ’ s why a lot of us musicians are good at math .
When it comes to western art music , there are two composers that come to mind when discussing math and music : J . S . Bach and Arnold Schoenberg . Known for the intricate and interweaving voices in his fugues , Bach ’ s music is still one of the most studied musical bodies of work to this day . The relation between voices in his fugues is the pinnacle of counterpoint and to fully grasp the vastness of Bach ’ s genius , we really have to analyze his sheet music like a mathematical equation .
The second composer is Arnold Schoenberg , who is most famous for the invention and use of the 12-tone row . In this atonal compositional style , Schoenberg moves through all twelve tones in the western tuning system before repeating any single note . This series of 12 tones can be reversed , inverted , or transposed . It can be played melodically or harmonically and can move throughout many voices in a given phrase . Much like Bach ’ s fugues , an analysis of the score is essential if we want to truly appreciate the work of Arnold Schoenberg .
Score as a Written Language Schoenberg was well aware of the importance of the score . He believed that the performer was “ totally unnecessary except as his interpretations make music understandable to an audience unfortunate enough not to be able to read it in print .” This really speaks to the prestige given to the score in western art music .
While the majority of musicologists understand that the score is only a portion of music analysis , there are still many who place a disproportionate level of importance on the score . As mentioned earlier , this glorification of the musical score can be detrimental to our understanding of music as it is a written language ; a translation of a sonic experience , and like any language , there are limitations to what and how much it can convey . If we were to analyze any given score based on “ musical vocabulary ,” we ’ re not likely to see more than six to eight different types of time demarcations . Similarly , we ’ re not likely to see more than six dynamic markings throughout any given piece . If the goal of a music score is to capture a complex musical experience , then most of the scores that we come across are capturing some fairly dull and dry performances . That obviously isn ’ t the case , but there just isn ’ t enough depth in vocabulary to properly capture the complex musical experience . It ’ s like a very primitive language attempting to explain a profound life experience .
1820 PAINTING OF LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN BY JOSEPH KARL STIELER
These simple languages may be able to convey some rough ideas , but there isn ’ t enough vocabulary to capture a full experience . This is why when we feed a music score into computer software , the result is often very dry and unmusical . The computer gives us a one-to-one direct translation of the score which , again , just doesn ’ t contain enough information to create a captivating performance .
Open for Interpretation This idea is not new , nor is it controversial . For those of us who have studied classical music , we know that music scores are meant to be interpreted ; we are playing all of the notes that are written down , but it ’ s more like a road map than a literal translation . But how do we know how to interpret these scores ?
Aside from being able to read music , there are two aspects that help us to interpret music . The first aspect is performer individuality and emotion . What do we as the performer bring to the piece ? How do we feel that day of the performance ? When performing a particularly dramatic opera like Monteverdi ’ s l ’ Orfeo , how does a singer who is experiencing heartbreak compare to one who has never known true love ? Understandably , each performer ’ s individuality has a huge impact on the overall performance .
The second aspect that informs a performer ’ s interpretation of a score is cultural context . This aspect ties in heavily with elements of improvisation . Most composers during the common-practice period ( approximately 1650 to 1900 ) understood that their scores were going to be interpreted by musicians and because of this understanding , they often left some sections of the score more open , or in some cases completely empty , allowing the performer to improvise . Cadenzas are a great example of
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