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I am interested in the question of how musical notation has influenced human musical creation, especially in a "restrictive" way.

In particular, are there some kind of musics which are not easily expressed in modern musical notation (in this case, are they expressed better in another system)?

This can also be answered from an historical perspective: has musical notation introduction influenced the kind of music produced in a restrictive way?

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    Probably far more in the opposite direction. At least ideas could be written down and shared with other players. Interpretation? Rather like reading a story - the reader always has the option to put a slant on what's written
    – Tim
    Dec 16, 2023 at 10:29
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    You might need to qualify that further… what percentage of music was only written down by someone else, after the fact, and was never intended to be notated at all.
    – Tetsujin
    Dec 16, 2023 at 11:47
  • @Tetsujin - modern example - Left Bank Two, recorded by a few session musos, who didn't bother to write out the chart or dots.
    – Tim
    Dec 16, 2023 at 12:10
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    I'd say, notation has restricted composing less than the limits of expression of musical instruments available to the composer, and less than the expectations and acquired tastes of audiences. Dec 16, 2023 at 18:11
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    One of the biggest twists here is that musical notation has never fully "constrained" the actual musical product, since so much of that product is not represented in the notation. The performer is the other link in the chain, and depending on the genre, they add 20% or more to what's on the page, decisions about dynamics and articulation on a much more granular level, note-by-note or even during a note, as well as nuances of timing, all of which would be cumbersome to dictate in writing. Dec 16, 2023 at 19:43

8 Answers 8

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I would like to formulate my answer in the way of a counter-question: Does script restrict your verbal expression?

Yes, because it does not indicate the timbre of the voice in your head writing it.

No, because it is left up to the interpreter adding their timbre and their notion of the sound to get over to the audience.

So, at last, what notation actually does is have the creator let go of precision and leave more creativity to the performer that can be the composer themself as well as any other person.

With today's and tomorrow's means you could easily render music literature in any way you like. Want to render a sonata by Beethoven in base-tone-sensitive just temperament? Go ahead. Want to separate motifs and themes by assignment to different voices and panorama positions? Feel free.

The limits of performance are the limits solely of your head and means that you are accustomed to. These limit you more than notation ever could.

Low side note: You do not need to ask respect of traditional musicians if you make up and go your own way. Do it but do not show too early.

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  • Nice one. This reminds me of every score I've found on the Musescore website that insists they use the "such-and-such" soundfont - this sure isn't anything they can put down in sheet music notation.
    – Dekkadeci
    Dec 17, 2023 at 14:11
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    Those darn soundfonts just WON'T listen to themselves and balance like real players do, will they! Yes, having meticulously optimised playback using one soundset it must be frustrating to hear it all go awry when rendered by another.
    – Laurence
    Dec 17, 2023 at 14:39
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Notation should not constrain creativity at all. I do not compose with notation. I use notation to communicate with others and to remember what I was thinking so long ago that I cannot remember it clearly (like last September or this morning). I get an idea then I can notate it with the usual notational methods (it's flexible) or add some sidebars.

Similarly for mathematics or programming. I get an idea of how I want things to work then jot down the ideas for later. I can formalize things at leisure.

Letting notation hold one back is no different from letting procrastination hold one back.

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Composition as musical creation

Notation does not need to hinder music composition, and, throughout history, new notations have been created to achieve certain musical goals. As one example, consider Erik Satie's first Gnossienne. Standard western music notation creates a bias toward more or less strictly regulated, metrical music. However, Satie wanted a freer expression of how his piece progressed through time, so he omitted both time signature and bar lines and used the standard notation to specify relative durations (longer, shorter), but not strict ratios (2:1, 3:1). The piece could have been notated in standard 4/4, but this would have implied restrictions Satie did not intend.

Satie Gnossienne #1, line 1

Performance as musical creation

What notation does limit is the expression of music as envisioned by the composer. Imagining that a composer has some Platonic ideal in mind, the representation of that ideal is inherently limited. A composer can indicate forte, but how loud, exactly, is forte? The composer might well have a specific volume level in mind — in the idealized music – but for Beethoven, say, the technology didn't exist to notate volume in decibels. And even with that technology, how would one notated the exact nuance within the note itself, or between notes. This is why, after several centuries, the same music can be recorded time and again, using the same notated source yet sound different every time.

An exception to the limits of notation

There is, perhaps, an exception to this. If we consider the grooves on a vinyl record or the encoding of an MP3 as "writing" – and there's a perfectly valid case for this – then an "ideal" notation of the music can be created up to the limits of human hearing.

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I’m going to go out on a limb here and make an assumption. My assumption is that by “notation”, you mean having the ability to notate music, which would usually go hand in hand with knowing a certain amount of music theory and tonal harmony.

Based on that, I am going to say that it COULD potentially constrain creativity but it depends on the individual. Some might acquire that knowledge and start thinking only within the confines of what they learned, which will allow them to be creative but only within a certain set of guidelines. Others might acquire that knowledge but still allow themselves to be creative outside the realm of music theory and harmony.

A parallel might be two people who learn a language. One becomes adept at writing grammatically correct sentences and paragraphs but not much else. The other has that same ability but can also write free verse poetry.

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In the era of making music on computers, the notation and performance became the same, as the performer is a computer, a machine with none, or very little capability to interpret the notation artistically, and to add anything that the composer didn't bother to write explicitly. While the possibilities opened by the computers are limitless, writing some things is easier than the others, and this shaped the music of the last 3 decades. Several examples came to my mind.

  1. No dynamics of individual instruments. While most MIDI notation software allow to notate dynamics and often other common articulations, it requires extra work, and lots of music doesn't use it at all. The function of dynamics of a single instrument is often replaced by more extended instrumentation.

  2. Metronomic timing. Again, most MIDI notation software allows to place the notes off the time grid, but as it is less straight-forward, it's often not done at all, or done only in an automated, repetitive way.

  3. Downbeat of the accompaniment is rarely syncopated, especially at the beginning of a longer phrase. This is related to MIDI notation, but even more to building the accompaniment out of loops aligned to the grid. Anticipating the first note of the loop is possible with most software, but it requires more work. It's striking to notice how much the popular music was syncopated in the '80s than in the '90s.

This list can go on. Please don't take it as an old person complaining about new music. It's just an observation of how the present notation technology affects the creativity.

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  • It seems that less popular music of the 21st and late 20th centuries escapes all your points above significantly more often. Concert band and orchestral music easily evades #1. Kirby-series music, at least by Jun Ishikawa, has some of the least metronomic timing I have ever transcribed - even music as innocuous as the "Milky Way Wishes" credits theme has issues snapping onto the grid, while the solos in his boss themes are absolutely nightmarish to accurately transcribe rhythm-wise. Count on Ishikawa to still provide syncopated basslines, too.
    – Dekkadeci
    Dec 18, 2023 at 16:37
  • Crush 40's music in the Sonic series also has a tendency to change accompaniment chords in sync with the melody instead of the beat, which makes the accompaniment syncopated, as the melody often changes on Beat 4.5 in 4/4-meter music.
    – Dekkadeci
    Dec 18, 2023 at 16:41
  • @Dekkadeci I'm not sure what point are you trying to make. Dec 18, 2023 at 17:38
  • @Dekkadeci user1079505's answer to which you seem to want to disagree is clearly introduced saying it refers to computer-aided music so the hint about 20th/21st century where music was largely performed the analogue way is somewhat misleading. Dec 20, 2023 at 7:10
  • @musiclanger - You have a point about my counter-point for #1, but video game music is very much computer-aided and played by computers instead of humans, so my counter-points for #2 and #3 still stand (at least for Jun Ishikawa).
    – Dekkadeci
    Dec 21, 2023 at 6:26
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Okay, I guess this is not really an answer, more of speculation. I started to write it as a comment but then it got too long.

It would take a weird approach for someone to think, I don't know a customary way how to write this, so I'd better not use this cool sound in my piece at all. What people are more likely to do is either invent some way to write it down, or simply play it without recording that particular element in writing, in which case you're still not worse off than without any notation at all. So if anything, notation may limit what information would be preserved (and replicated in later performances of old works), but I doubt it would restrict the creation process.

Yeah, it's a finite system, and as such it does have limits somewhere. But those are not set in stone, and if anything, the possibilities of what it's able to record are gradually broadening with time, not narrowing. Notation (any kind - staff, tablatures, chord sheets...) isn't a taxative list ordained by a dictator that nobody is allowed to veer out of. It has evolved for the very purpose of accomodating whatever the author needs to include. Same as with writing systems (see how various languages have added their own diacritics to the alphabet to suit their needs, punctuation and even letters?), mathematical symbols, map signs, and so on. With a paper and pen, you could draw whatever new symbols you thought of.

With the shift from pens to software (extremely recent from history's point of view), including new symbols in your editor takes programming skill that few have (and that's assuming the editor is open source), but if you really want to, you still can, say, export your score into a graphic program and add them there. It won't play back at you automatically, but surely we're not at the point where we'd think music has to be synthesised midi, now are we. (Now excuse me while I skip off to play my newest song that I might or might not bother to write down sometime in the next year on my very acoustic guitar.)

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  • This is interesting. The more I read the answers the more I'm convinced that the notation doesn't really affect directly the creativity. It may affect it indirectly though, through education: musical theory can turn people off music and influence who is doing music in the end, hence affecting the musical production
    – Weier
    Dec 16, 2023 at 16:48
  • @Weier The only way where I think notation does affect creativity is for works that are too complex to work on from memory - but again, its role there is facilitating, not restricting. For simple pieces... well, all I write down of my songs is lyrics and chords, and I habitually get around to doing it in a matter of months. I have been told that I should make lead sheets, but so far I haven't got very far with it, and some of those songs are over twenty years old. Notation is hardly going to restrict me when I don't bother with using any in the first place.
    – Divizna
    Dec 16, 2023 at 20:41
  • The one place where I imagine creative options may be limited is if one is composing for midi - say a game soundtrack or something. Other than that, I can't think of anything. But I really have no idea what one can and can't do with midi, so maybe that isn't an issue either.
    – Divizna
    Dec 16, 2023 at 20:50
  • @Divizna game soundtracks haven't been MIDI for more than 20 years now, because of the limitations of writing for an unknown GM synth.
    – ojs
    Dec 17, 2023 at 10:20
  • 1. MIDI is so full of features now that you can write a file that could do anything that I could play. I agree, MIDI is only as good as the software instruments interpreting it and anything worth using is probably a multi GB sampler which probably wouldn't sit too well alongside a game with demanding graphics. ||2. On memory... I recorded anything and everything on whatever I had, I once used the rhythm from my refridgerator motor. You can't capture with pen what you could with an audio file, if you can play it that is haha
    – yarns
    Dec 21, 2023 at 11:46
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Yes. But if you really push the point to its logical conclusion the only constraint free "notation" is either a recording of a performance, or simply admitting that no single performance can ever be reproduced exactly the same way twice.

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Notation obviously allows creativity to flourish. For example I could work out a good melodic sequence which could be captured by notation. If I relied purely on memory there is a greater risk of forgetting how the line went. By documenting new ideas I can move onto developing further connecting ideas,

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    I think if it were that obvious to everyone, no one would have wanted to ask this question. Dec 17, 2023 at 0:03

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