Another question asks about the Meaning of 1/1 and 1/2 beneath pedaling marking near some sustain pedal markings. It looks like they are used to specify a particular amount of pedal to use while playing the piece. Is there a trend in music notation to be increasingly prescriptive in an attempt to cause the performer to create the exact sound imagined by the composer?


of or relating to the imposition or enforcement of a rule or method.
"these guidelines are not intended to be prescriptive"
synonyms: dictatorial, narrow, rigid, authoritarian, arbitrary, repressive, dogmatic

Source: definition of prescriptive in Oxford dictionary (American English) (US)


4 Answers 4


What a great question! From an early historical standpoint, I can think of several cases where this has happened. I'd be interested in more answers, and especially later historical examples.

In the Middle Ages and Renaissance, accidentals were often not notated, with the composer relying on the performer's knowledge of musica ficta to provide the correct pitches. Ornaments were also not typically notated, and were left to the performer's taste; there are treatises from the time (e.g. Silvestro Ganassi's Opera intitulata Fontegara) on how to tastefully improvise ornaments and other elaborations (called divisions).

Starting in the Baroque era, there was an increasing trend to write out at least partly ornamented lines (though much was still left to taste). However, articulations and dynamics, while occasionally indicated when important, were often left unmarked. On the other hand, there was also the creation of basso continuo, which took a relatively non-prescriptive, improvisatory approach to accompaniment.

Beethoven was one of the first composers to specify precise tempos in terms of metronome beats (e.g. =120), rather than a general feeling (e.g. Allegro, Andante...).

Edit: I think Jazz probably provides a good modern counter-example, where there is an incredibly non-prescriptive notation. You might be given a lead sheet with chord symbols, and expected to decorate the melody line, substitute chords, and improvise various fills and counter-melodies on the fly.

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    Just wondering if the OP has seen any Boulez... May 30, 2014 at 18:25
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    (+1) There are some outliers though. Not so extreme as jazz or renaissance music, but for example Canto Ostinato by S. ten Holt is quite anti-prescriptive. (Anti used on purpose. Ten Holt opposed prescriptivity in music (to some degree) according to the preface in my copy.)
    – 11684
    May 30, 2014 at 20:29
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    +1 Caleb: just want to mention that precise notation is taught in most universities for composition as to lock down the intent, no surprises for either the performer or the composer. At the same time, composition professors are very aware of stochastic or aleatory practices and are very willing to assist in notating the best way to 'cut it loose'.
    – filzilla
    May 30, 2014 at 20:42
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    I am not sure why this answer has gotten so many up-votes. It does not answer the question at all. It mostly relates historical practice of not writing things down - the exact opposite of what the OP initially asked. There is little information here - no mention of Boulez, Berio, Ravel, Ferneyhough, expansion of the orchestra / harmonic language, futurism, Varese, Xenakis, Schwantner, Rouse, or any other contemporary composers. I am just wondering here...are people actually reading before they up-vote? May 31, 2014 at 5:18
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    I wrote it, and I'm as baffled by the upvotes as you! I admitted as much in my first paragraph, that I wanted more relevant and later examples. May 31, 2014 at 5:22

Music notation is presciptive. Generally speaking, if you see a note on the middle staff line of a treble clef, and there is no key signature, you're expected to play a B, and not something else, like a B# or A. So the pitches and time values are quite clearly prescribed. The remaining squabble, then, is whether other things are to be prescribed, like dynamics, tempo, strictness of tempo, and such. But these aspects of notation are no more or less prescriptive than pinning down whether a note is B or C; they just concern themselves with different aspects: those of style.

If the bulk of the content of some music consists of its style (so that it is barely recognizable if not played in a certain way), then its notation needs to capture those elements.

For instance, the notation for playing some particular "indie rock" song might include the exact guitar stomp-boxes to use and in what order, and their precise settings, with less of an emphasis on whether the right notes are played.

  • My perception of the "squabble" was which elements are reserved to the performer as elements of interpretation, vs elements of the composition. In particular, depth of pedaling on a piano seemed to me to be beyond the purview of the composer. May 31, 2014 at 2:51

In the context of sequenced (electronic) music the answer is clearly yes -- if you consider the computer files that define the music to be the score, then they are fully prescriptive in a way that exceeds what is possible with standard notation. For many electronic artists the line between composition and performance is pretty much erased.

  • (+1) This is a great point! (At least until you get into the realm of realtime algorithmic composition...) Jun 2, 2014 at 14:35

While Beethoven has been mentioned as a milestone for "prescriptive scores", but Bach is actually already quite prescriptive as well. As an example, take the prelude from Partitia III for unaccompanied violin. The manuscript on the third to seventh line uses beaming in a very concise manner to specify the string changes to be employed for the passage (starting with a two-string pattern, and later using a three string pattern) consequently determining the positions and fingerings as well as the basic bowing technique.

It is interesting that this score can be played on lute or guitar in a quite analogous manner, again putting the voicing information in the beaming to good use even though the fingering turns out quite different due to the different string tuning. It works comparatively badly on single-manual keyboards and so-so on dual manuals.

At any rate, the manuscript is giving quite more information than the pitches and durations to play.

Bach is known to spell out a lot of ornaments instead of leaving them to the discretion of the player.

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