Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Does music have an alphabet?

We all learn the alphabet at school and are quite used to the idea that just twenty-six letters and a few punctuation marks are enough to communicate the wildest stories and can easily evoke the most vivid imageries and delicate feelings. The question is: can music also be reduced to an alphabet as effectively and meaningful as language? Can it be reduced to a set of discrete symbols with which the essence or meaning of music can be captured?

In some sense it is a rhetorical question. The presence of music notation shows that it is at least partly possible. But how close to our experienced, mental representation of music actually is music notation?

And that’s the other rhetorical part of the question: I would argue that music notation (as we know it) has little to do with music listening. While very useful for some purposes (e.g., sight reading or as a set of instructions of how to perform the music), as a reflection of the listening experience it fails miserably. This is why researchers like Marie Louis Serafine and Jeanne Bamberger often stressed the fact that music notation is merely an ‘after-the-fact’ notion of music, not to be taken too seriously: notation is as informative to listening as a cooking recipe is to tasting.

[More on the same topic in Dutch]


  1. Great to read your blog on music cognition!

    Just a comment on a statement you mentioned (not necessarily subscribed) in the related Dutch article. Namely, the statement that symbolic descriptions are inadequate reductions of music because they fail to capture the ‘Oohoohooh’ aspect of music.

    Of course common music notation (or MIDI, for that matter), with its representation of music as a sequence of pitches in time, leaves no room for more holistic properties of the music. But that is just one example of a symbolic description system for music. Symbolic representations of music could take very different forms. We can use symbols to denote anything, and that includes any deep emotions that Billy Holiday's ‘Oohoohooh’ invokes. And as we learn more about how such emotions relate to other aspects of the music, be it more basic and quantifiable, or more contextual and diffuse, we may accordingly add relations between symbols at different levels of description.

    Continuous/numeric/sub-symbolic representations have the advantage that they (hopefully) retain all holistic features of the music, not just the ones we designed a symbol for. But as long as we don't know which property of such a representation (let's say a sequence of numbers to be interpreted as a dynamics curve) corresponds to the holistic feature of the music (let's say the invokation of a deep emotion), this feature is not effectively represented.

    The battle of symbolic vs. non-symbolic is not over yet :-)

  2. Thanks for nuancing this posting. The challenge is in finding alternatives to both (stereotyped)representations.

  3. As a classical musician, I find that while the 12 letters that make up the alphabet of this language are not PERFECT, they certainly are ENOUGH! The human psyche, with its propensity to IMAGINE and dramatize what is written, tends to provide what is missing (depending on the musician).
    And just like a book (or better yet, a PAPER) is dependent on the READER's ability to visualize or imagine what the author means, so too does OUR audience have to make some similar effort.
    But as a professional performer, I would be remiss if I DIDN'T try to manipulate our "musical sentences" like a Shakespearian actor. I LEAN on certain secondary dominant chords like a conjunction. I lighten up on the final resolution of a phrase like I'm ending a sentence. Harmonic tension, i.e. the notes, TELL me how the music should "taste".

  4. A score fails as a representation of a musical experience just as much as a can of Pepsi does. A score is but the representation of a musical performance . As for musical experiences, can we really represent them? The question is way too broad.

  5. Thanks for the input. Indeed, “a score fails as a representation of a musical experience." That is the main point of the authors cited. With regard to the possibility to represent them: that is an interesting epistemological question, and not too broad at all.