The Pleasure of Writing Things Down, Part I

The title of this post is probably too oblique an homage, so I’ll mention upfront that it’s a reference to Richard Feynman’s The Pleasure of Finding Things Out.

I was recently asked by a friend, who isn’t a musician, whether I “write out all of [my] music”. He was alluding to computer notation, and was curious to know if handwritten music was disappearing. I told him that while the number of music calligraphers and traditional music engravers is very small today, music orthography in general is safe for the foreseeable future. Still, he was interested in whether I ‘need’ to do it or ‘want’ to do it, and this got me thinking about the obvious and not-so-obvious reasons why I write music by hand.

This isn’t a post decrying technology—I’ve been a Finale user since version 1.1, and music engraving has occupied a significant part of my professional life (including teaching courses in computer notation, authoring fonts, and countless hours spent typesetting). Further, it hasn’t been suggested that computer ‘engraving’ is a replacement for handwritten notation, in the sense that e-mail has supplanted letter-writing. But there are some who prefer composing with Finale or Sibelius (and I’m one of them from time to time) owing to their playback capabilities, which are particularly helpful when writing for large ensembles. (But let’s not forget that, despite being without Sibelius, Sibelius was somehow able to manage.) Finale, though, is mainly a graphic tool for me rather than a compositional one.

There’s something about the encoding of sound into music notation that has always intrigued me. Before I could read music, I was fascinated with how the seemingly incongruous glyphs and symbols I was looking at somehow represented the sounds I was hearing. And once I learned how to read music, it only amplified my curiosity, especially later on with regard to ear-training pedagogy.

Apprehending a musical gesture, either through listening or audiating, then rendering it into notation is an acquired skill. Even highly-trained ears may require several mental ‘passes’ of a musical passage before the visual image comports to the aural sensation. But the moment when the notation is recognized as being the same ‘thing’ as the sound (isomorphically), it can seem akin to something imaginary being made ‘real’. (NB: I could see how philosophers of language and of mind would take exception with that last statement. But rather than open up a discussion on connotation, denotation, and representation, I’m simply saying that a positive correlation occurs between what you’re seeing and what you’re hearing.)

To be sure, a similar experience occurs when we write down words and phrases that we are hearing or thinking, but it’s not quite the same. One of the several important differences is that the metrical aspect of music is a proportional system, which means that the same musical gesture can be notated many different ways, while their aural expressions are indistinguishable (i.e. so long as the metrical proportions are consistent, the content of the musical gesture is preserved). For example, which of the following examples is the first bar of the melody to Three Blind Mice?

Answer: they all are. This is all to say that there are unique aspects to the cognitive tasks associated with rendering music into notation, and by extension, with the act of writing music by hand.

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