The Pleasure of Writing Things Down, Part III

G. Henle Verlag Skizzenbuch, Graf von Faber-Castell Desk Pencil Nr. III. The source video can be found here—just change the .pdf suffix to .zip after it’s downloaded.

Whether it’s composing or transcribing, there are times when I’m simply trying to get the notes down as quickly as possible—there’s no accounting for neatness or for the materials I’m using. But right after I’m finished with composing/recording for that session, I start writing out more legible versions of the parts I intend on keeping. I do this not only because I want to better organize things, but because it’s another way of rehearsing through and learning the material. In fact, copying music by hand was the traditional way for a student to begin learning a piece (as well as build up his or her music library), but pedagogically speaking, that practice all but disappeared with the ubiquity of printed scores. Well, has almost disappeared.

Punctus contra punctum
At the beginning of the term, I provide my counterpoint students with printable versions of the scores they will need for their assignments. Later on in the semester, some of the first pieces they are asked to analyze are culled from Bach’s Inventions and Sinfonias, but I purposely leave out the score to Invention no. 1 from their course packets. This is because their first assignment will be to copy the score by hand in pencil, and all of their subsequent analysis work of the piece must be done using their original handwritten version. But there are some restrictions as to how they do it.

I make several xerox copies of the Bach autograph score and put them on reserve. Instead of allowing students to xerox or checkout the autograph scores, they are asked to work on the assignment there in the music library. Doing so means that a little more effort is required of them (i.e. scheduling their time around the library’s hours and the limited copies available), which in turn can have the effect of amplifying their attention to the project. Of course I have no way of enforcing these restrictions, and there are all kinds of ways of getting around them, but students usually have 3 to 5 days to finish the assignment (depending on the schedule) and most follow the rules. But in a world where seemingly any and all data are available at the touch of a finger, having to make an appointment to visit a remote location just to write something down on a piece of paper with a pencil is, for most students today, akin to a cultural cluster-bomb of foreign sensations and responsibilities.

It’s crucial that their scores be correct and complete before we start the analysis, so I collect and proofread each one. If there are problems such as missing notes or incorrect notation I’ll point out what needs to be fixed, which may sometimes require another round of proofreading, but all of their scores need to be finished and approved prior to the day we begin the analysis.

Many of the students misinterpret this assignment as some kind of busy work at first but they quickly become invested in it, and just about everyone finishes on the first try (there are always a few who resist or struggle). But by copying the score (and the attentiveness it required) students learned the piece quickly, and they noticed details that they would likely have taken for granted were they just provided a printed score (e.g. what do the notational choices that Bach himself made tell us about the motives, phrases, and form?). But equally important was how the students ended up taking great care of (and pride in) those two sheets of paper for the rest of the semester—much more so than if they were just photocopies. It’s an experience that I hope carries over into how they care for all of their music, whether it’s the notes they jot down, the parts they are trusted with, or the scores they buy for themselves.

My handwritten copy of BWV 891.

For writing’s sake
Using my current project again as an example, once the composing is finished and a recorded version of the song is completed, the next step is done largely for writing’s sake alone. With the parts very fresh in my mind, and away from my instrument, I’ll sit down and write out the entire part from top to bottom. I can’t describe exactly why I do this, but it has something to do with the fact that there are times when I enjoy thinking about music as much as, or even more than, performing and listening to it.

There really aren’t any practical reasons behind writing everything out at this point either—I have my composing notes and the part has been recorded, so there’s no concern that something might be lost or forgotten. Instead, it’s more like a summary act, one where every aspect of the work is considered, reflected upon, then rendered deliberately into its final form. The finished manuscript also differs from the other prior written work in that it is produced from a single, uninterrupted effort.

Ironically though, after the final recording is mixed and released, I usually end up throwing out these scores and sheets that I spent so much time working on—like cleaning up the scraps from a work site after the building is completed. Clearly then it’s the process, rather than its product, that carries the greater reward. But what I think it all boils down to is this: to notate the newly finished part from memory, away from an instrument and without the recording, is to experience the music in (what I like to think is) its ideal state—a cosa mentale. For the time it takes to get it all down on paper at least, the music exists as a single, indivisible thought—a mental image that can be accessed from any angle, every aspect, and all perspectives. Rendering it into notation, then, is an act of attentiveness—both toward the music itself, and the pleasure of writing it down.

This entry was posted in Language, Music, Pencils. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to The Pleasure of Writing Things Down, Part III

  1. Kenneth Goodenough says:

    Thanks Sean for these posts. I normally only notate my initial ideas, as to not forget them. But I’m planning to fully notate my latest piece, in the hopes of getting it performed someday. I´ll definitely keep these posts in mind, then.

    “(…) a cultural cluster-bomb of foreign sensations and responsibilities.”

    Nice 🙂


    • Sean says:

      Thanks, Kenneth.

      After re-reading the completed posts, there’s something further that I wanted to mention: I wouldn’t want you or anyone else to have the impression that I’m necessarily prescribing any of these particular (or perhaps, peculiar) work habits that I have—that’s not why I brought them up. I decided to try and write about them because they interest me phenomenologically as much as they do musically. So, apart from the general suggestion that learning how to read and write music is worth the effort, the rest should be taken with a grain of graphite. 😉


  2. Yes, copying can be a tremendously valuable activity. The poet Ron Padgett wrote about the experience of typing the poems of Ted Berrigan’s The Sonnets : “I remember typing the mimeograph stencils and marvelling at the poems and marvelling at how I was seeing them in a way you can’t see them unless you actually sit down and type them, almost as though you were writing them yourself.”


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.