The very act of composing music requires an artist to notate their ideas so that others can perform it. Whilst this statement is a generalisation, it is safe to say that the majority of the time notation is the foremost way for composers to communicate their ideas. A pitfall that I believe can be an enemy to composers and music in general is the obsession with the act of writing notes on paper, which can distract us from the very basis of what music is – sound. To be clear, I notate my ideas so I don’t forget them and can expand on them, but that is after I know they sound good.

We had a composition master class this week at the Melbourne Conservatorium and were asked to notate musical gestures, without the aid of any musical instrument or computer – in fact, we didn’t even sing the gestures or hear them – except in our minds. While I do appreciate the class and am thrilled to be learning from a composer with far more musical experience than myself, I believe that this method is as detached from music as is humanly possible.

Beethoven (may he rest in peace) notated from his mind in his later years, but that was because of the tragedy him going deaf. Why should we abscond from using a vital sense if we don’t need to? As composers, hearing is our most important tool and to neglect it is, in my opinion, not helping anyone’s musical development. William Walton has stated that he could compose without the aid of an instrument and told the world (quite humbly and honestly) about his inability to play the piano as well as he would have liked to. Walton was a musical genius, this is undeniable but I am still having trouble seeing the use of composing without hearing, it is like trying to paint with your eyes shut.

We were asked if we would use the gestures we created in a composition and many of the class said that they would, but I would place a bet on the fact that 80% of those gestures sounded different to what they had imaged and tried to produce. The fact is that most people’s aural skills are not as perfect as they would like to imagine and it is almost a smug and exclusive way to think of music. By placing emphasis on the act of writing, we are neglecting the most important aspect of music, the primal question we must ask ourselves – does it sound good? Why notate it if it sounds bad and why become trapped in the look of notation as opposed to the sound of music.

Musical gesture without aid of sound

Of course notation must be legible, easy to read, succinct, and an accurate visual representation of the sound but that is all it is – a visual representation of sound.

Before the development of western notation, Gregorian Monks would learn an incredible amount of chants by rote, passing down the musical information from generation to generation. That is in part why notation was invented – to take away the mental strain of learning a ridiculous amount of information, information that could become skewed from years of passing on versions of the original. Think of when you play a song from memory for years and go back to the original score to find that you have been omitting a slur or other musical device that may seem trivial, but is actually part of the original version. Now imagine that you passed on your version to a pupil and your pupil in turn passed their version on the next generation of students. The original piece has become a faded memory and is subject to the way each person remembers it. Musical notation then, in essence, is a way to make sure that the integrity of the original is held in place.

I am convinced that becoming obsessed with notation is detrimental to composers – at least it is hazardous when in the early stages of musical exploration. Don’t get me wrong, notation is vital to uphold the integrity of our ideas, but is a tool that comes later in the creative process. To rely on nation in the early stages of composition is relying on our visual sense, a sense that is not related to how something sounds. What pleases us about music is the fact that we like the way it sounds – not the way it looks. Sure, looking at a well presented score is like looking at a fine artwork, it visually pleasing and mentally stimulating but lacks the same effect as hearing the music. Most common people wouldn’t cry or feel uplifted by simply looking at a score, they may be but that is because they already know the sound that the visual representation is communicating (or have incredible aural skills).

People who aren’t composers or musicians know what they like the sound of and care little about the way it looks, so composers who want to reach a large audience and speak to people in way that is only possible through music need to realise that visual representations for performers are the last thing the audience is thinking about – they only care about the emotions that listening to music gives them.

To conclude with this train of thought, notation holds the integrity of our music and makes expanding on complex ideas possible. The general public does not care about the visual representation, they care about the sound, so don’t become trapped with the pen and paper and dismiss sound. Sound is the most important aspect of the craft and notation follows as a means of documentation, a visual recording of our music. Always have legible and well notated scores but only write them after there is something worthy of writing down.

Thanks for reading and stay creative! 😀



  1. Notation is a very important part of my production method and especially, if a composition becomes complex there is no other way than to notate it properly. Regarding your statement, that a notation is not much worth without a sound I have to disagree a bit. In my opinion musical notation is like written words, a book. You can read it for yourself and while reading it imagine how it sounds, or you can read it loud (with a sound-modul or live playing) for your own pleasure or for an audience. I admit honestly, that I am wether William Walton nor Mozart, but to a wide extend I can imagine how something will sound, when I see the notation. Of course my imagination is limited, so I could not imagine how a complex orchestral work of Ligeti will sound, but for an example with a Mozart piano sonata I am fine. The same is true regarding my own attempts to compose something: I could write down a simple melody, bassline and chords and would know how it sounds, but I could never orchestrate something without an audible feedback. When I am away from home and the muse is kissing me I grab a simple piece of paper, draw five lines and a clef and notate it.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you so much for your valuable feedback, heartscore! I have to agree with you that when ideas become more complex, notation is essential. Very true that a Mozart piano sonata is much easier to hear (internally) than a more densely orchestrated piece, I feel the same way. I think that everyone has a different way of processing music. I read through music like a book too – the solo violin works of Bach remind me of speech, like Bach himself were there telling you the story of his life. I do write ideas down, much like yourself but I tend to have played them first, instead of just being able to notate without hearing. I think that you have a great skill if you can write straight from your brain without the need for an instrument and respect the amount of musical training you must have done to achieve this.

    Once again, thanks so much for the thought-provoking comment – I had hoped that someone would feel strongly enough about this topic to comment.

    Stay creative! 😀


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