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8 bars: Notation and Improvisation

This is the sketched-out notation of a melody I was working on the other night. (The focus is not right, I can't seem to take a picture of the page in focus; not sure why. The unreadable text is "slow walking tempo" and "(let ring)" -- the Ⅴ-shaped symbol above the staff I think means to stress the marked note; in any case this is my intent where I've marked that symbol.) An interesting aspect of writing this out was trying to justify writing it out, trying to explain to myself why it's not a waste of time, what's useful about it...

Writing the melody out ends up being useful to me as a way to let myself improvise -- my favorite thing to do when I'm practicing is to take a short melody and repeat it with variations. I had been trying recently to improvise the melodies "from scratch" but the problem I run into is not being able to keep them in mind long enough that the structure of the melody repeats among variations.

While I was thinking about this I got a message from Vance Maverick that he had written out a transcription of the recording which I'd posted on YouTube. (The images of my and Vance's output are linked to the YouTube video.) The recording is my eight bars repeated three times with variations, plus a measure of intro and one of outro. Vance's transcription is the full 26 bars. This is fun: he has transcribed what is in many ways a completely different song than what I wrote out -- what is certainly a more readable, more accurate representation than mine of what's on the tape -- but which I would have a hard time using to produce what's on the tape.

There is a metric rule we both followed, which makes the notes on the page different from "what's on the tape" -- we both represented metrical values as eighth-notes throughout the song regardless of whether or not they're swung. And as Vance points out neither of us writes out the double-stops -- I think of these as a form of improvisation on top of the written melody -- or is precise about writing out the occasional flat fingering that slides up.

I'm fascinated and impressed by the notion of being able idly to jot down the melody one is listening to -- I am not at all fluent in musical notation, producing it is for me a very clumsy, mechanical process. I'd love to get better at it.

posted morning of Thursday, January 20th, 2011
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Think of music notation as another language (it is, and you are amazingly fluent at language learning). Or think of it as a puzzle (again, it is, and you are quite adept at puzzles, always have been). It's a shape ---- see it flowing up and down the staff, like a water way or drawing. You can quickly draw the outline/shape while listening, and get the details on a second or third pass.
If you work at the details right up front, notation tends to bog down and become quite unwelidy, no fun at all.

posted afternoon of January 20th, 2011 by mom

Thanks mom! I'm also experimenting around with existing melodies, seeing what kind of variations I can work into them.

posted evening of January 20th, 2011 by Jeremy

There are, I think, different kinds of scores, just as there are different kinds of writing and drawing: rough sketches and finished scores. Because of my recent involvement with Victorian dance, I've had to look very closely at a published 1890s score, and I was surprised at how specific and detailed it was. Things I would have thought were left to the discretion of the player were instead notated in detail. I decided, finally, that that score was written before recorded sound, and was the only record of that song, so the composer wanted it as detailed as possible.

If you need to produce high-quality finished scores, you might take a look at MuseScore. I'm not sure how it does for rough sketches, though.

posted afternoon of January 22nd, 2011 by Randolph

Hey, glad to see this. Yes, there's a great deal of variation in how specific a score may seek to be. And in writing this down I was well aware that I was "over-notating" -- my background is classical music, where the performer's freedom of invention was more and more tightly constrained from the 18th century onward, reaching a kind of negative degree of freedom in postwar 20thC music, some of which was so rigorously notated that no player could hope to execute the pattern intended. (Beginning with Feldman at least, the trend relaxes.)

There are lots of scoring packages out there. I still don't think any of them is more efficient than doing it by hand, but they do approach the print standard, if for some reason you need to.

posted evening of February 5th, 2011 by Vance Maverick

Thanks -- efficiency and print-standard-closeness are sort of the last thing I am looking for in a means of transcription frankly; what I want is the æsthetic pleasure of the act -- so in a sense, the longer it takes to do the better in purely utilitarian terms -- and as long as I can read it myself, and am able to copy it into abcedit or whatever should the need arise, it can look crappy.

posted evening of February 5th, 2011 by Jeremy

Efficiency is a reasonable goal, I think -- in terms of the number of hours of one's time required to reach an adequate result. ("Adequate" meaning readable, I think, not pretty.) If I'm writing one part, doing it by hand is quicker than with any notation system. But if I were ever again to write a multi-part piece, calling for a full score as well as separate parts, software would prevent the kind of inconsistencies (a missing beat in the clarinet part) that wasted time back when I did such things by hand.

(FWIW, I'm attracted to LilyPond, but haven't given it a serious try.)

posted afternoon of February 6th, 2011 by Vance Maverick

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