Does Music Notation Matter For Electronic Music?

does music notation still matter for electronic music

Does music notation still matter for electronic music?

That’s one of the questions that is raised by a new ‘manifesto’ at the Noteflight blog. Noteflight, if you’re not familiar with the company, creates browser-based music notation software.

In his manifesto, Noteflight President Joe Berkovitz argues that, in spite of all the changes in technology, traditional music notation is as relevant as ever:

Notation remains the loosest, freest, most improvisation-friendly form in which music can be captured.

I am personally in love with the looseness and freedom that notation allows. Even our most complex masterworks contain vital room for the performer to move: a written piece can be played and interpreted in an infinity of ways. If it’s a classical piece, the tempo, dynamics, phrasing and many other aspects are fair game for the performer. If it’s a jazz, rock or folk piece, the choice of notes is left open too. Notation isn’t really music: it’s a set of ideas that can be spun out into infinite musical possibilities. Possibilities are really cool.

By comparison, audio is a frozen, static record of something that was played once. You can remix it, resample it and apply effects to it, but its musical DNA is a done deal. An audio recording contains the same ideas that could be written down in notation, but the recording is already telling you, “this is how it sounds.” In contrast, a score asks a question: “how could this sound?”

While Berkovitz argues in favor of “looser” communication of music, an over-arching trend in electronic music has been to give you greater and more immediate control over sound.

You’ve now got the ability to:

  • Inexpensively record and effect sound;
  • Create an ever-expanding range of sounds;
  • Manipulate sound with more precise, even ‘microscopic’ accuracy; and
  • Reliably control and communicate sound digitally.

Berkovitz argues that ‘audio is frozen’ and, as a result, limited. While there are obviously benefits to being able to “freeze” audio, static results are not an inherent limitation of electronic music.

If electronic musicians want to introduce aleatory elements into their music, it can be done algorithmically or through performance options.

And the growth of interest in things like turntablism, controllerism and live remixing demonstrate that recorded music can be a platform for improvisation just as easily as traditionally notated music.

Berkovitz’s manifesto seems to, in effect, argue against electronic music, beyond the idea of electronic instruments.

While I agree with Berkovitz that notation still matters, its importance has been marginalized. For example, it’s fairly routine for composers to create large scale works, such as soundtracks, without the use of traditional notation.

Even in the area of music education, traditional notation is challenged to capture and communicate current performance practice.

Ultimately, knowledge of notation is a valuable skill, but much less valuable for most musicians than it once was.

What do you think? Is traditional music notation archaic or is it the best way to keep music ‘living’?

Image: Horia Varlan

50 thoughts on “Does Music Notation Matter For Electronic Music?

  1. I think notation is still useful especially to gt down ideas quickly. I can't carry a keyboard laptop and interface, so if I have an idea I'll write it in full notation. Plus notation is when trying to gain a more organized and coherent idea of what you want to create. Some people are able to get by fine without it but I cannot.

  2. As someone heavily into electronic music, and who first got into music in high school choir. I have to say both are valid. I don't use classic notation in my electronic compositions, although since I use a tracker (Renoise) it can be argued that it has it's own type of notation in terms of instrument & note placement. Perhaps because unlike the centuries that traditional notation had to standardize, electronic music has no set standarization because there are so many ways of doing it., and it's still in flux. At least the turntablists are taking a stab at it:

  3. While it’s perfectly easy and common to create music without notation, the language of how we communicate music theory to each other is vital! Anyone can fiddle some knobs and make sound, and often that sound is very cool. But it takes a knowledge of music theory, applied and practiced consistently over a long span of time, to achieve anything beyond simple fiddling. That knowledge has to be recorded and transmitted somehow, and notation is it.

    That being said, there are many things traditional notation doesn’t encompass. For instance, many guitar techniques are not accounted for, which is why tabliture was created. Standard notation can’t indicate that a player should hold one note, bend another up by a step and a half, bend yet another by half a step, and tap the harmonic an octave above, all at the same time. Standard notation doesn’t have a way to indicate velocity on a keyboard, or many other parameters necessary for the input/play of much modern music. For this reason, I believe notation should be viewed as a tool for primarily transmitting the language of knowledge, and not be expected to accurately describe any piece of music created.

    1. Xtopher – great points.

      Don't you think that the music of composers like Hans Zimmer, Vangelis or Danny Elfman, who aren't trained in traditional notation, goes beyond 'simple fiddling'?

  4. Is this really a debate? It is like writing a manifesto about hammers, and how they're still relevant, by a company that makes hammers.

    Um , ok. Hammers are useful. Screwdrivers are too. It isn't a zero sum game.

    I'll give them credit for attempting to stir up controversy to drive traffic to their product, though.

  5. The turntablist notation is fascinating.

    Electronic music performance is so varied now, though, would learning TTM, or other alternative notations, translate into anything useful for monomists or even digital DJs?

  6. joe – I think your right that there's definitely a benefit to having knowledge of traditional notation.

    I just think that the benefits are getting smaller. Playing Devil's advocate a bit, in the example you mentioned, a lot of people would sing the melody into their smartphone or even record it with mobile music apps.

  7. I believe entirely that when composing long pieces that aren't neatly patterned, notation is an incredibly powerful tool for seeing the overall progression of a piece. Coincidentally I was just thinking of Jean Michel Jarre's music as an example where this would be helpful (for me anyways, I don't know if he used notation) because I was listening to Equinoxe VII… and it matched up perfectly to the scratching in jasonmd2020's link… straaaange, anyone else notice this?

  8. I understand that in order to create the 'Oxygene' live performances, someone carefully scored all the original parts. What notation isn't, is a stumbling-block to anyone who wants to make music and it's always been thus. What it is, is a very useful way to allow people to play complex pieces of music together. Generally, a soloist in an orchestral concerto will know what they're playing themselves by heart, by they time they play with the orchestra in a concert. The rest of the orchestra – plus the conductor – are generally to be seen reading from their parts of the overall score.

  9. "By comparison, audio is a frozen, static record of something that was played once" – um, wrong.

    This might seem obvious but – notation is relevant if you prefer notation to document your piece or whether notation is required play portions of it back. If you don't it's not relevant at all. Obiously music theory and music education is important, but for the art and science of composition it just depends on the composer.

    When I was doing custom composition and syncing to picture, I would only bother with notation if I had an artist who required it to give me a performance to use in the piece (like a classicaly trained vocalist). That's just me though.

    Luckily there is a wide variety of possibilities to accomodate all of us wheter it be paper and pencil, or sequencers.


  10. "By comparison, audio is a frozen, static record of something that was played once" – um, wrong – things have moved way beyond simple clip launch and into expressive synthesis in real-time with controllerism.

    This might seem obvious but – notation is relevant if you prefer notation to document your piece or where notation is required play portions of it back. If you don't it's not relevant at all. Obviously music theory and music education is important, but for the art and science of composition it just depends on the composer.

    When I was doing custom composition and syncing to picture, I would only bother with notation if I had an artist who required it to give me a performance to use in the piece (like a classically trained vocalist). That's just me though.

    Luckily there is a wide variety of possibilities to accommodate all of us whether it be paper and pencil, or sequencers.


  11. Let's put it this way: What would you share if you wanted others to perform (not just play back) your music? I don't think notation is avoidable as long as the performance involves more than just manipulating pre-recorded material

  12. I personally love Elfman's compositions and think he's quite smart to collaborate with an orchestrator like Boingo guitarist Steve Bartek to translate the score in such a way that it's can be performed by musicians who prefer notation.

  13. There's definitely a continuum of situations where you may or may not benefit from knowledge of notation.

    Berkovitz's Manifesto, though, suggests that notated music offers more possibilities than electronic music.

    My take is that it offers different possibilities.

  14. I'd share the recording. There are plenty of players who can listen to a piece, pick out their part, play it exactly, and or put their own spin on it. I saw blind pianist Nobuyuki Tsujii in Boulder recently who won Van Cliburn – no notation obviously. Again if I had a situation where the player needed notation, I’d create it – but it’s not an inevitable conclusion.

  15. @tomvalusek

    I stated in the article that "knowledge of notation is a valuable skill". But, if you agree that technology is giving you more power as an individual to manipulate sound, it follows that your dependency on others to manipulate sound for your is reduced, and so is your dependency on traditional notation.

  16. "ignores so much performance practice" – I agree, the premise ignores the value of those who can play by ear and have so much performance and produciton experience that they can replicate what they hear in a recording.

    And by the way, I can't believe I got sucked into this thread – lol.

  17. Mark – Agreed. I assume that Zimmer and Vangelis end up doing some of that, too.

    But is the value that someone like Zimmer, Elfman or Vangelis bring to a soundtrack found in transcribing parts or in the musical thought that they do with their computers and synths?

  18. The latter. I'm humming one of his melodies now from a film I've not seen in 5 years and I couldn't tell you what instruments where in the arrangement :^) I will say that there is extreme value in the division of labor in the process for those who don't record their musical thought in notation form.

  19. Well, you can share music in two ways – as a recording, meant primarily for listening and enjoying, and as a "recipe" for others to give them means to reproduce your music in their way (a.k.a. interpretation).

  20. FYI – Peter Kirn has weighed in on the topic at his blog, Create Digital Music:

    Kirn summarizes his views like this:

    "Viewing the world of sound through the grand staff is limiting, and for certain sounds, anachronistic. But to cease to view music through any kind of representation whatsoever would mean abandoning musical thought itself."

    Kirn's take is an interesting read – but I would not agree that the rich history of musics (ie., Indian classical, West African) that rely on oral communication, rather than written, are without musical thought.

  21. @tomvalusek

    The need for traditional notation depends on whether you limit your concept of music to the Western classical tradition.

    If you think more broadly, most ensemble musical traditions, including West African music, Indian classical music and Indonesian gamelan music are oral traditions.

  22. One thing that comes over very clearly in Peter Manning's textbook on the history of electronic music is that, in the days when the only recording medium was straight-to-disc, the French and German schools spent so much time trying to develop schemes of notation for free-form electronic music that they hardly ever managed to get around to composing anything, because the only general medium for disseminating music was performance.

    Having a notation that merely represents "a set of ideas" for interpretation and improvisation is all very well, but it may well fail to represent a sound or structure that tweaks the emotions of the listener. I have a recording of Elgar's "Nimrod" by Andre Previn and the London Symphony Orchestra that raises the hairs on the back of my head every time I hear it – the power, the control – and several other excellent recordings of the same piece that completely fail to move me in the same way. (I could give similar references to moments in electronic pieces, but "Nimrod" is probably more universally recognized.)

  23. And as usual I come in late…

    I'm a bit surprised no one mentioned midi yet (or maybe I overlooked it). With talk about 'recordings' I'm more inclined to assume audio recordings. Then again; a midi file only goes so far anyway…

    But in general I think this will always matter. If you want to share a piece of music while making sure the other party can understand it (no matter what his native (written) language is you'd use music notation IMO.

  24. I cannot understand the reason why so many people argue against notation, it is as if somebody did the same against written word. I mean, learning to read takes some effort, but it is not that difficult, and it is a useful skill. Of course we have audio books, YouTube, and phones, but being illiterate is hardly an asset. We have plenty of examples of cultures with a strictly oral tradition, but for some reason they happen to be the most prone to having large chunks of their history lost in oblivion .

  25. There's just one teensy stumbling block in all of this, namely that unlike the piano, the synthesizer will most likely never reach a "stable," "mature" point. You can describe all of the dynamics of a piano readily, but how could you possibly approach a unique sound from a 20-year-old synth that requires 3 more LFOs than anything you have on hand? You can always present notation simply, but outside the basic filter and ADSR envelope settings, trying to impart the full and often weirdly-detailed character of an electronic sound via alphanumeric symbols alone is a tidal wave of a job. IMO, that's why "electronic" music will generally remain a rogue that will defy comprehensive notation. Its a total off-road vehicle from its roots on up, heh.

  26. While I'd tend to agree with the post's suggestion that notation is an important skill, but getting less important, I do think that the essence that makes music raise the hair on the back of your head isn't in the notes and may not be something that can even be notate. But it is something that gets captured in recordings.

    There are just limits to what you can practically notate.

  27. Great to see so much discussion flying around this topic!

    Maybe it’s inevitable that any strong opinion gets even stronger opinions read into it. A few clarifications on my piece:

    I was expressing my love of what notation offers, but I see it as just one component of the musical world, and not at all an “essential” one. I myself compose and improvise by ear, and only transcribe what I hear so other people can play it.

    And when I say that audio is frozen, I’m not referring to interactive electronic works or apps that work with audio material to spontaneously generate new sounds (by which definition, even Noteflight would count as “frozen” since it plays audio samples). I’m referring to the vast sea of static recordings that constitute the everyday stuff of our musical culture, for most of us.

    1. Joe

      Thanks for the feedback.

      Electronic musicians probably push the limits of traditional notation more than most musicians. Does Noteflight offer tools to handle the issues raised by electronic music?

  28. I see what you are trying to say, but it's mistaking the map for the territory.

    Don't mistake "transcribing" for "knowing music theory". I play guitar, keyboards, and sing, all very well, but my sight reading of traditional music isn't very good at all. Furthermore, I would be a disaster at trying to transcribe anything beyond basics. But that hasn't stopped me from delving deeply into understanding music theory and applying it over the years. I expect most people here have much the same experience.

  29. I don't use notation (so far anyway) in my Electronic music. But, I think it should always be available as an option. I'm now heavily Electronic. I used to be an opera singer. I think it would be sad not to include the ability to notate music parts or arrangements. In a way, I think the notion of saying that notation is irrelevant is basically a way of saying that music made without electronics is irrelevant. I don't think that will ever be the case, especially if there's a sad day when the electric goes out! There is a place for all and any instrument, and there must always be a way to communicate musical ideas. Electronic purists might disagree. Many Acoustic instrumentalists might scoff at the idea of incorporating Electronic elements in their music. But for those of us Electronic musicians who either enjoy playing live, came to Electronic music from a different background, or who want to communicate with musicians who generally aren't 'plugged in', the ability to notate music has to be available. Communication is vital as is flexibility.

  30. So everything that's not musical notation is really musical notation.

    And if it's not actually written down, it can be thought of as musical notation.

    And if the music exists only in your head, it's still musical notation, because you've got synapses in your brain that are a form of written musical notation.

    Makes complete sense to me!


  31. Peter –

    Thanks, as always, for the comments.

    Your very broad (even nebulous?) concept of notation strays a bit from the focus of the article – traditional music notation and its importance to electronic musicians.

    The area of alternative notations, though, is definitely interesting and could use more discussion. As you note on your site, there are many ways of communicating musical ideas that go beyond traditional musical notation.

    I'm also interested in the limits of what can be expressed in traditional notation – and whether traditional notation effectively limits what you can express musically. What does it mean to notate something for synthesizer, for example?

    I hope to hear more from you the topic of notation and electronic music, here or at your site!

  32. Fungo

    Good point – it seems that the more electronic your music is, the less suited traditional notation is for expressing it. For example, how do you notate the knob-twiddling that is the core of acid house music?

    There are definitely ways you could do it, but it probably wouldn't be notation that trained musicians would immediately recognize.

  33. Well, traditional notation is not so useful in *electronic* music, as usually it is self-contained and no one else is going to try to replicate your stuff exactly with their own equipment. At most you will just give someone your stems or Ableton project (a sort of notation, I guess) to play with or remix. And you don't need to write it down for yourself later, because it already exists, well, electronically.

    I do play keys in a lot of bands, though, and find it helpful to have a pad of music paper to jot down riffs or song forms for recall later. It can also be helpful when sharing a new composition with a group of musicians, even if you don't expect them to stick to it strictly – it can be a good way to sketch out the idea so they have somewhere to launch off from.

    Of course there are always electronic 'ensembles', that can probably benefit from some type of 'score' to guide the group, but maybe a Stockhausen-esque score that's more of just a visual outline would be more useful. And then of course, if you're writing for a classical/orchestral player, it's a handy skill to be able to notate traditionally. A lot of those types, as talented as they may be, are often dead in the water without something to read in front of them.

  34. I don't see how reading the music notation for lute or ood would show anyone "how to play those instruments", and it certainly wouldn't teach you what those instruments sounded like. A recording of the sound of a lute or ood might just inspire one to make the instrument – if you knew what one looked like!

    Like shorthand, notation has its uses – powerful ones – but it isn't the final product.

  35. Some pioneer composers of electronic music (like Stockhausen in the EARLY 1950s – funny "notesheets" by the way) tried more or less to eliminate the element of suprise in interpretation – while soon (re)discovering the value of variability…

    It totally makes sense to divide the essence – or "idea" or "sheet" – of music form the actual interpretation. But the idea to make music WITH recordings goes back to musique concrète…

  36. There was a question about whether standard notation is limited in its uses for electronic or other non-traditional settings and about Noteflight’s support for going beyond these limits.

    I would answer immediately, “of course it’s limited”, and Noteflight makes little effort to transcend these limits. we address the core use cases of standard notation, which is ambitious enough right now to carry out in the cloud based, social manner that we’ve chosen.

    I am a big fan of invented, alternative notations. I can’t but help thinking that for more experimental electronic music,these are the best choice and I would like someday to explore tools for “meta notation” that allow the artist to invent their own symbolic vocabulary for music. Morton Subotnick has suggested some very interesting ideas along these lines.

  37. It really depends on the genre. For more melodic types of music notation can be useful. But notice that a lot of electronic music is heavily based on effects and resampling, things that can't be put into notation. I bet you an electro producer could get by fine without knowledge of music theory. I've never had any real music theory training myself and I've been producing for about 3 years.

  38. This discussion has gotten rather silly.

    Traditional music notation completely fails when it comes to most electronic music, where the elements that make the music what it is are things like unique sounds and effects and how they change over time.

    Take dub music as an example. Where do you think notation comes in and what would it capture?

    Don't get me wrong – music notation is important and useful. But anybody that thinks that it's an important part of most electronic music production is out of touch.

  39. I see this post, and so many commenters, arguing against a point that Joe never made.

    The quoted section of the "manifesto" is simply pointing out that if you were conducting a symphony or running a jazz band rehearsal and instead of working from a score and parts you played everyone a recording, then (assuming all the players could get the correct pitches and rhythms by ear) you'd be communicating literally *everything* about how the song should be played. An audio recording is an unchangeable record of a moment in the past when a piece was interpreted a certain way.

    What I'm sure Joe was trying to say is that notated music presents your ears with nothing but the sounds in your own head. It's the same as reading a script versus seeing a play or TV show where all the choices have been made. Or on a non-entertainment level, it's like giving someone a map with the destination marked, as opposed to driving them there yourself.

    And in that regard I entirely agree that notation is a beautiful thing. I feel this point takes absolutely nothing away from synths, dub music, effects processing, MIDI or any of the other things mentioned here.

  40. I came across this page while doing a search for “synthesizer notation standards”. I’m performing a Donald Erb piece called “Reconnaissance” this weekend. It was written in 1961, and is generally regarded as the first major composed piece involving synthesizer. The instrumentation is violin, string bass, piano, percussion, Moog synthesizer and polyphonic instrument (a story for another time). It’s dedicated to Bob Moog. I’m using Arturia’s vurtual modular system, only because the conductor didn’t want 5-10 minutes between movoments while I built the patches from scratch.

    Anyway, the biggest obstacle I’ve faced is interpreting Erb’s programming specs. Here are the notes for the fourth movement: “Sawtooth or bell-like sound”. “Filter pitch” (???). “5” delay”. “Drive with another sound system set very high”. Excuse me, but Whisky Tango Foxtrot?

    This is a classic example of the need for notation. About half the score consists of specific keys to be played at specific times, and these are notated on the grand staff. The other half is more like sonic events, and here’s where the problems start. Movement 1 talks about “KB and LIN controlling OSC 1”. I worked for Moog as Artist-in-Residence for 7 years, and I’m not sure what LIN means (I’m pretty sure it’s a ribbon controller). If we had standards for this, we could guarantee more accurate reproductions. The only other person who’s performed this part is Michael Tilson Thomas, and, oddly enough, he’s not returning my calls…

    This is why we need notation. It’s a small fraction of what gets performed under the umbrella of “electronic music”, but it’s important. Back to the search…

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