Teaching Notation Multiculturally

Example of New Armenian Notation, developed by Hampartsoum Limondjian.
Photo of a 1922 handwritten liturgy notebook of Grigor Aghazarian, New Julfa, Iran.
https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=8158836

Author:  Eric Hung

Posted February 20, 2021

The development of notation in the monasteries and cathedrals of northwestern Europe is one of the key narratives in the Western music history survey. Implicitly or explicitly, many instructors use this technology to explain why the development of Western art music is different from those of other traditions. While many different traditions around the world have chant, Medieval and Renaissance polyphony is unique to Western Europe. Many go further and point to Europeans’ gradual transition to music literacy to justify employing a historicist approach to the Western music curriculum, and a presentist/geographic approach for “non-Western” musics. For me, this standard narrative exaggerates the uniqueness of European developments, and downplays how global the world has been for two millennia. As a quarter century of research by Peter Biller, Geraldine Heng, Dorothy Kim, Lynn Ramey and others have shown, medieval and Renaissance Europe was a multicultural trade and religious network that developed many ideas that approximate modern notions of race.

In this essay, I present an alternative way of introducing the idea of music notation to undergraduate music history students. In my module, I explore the development of notation in four different musical traditions, and ask students to think about what notation is and is not, the different reasons why musicians started approximating the sounds they produced in writing, and the impact of this technology in each tradition. My emphasis here is on helping students build their critical thinking skills, and acquire intercultural knowledge and competence. Although we will present musical examples from a wide range of cultures, I am not expecting students to analyze formal structures, or learn a lot of terms and names. As presented, this module will take two weeks—four 75-minute class sessions—to complete, and all the listening examples are accessible through YouTube, Spotify or Naxos Music Library. The module can be easily be expanded through the addition of in-class exercises and the consideration of additional traditions. If necessary, it can also be condensed into a single lecture.

Module Outline

This module is designed to introduce the concept of musical notation, and to help you understand why and how people from different musical traditions developed, used and in some cases discarded this technology.

Key Questions:

  1. What is (not) musical notation? Does notation have to be able to help you recreate a piece? Does notation need to rely on established symbols? Can notation be in prose?
  2. Why did musicians in different cultures develop notation? What purposes did notation serve?
  3. What are the long-term impacts of musical notation in different musical traditions?

Learning Goals:

  1. Develop your critical thinking skills through reading about and discussing the key questions.
  2. Develop your creative thinking skills through creating a notation of a musical/sound excerpt.

To submit at the end of the module: Notation of a one-minute musical/sound excerpt (choose one of four excerpts provided by the instructor), plus a 500-word explanation of how and why you created your notation. You can use an existing notation system, or you can invent a new one.  To be submitted before class on the first day of the next module.

Class #1: Introduction to Musical Notation; The Guqin Tradition

Complete the following in order before the class meeting:

  1. Listen to recording of a classical guqin work named High Mountain, and write down your initial reactions to the work;
  2. Read Zhang Xiaoxiao, “Guqin in Chinese Paintings.” This blog includes many visual representations of the guqin, which will give you some ideas about the main purpose of this instrument.
  3. Read Bell Yung 荣鸿曾 (1994), “Not Notating the Notatable: Reevaluating the Guqin Notational System.” In Bell Yung and Joseph S.C. Lam, Themes and Variations: Writing on Music in Honor of Rulan Chao Pian. Hong Kong: Chinese University of Hong Kong (Department of Music), 45-58.

In this session, I begin with a lecture/discussion on what is and is not music notation. I will first discuss several written tools musicians have developed to help them teach, practice and perform music. Examples include guitar tablatures, number notation systems used by Chinese musicians, and Tibetan Yang-Yig Notation. Afterwards, I discuss some tools that are not easily translatable to performance. Examples include a Schenkerian graph, scores of electronic work (e.g., Ligeti’s Artikulation) that were created after the piece is already complete, thick prose descriptions of musical sound, and spatial poetry. As the lecture proceeds, the class will try to come up with a definition of musical notation. The point is not to find a definition that everyone agrees with, but to show that a seemingly simple term can become quite complicated when one explores different musical traditions from around the world. My hope is that this discussion will get students excited about exploring the many different purposes that music notation has served around the world.

In the second half of this session, we dive into guqin music, the culture of guqin playing in Imperial China and today, and guqin notation. Among the questions we will discuss are:

  • What were your initial reactions to this music?
  • Which musical elements did guqin musicians traditionally notate, and which elements did they choose not to notate?
  • Why is guqin notation so difficult to read?
  • Is preserving traditional guqin notation central to preserving the guqin culture?
Class #2: The Development of Music Notation in Western Europe

Complete the following in order before the class meeting:

  1. Listen to recordings of Western chant by Dominique Vellard and Marcel Pérès (on Naxos Music Library), and write down your initial reactions to the work;
  2. Read Richard Taruskin (2005), The Oxford History of Western Music. New York: Oxford University Press. Excerpts from Vol. 1, Chap. 1, pp. 1-20, 26-29.

In the first half of this session, we explore medieval Christian chant, the myth of St. Gregory, and the impact of the invention of notation of Western music. Among the questions we will discuss are:

  • What were your initial reactions to two recordings?  How are they similar, and how are they different?  Which one do you prefer, and why?
  • Which musical elements did 9th-12th century European musicians notate, and which elements did they choose not to notate?  How did their decisions differ from those made by guqin musicians in Imperial China?
  • For modern musicians, which one is more useful?  Why?
  • Is learning how to read early chant notation essential to preserving medieval Christian chant?

In the second half of the session, we begin thinking for the module assignment.  We will listen to a recording of Charlie Parker’s first recording of “Ornithology.”  In small groups, the class brainstorms possible purposes of notating the improvised solo, discuss how they might notate it, and considers potential benefits and harms of creating various notations.

Class #3: The Development of Music Notation in South Asia

Complete the following in order before the class meeting:

  1. Listen to “An Introduction to Indian Music” and Sindhi-Bhairavi from Ravi Shankar’s The Sounds of India (1968)
  2. Read Richard Widdess (2014), “Orality, Writing and Music in South Asia.” Musicology Now, 19. http://www.musicologytoday.ro/BackIssues/Nr.19/studies3.php (17 pages)

In the first half of this session, we examine North Indian classical music, and the relationship between orality and literacy in South Asian music and in the musical traditions in which you participate. Among the questions we will discuss are:

  • What were your initial reactions to Sindhi-Bhairavi?
  • According to Widdess, what is the relationship between orality and literacy in South Asian music?
  • What is the relationship between orality and literacy in the musical cultures in which you participate?  How are these similar to and different from South Asian music in this regard?

In the second half of the session, we begin listen to the three possible excerpts for the module assignment.  In small groups, the class will brainstorm about what they might do for the project, who their target audiences might be, and what existing notation systems (if any) seem useful for what they want to do.

Class #4: Notating Hip Hop

Complete the following in order before the class meeting:

  1. Watch DJ Rob Swift at the 2009 DMC World Finals
  2. Read Felicia Miyakawa (2007). “Turntablature: Notation, Legitimization, and the Art of the Hip-Hop DJ.” American Music, 25(1), 81–105.

In the first half of this session, we explore the history of hip hop DJs, and why some began to notate their performances.  Among the questions we will discuss are:

  • What were your initial reactions to DJ Rob Swift’s performance?
  • What are the potential benefits and downsides of the notations and notation styles presented in Miyakawa’s article?
  • For the DJs discussed in Miyakawa’s article, what is the relationship between orality and literacy?  How is it similar to and different from the relationship between orality and literacy in South Asian music and the musical cultures in which you participate?

In the second half of the session, we will meet in small groups.  Each student will discuss their progress on the module project, and get feedback from their classmates.

Additional Resources
  • Kwok-Wai Ng 吴国伟 (2011), “Orality and Literacy in the Transmission of Japanese Tōgaku: Its Past and Present.”  Ethnomusicology Forum, 20(1), 33–56. 
  • Floris Schuiling (2019), “Notation cultures: Towards an Ethnomusicology of Notation.Journal of the Royal Musical Association, 144(2), 429–458. 
  • Henry Stobart (2013), “Staging Sound: Acoustic Reflections on Inca Music, Architecture and Performance Spaces.” Flower World, 2, 11–35. 

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