The purpose of Music Notation and Theory

I talk a fair bit about the connections between music and engineering, and a discussion on Hacker News came up about one of my favorite points. I’ve adapted my comments here.

Classical musicians are overwhelmingly taught that their art form is about reproducing the notes, dynamics, and composer’s intention as accurately as possible. This is mistaking the finger for the moon. Music, of any genre, is never about reproducing the notes and dynamics accurately. MIDI does that, and the day we can create historically informed MIDI we will have it perfected.

Music is the spontaneous communication and individuality that occurs while reproducing those notes and dynamics and intents. Genres differ in which dimensions of freedom the musician can use, but not in that fundamental objective. In classical music it’s what makes it worthwhile to hear different interpreters of the same piece. It’s why people join the 10 year waiting list to see Wagner in Bayreuth, when arguably the greatest rendition of The Ring in 100 years (Solti, Vienna, fight me) is available relatively cheaply everywhere.

If that’s the case…

  1. Encourage your classical friends to break out of the mindset of “cooking the recipe the master chef made exactly.” Audiences complain that classical music is sterile and doesn’t speak to them, precisely because this mindset is so common among all but the most elite performers. Also, notice that NO elite performers approach their musicianship that way. As Ansel Adams said, “craft facility liberates expression.” The point of learning all this technique and theory is to give you the tools to express yourself in music. Mozart’s notes are only the vehicle.

  2. Satisfying the written note, the theory, and the historical practice, is not making music. They’re simply there as tools of communication between musicians, to describe recurring patterns we hear. Otherwise we’d be forever saying things like “Beethoven 3, it’s the one that starts with that thing where it sounds like it’s going to end but really doesn’t.” Calling it a “deceptive cadence” or even a “surprise chromatic sixth” is just way easier and lets us operate on a higher level of abstraction. It’s the same way “dependency injector class” tells you about a given chunk of code, and lets you reason about its place in the larger structure. Further, a great engineer isn’t defined by their ability to reproduce a textbook dependency injection class, but rather by their ability to adapt the concept of dependency injection in the right places and times.

I think it’s a common mistake, especially in classical music, to think about musical traditions as rooted in clear rules and numerical relationships. It’s analogous to thinking that language is rooted in clear rules and structures.

The truth is just the reverse, the rules, numbers, and structures are rooted in music. They exist to describe an organic, emergent cultural mechanism that is continuously changing. Ask yourself: which came first, music or theory? Language or grammar? There are plenty of musical styles with no formalized structure or numeric relationships, just as there are plenty of languages with no formalized structure or even spelling. Grammar and music theory/notation are fingers pointing at the moon, and we are looking at the finger.

When we try to engineer systems to help people point at the moon, we should be focused on the finger. Musical structure and numeric relationships are the way people communicate about music, and the tools should speak their language. Unfortunately they then have to grapple with the painful inconsistencies in that language and those structures. Computer music comprehension has problems analogous to computer language comprehension - emergent complexity so high it took neural nets to finally achieve real utility.

PS - it’s true that Western music has, near the bottom, some relationships that were mathematically derived by none other than Pythagoras, among others. Relationships of fourths, fifths, octaves, and equal temperment all had numeric justification… But that justification was still only there to describe the practice which had already become common, an explanation of “why this sounds harmonious” as well as a proscription for “how to sound harmonious”. That some rules are internalized by some generations and broken by others illustrates exactly the problem with the system.

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