Encoding music


Encoding music

Cambridge University Library Music Department is taking part in the Cambridge Science Festival on March 12. Encoding music is an exciting drop-in event for all ages.  You can explore the evolution of music notation through the ages, following a trail through the library which culminates in an interactive music event in the music reading room. Does notation (data) need specific knowledge to (re)create sound? Come and find out…


William Alwyn’s flute

Our journey takes us from East Asia to the Western world and from the mind of the composer to performance. We ponder the question of music notation and knowledge starting from the library’s collection strengths, show some of our treasures, both manuscript and print, and look at signs and symbols used in a range of different notational systems. Music wouldn’t be music without actual sound, so musicians will demonstrate what we need to know and do to turn signs into music. Last but not least, visitors will have the opportunity to play and notate music.


Snippets of various music notations

Music notation can do many different things. Some sytems, such as our current modern staff notation, aim to give as much information needed for performance as possible. Other systems leave scope for interpretation and improvisation, or use notation simply as a prompt to remember what was being taught orally. There are systems that use signs representing actual tones, whilst others show the positions of the fingers on the instrument. Some systems use visual symbols, others use letters and numbers. What they all have in common is that they have grown out of a specific social and cultural context and that we need to know and understand context, conventions and codes in order for music notation to lead us to the actual musical sound.

Look at Randy Raine-Reusch’s graphic scores for instance. Without the instructions that accompany the scores and an understanding of the concept behind the music we might very well be at a complete loss when looking at these works. We have similar challenges with, for example, early Western music notation. Take a look at this beautiful 11th-12th century manuscript of the Carmina Burana (BSB Clm 4660). To the untrained eye, it might be difficult to interpret or even recognize the neumes for what they are, but when we learn to decipher them we end up with  superb music.

The world of music notation is simply fascinating so do come, explore and join in…


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