Cambridge Abstract

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Cambridge Abstract
Terence Charlston: Seen but not heard? Music notation and
performance interpretation.
Music is an aural experience closely connected to verbal communication and
found in most human cultures.
While modern western ‘classical’ music conveys musical ideas through written
notation, it is important to remember that fundamentally, music exists only in
sound. Music notation uses visual symbols to indicate pitch and to convey
events in time. It has evolved over at least the last thousand years into a
relatively sophisticated form which is widely used and understood today. As a
means of conveying the more subtle nuances of performance, however,
music notation is imprecise and often misleading. In the absence of a living
aural tradition, as is the case in ‘classical’ repertoires from before the age of
sound recording, the conversion of such notation symbols back into sound
must remain open to question and re-interpretation.
In earlier times performer/composers disseminated their works either within a
closed circle of connoisseurs or wrote tutor books to enable others to better
perform their music. With the advent of music printing a wider market could be
reached but with an ever greater danger of misinterpretation.
This paper will examine the reliability or otherwise of a number of notations
from the 17th to 19th centuries and consider some of the problems which
manuscript and printed book traditions pose for the modern interpreter.