The Case Against Over-notation:

A Defense and a Diatribe

By Kyle Gann

Edgard Varese was perhaps the first to routinely attach several expression markings to one note in his scores. A single trumpet note, for example, can have an sf followed by a diminuendo, a p, a crescendo, and a sfff. Henry Cowell reports that Varese was contemptuous of composers who did not fill their scores with expression markings: "They do not know how they wish their music to sound," he said.

That practice eventually spread throughout the contemporary music world, and so did the contempt that goes with it. In today's music world, and for the last 30 years, a plethora of expression markings has been regarded as a sign of professionalism in a composer. Composers who mark every note in their scores with slurs, constantly-nuanced dynamics, and articulation markings, are professionals: they know how they wish their music to sound. Consequently, scores that do not bristle with such markings are evidence of a composer who does not know how he wishes his music to sound, someone who did not learn his craft, someone who is an amateur.

This argument has a certain scientific rightness about it. We assume that the composer holds or develops in his or her head an image of how a piece is supposed to sound. The more a composer works, the more detailed that image is likely to become. The more experience a composer has working with performers, the more adept he or she will become at communicating every intention, no matter how minuscule, to the performer. After all, the composer knows better how the piece goes than the performer, right? And so the more every nuance of a performance is determined by the composer, the better it will be.

And yet, in another way, this premise flies in the face of common sense. Look at the manuscript of any Prelude and Fugue by J.S. Bach: where are the continually changing dynamics? Where are the slurs, the articulation markings? Where are the crescendos and decrescendos? Why, Bach must have been an amateur. He didn't know how he wanted his music to sound. (If you want to object that the Well-Tempered Clavier was written for clavichord, an instrument that precluded dynamic nuances, then look at Bach's manuscript for the famous Chaconne for violin: not a dynamic marking in evidence anywhere.) Today's professional, of course, has a ready-made answer to this: Bach lived back in the dark past, before notation had been developed to a science. We can forgive him his naivete, for he was born too early to benefit from hundreds of years' worth of development of music notation and composition.

Of course, if we follow this argument to its inevitable conclusion, we reach the result that today's heavily notated music is better than Bach's. If more specific notation represents progress, and progress is by definition a refining process resulting in a better and better product, than the composers like Milton Babbitt and Mario Davidovsky today who mark every note in their music must be making better music than Bach did. I'm sure there are a handful of people who actually believe this. They should get out more.

I've also heard another argument from the professionals: we all know how to play Bach's music because there is a long and fairly continuous history (except for an unfortunate 79-year gap between 1750 and 1829) of Bach performance. Everyone knows how Bach's music goes, so it doesn't need so much in the way of notation. But modern music is an unfamiliar language, and performers need plenty of slurs, dynamic markings, and so on, to show people how it's supposed to go.

I own several recordings of Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier. In one, Edward Aldwell plays the D-sharp Minor Fugue from Book One in a sad, mellow, soulful legato. Glenn Gould plays the same piece mechanically, almost clocklike, with a crisp staccato. I love both performances. In some moods I would rather hear one, and in other moods the other. I'm glad that both exist, for diffracted between their diametric diversity the D-sharp Minor Fugue gains depth and multidimensionality. That it sustains such different readings makes it seem more universal.

But by our scientific paradigm above, only one of those interpretations can be right. Which one? Isn't it tragic that Bach didn't have at his disposal the expression markings that would have glued down the D-sharp Minor Fugue once and for all eternity, laminating it into a specific emotional expression? Isn't it tragic that we don't know precisely how he played it, the tempo, the volume and energy level, the phrasing, the amount of rubato?

On the contrary, I believe that the example proves that our scientific paradigm stinks to high heaven. I believe that the D-sharp Minor Fugue exists as a set of inexact relationships between pitch and rhythm. And I believe that Bach, having conceived these relationships and written them down, completed his job. I believe that he quite correctly left to the performer what is the performer's job: to manifest those relationships in sound, to take responsibility for the sonic details, and to find an interpretation that will make the spirit of the piece sound true and convincing, even though there are many possibilities as to what that might be. I believe that the D-sharp Minor Fugue is more than any one of its individual performances, and therefore to theoretically admit validity to only one possible performance is to diminish it and needlessly limit its significance.

Wherefore, then, do I embark on this diatribe, which only leads me, after all, to what seems a rather mundanely obvious, common-sense conclusion? Because the scientific paradigm above, and the philosophical stance it takes toward a work of music, is widely brandished as a power weapon, and used as such to marginalize, and diminish the role of, composers who don't subscribe to it.

In the 1960s, a new style of music appeared which departed from the Varesian approach to notation. In works like Drumming and Music in Fifths, Steve Reich and Philip Glass wrote little if anything besides pitches and rhythms - just like old J.S. Bach. Since then, there has been a widespread return to a looser and less specific style of notation, for many, many good reasons. And yet, in the award-giving and commission-granting sectors of the music community, heavily nuanced notation is still reflexively equated with professionalism. Composers who sit on panels have admitted to me that, when a score comes through that doesn't contain new dynamic markings in nearly every measure, with interpretive crescendos and decrescendos and slurs and verbal directions, it is automatically tossed into the rejection heap. When one can see at a glance that the composer isn't "professional," there is no need to waste further time trying to discern the work's content.

The assumption these composers make is that a professional composer knows exactly what his music should sound like and takes it upon him- or herself to communicate that in great detail. But even J.S. Bach aside, there are many, many drawbacks to this paradigm. Composers who do not overload their scores with markings often have excellent reasons for not doing so, reasons that they've thought long and hard about, reasons central to their most deeply cherished beliefs about music. Let's look at several of those reasons:

1. Many composers reject the idea that their music should have only one possible detailed representation.

2. Notation is incapable of expressing every iota of a composer's intentions.

3. Many composers today write in musical styles in which the music's meaning does not flow from continual nuances.

4. Many composers appreciate the opportunity to rely on the performer's instincts.

5. Clarity of expression in music renders detailed expression marks superfluous.

6. Composing music is not a profession.


1. Many composers reject the idea that their music should have only one possible detailed representation. The first to rebel deeply against this idea was Charles Ives. He urged the performers of his piano sonatas to play them at different tempos depending on their moods and the time of day. He even appended different versions of certain measures so that the performer could have a choice. Though few composers of notated music are as extreme as Ives in this respect, many have inherited something of this attitude. I would hate to live in a world in which only one interpretation of the D-sharp minor Fugue or Concord Sonata was allowed.

George Gershwin's "Summertime" has been sung and played in every conceivable manner. At the other extreme, Milton Babbitt's Philomel exists only in one incarnation, and may not even be repeatable in performance, so intimately is it based on Bethany Beardslee's voice. Between these two extremes, there are many comfortable positions. Not every composer would want the vast liberties taken with his or her music that Gershwin's "Summertime" is subjected to, but it is something of the measure of the sturdiness of a piece of music that it can withstand and benefit from varying interpretations.

In fact, to go deeper into this cliche, the idea that to compose means to create a detailed sonic representation in one's imagination is a superficial one, and generally a fallacy. A piece of music, from its composer's point of view, is not merely, or primarily, or necessarily at all, a sensuous, sonic entity. For most composers, the parts of a piece of his or her music exist in some logical relationship to each other: a motive and its variations, a theme and its repetitions, a rhythmic structure and the various means used to manifest it. The logical structure of a piece can be stretched in one direction or another without necessarily being deformed. Intelligently stretched, the meaning may even become clearer. There may be major composers (Debussy comes to mind, although I don't believe it was really true in his case either) for whom the sensuous aspect is so predominant that every decrescendo, every dynamic differentiation, every minuscule ebb and swell is crucial to the identity of the piece. But this is certainly not true of a Bach fugue or a Beethoven sonata, in which the composer's desire to make certain formal relationships evident vastly outweighs the fluid nuances of a particular performance. For some composers, writing a score can be like writing a novel or play. In a novel, word order and logic are crucially important, but they only partially determine the kind of expression one could appropriately bring to the novel when reading it out loud.

In much music of an experimental character, in fact, the essence of the piece may lie in the logical process through which it is composed, and the actual sonic result may be as much of a surprise to the composer as to anyone else. In such a case, it would be artistically ludicrous for the composer to go through and shape every nuance via notation, when such nuances weren't at all essential to his or her own mental image of the work.

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2. Notation is incapable of expressing every iota of a composer's intentions. Every composer whose music shows any originality knows, from rehearsal experiences, how inadequate even the most meticulous notation is to get across one's feel for a piece. We have no way to represent on paper the momentum of a particular tempo, the nature of an energy level. We have all had experiences in which the tempo was exactly right but the energy all wrong, while someone else might play the passage at a slower tempo but get the energy perfect. Notation can be misleading: you put staccato dots on notes, but there are different kinds of staccato, and the performer may use a Prokofiev-style staccato when you were looking for something more subtle. Ultimately there is no real substitute for the composer being present, and in most world premiere situations, the composer is present. After your music has been performed for awhile, and there are recordings, an oral tradition of playing your music grows up, and people play it a certain way because they know how it goes. Notation, no matter how explicit, cannot substitute for this process.

This is why most of the world's musical traditions, including jazz, Indian music, Balinese music, and many others, will not teach music through notation: because teaching by oral transmission and demonstration communicates a composer's ideas far more subtly and perfectly. The composer-choregrapher Meredith Monk (winner of a well-deserved McArthur "Genius" Award) refuses to use notated music in rehearsal, because it fails to convey all the nuances she wants in her vocal lines, and it causes people to play or sing in a cold, calculated manner. Rampant expression markings are an attempt to fill in the gap left by the absence of direct oral transmission, but carried to an extreme they rob the music of even more spontaneity than if the performer were left to his or her own devices.

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3. Many composers today write in musical styles in which the music's meaning does not flow from continual nuances. In fact, the heavy use of expression markings is tied to a particular conception of music, a conception that carries with it the conceit of the sounds being delicate, precious. Everything proceeds in gestures; wisps of sound crescendo out of nowhere and diminuendo back al niente, the musical continuity always starting and stopping. The sound is supposed to be in constant flux, always either working up toward a climax or moving away from one. This delicate, precious aesthetic has little in common with most of the world's musics: medieval, African, Asian, vernacular, jazz, or anything else. There is no reason at all that the delicate aesthetic should enjoy a privileged paradigm according to which composers should notate their music.

In welcome relief to the precious, detailed type of music, minimalism reintroduced an aesthetic of greater stability, in which a single volume level, or energy level, is sustained for a longer amount of time. Not only do audiences not necessarily object to a piece being the same dynamic level for 15 or more minutes, there is plenty of evidence that the mesmerizing stability of such music is a pleasure to revel in. Accordingly, dozens of younger composers of the postminimal and totalist variety have taken to writing music in which the meaning flows, on a detailed level, from the interaction of pitch and rhythm, while dynamics and energy remain more or less constant. This is not evidence of amateurism, but a very conscious strategy. Morton Feldman quietly created a revolution by notating at the beginning of his scores, "as soft as possible throughout."

One young postminimalist composer I know was told by her Uptown composition teacher, "We're not getting enough detail in your music; everything's painted with a large brush." But while there is plenty of evidence that loads of detail in a score make it more impressive-looking and likely to win awards, there is no evidence at all that audiences love listening to music with loads of detail. The desire for detail is the 20th-century update on the 19th-century academic fallacy, according to which 19th-century composers deluded themselves into thinking that what audiences wanted to listen to were intricate fugues. Few of those pompous late-19th-century fugues are listened to today. In fact, I would suggest that Beethoven's success was largely due to the fact that he put very few subtleties in his music.

Related to this is the inadequacy of traditional notation markings for new technological media. Especially when electronic instruments are mixed with acoustic ones, relative dynamic markings of p, mp, and so on do not do an efficient job of securing balance. A three-note chord on a synthesizer is automatically three times as loud as a one-note chord: how are conventional dynamic markings to deal with this purely quantitative approach to volume? Often such balances must be worked out in rehearsal with allowances made for the acoustics of the space, placement of the sound system, etc. It is difficult to precisely predict the correct markings for dynamic nuances in a partly or entirely electronic performance.

Historically speaking, the ubiquitous use of expression markings stems at least partly from serialist music, in which composers were trying to apply to dynamics and articulation the same level of control that they did to pitch and rhythm. Now that serialism is dead, there is no reason to cling to a characteristic that sprang from a now-dead style. Besides, at least within the system of European music notation, pitch and rhythm are primary musical characteristics and enormously susceptible to control, whereas dynamics and articulation are secondary and less easy to notate precisely. The attempt to treat them uniformly via notation was an artistic mistake from the beginning.

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4. Many composers appreciate the opportunity to rely on the performer's instincts. I have had performers throw wonderful ideas into interpretations of my music that I would never have thought of. In some cases, I have subsequently written those ideas into the score; in others, the effect seemed so tied to the style of that specific performer that it didn't seem wise to commit future performers to the same nuance. In the current day of specialization, composers and performers have different skills, and for me the results of allowing performers free rein in interpretation have far outweighed - well, I was going to say the disadvantages, but I can't think of any.

Actually, the disadvantages come only from performers who are primarily trained to play Uptown and serialist music. In my experience, musicians used to playing Babbitt and Schwantner and Druckman have a terrible time with postminimalist scores. "There are no dynamics," they say. "How am I supposed to play this? The composer hasn't told me what to do." But musicians whose repertoire is primarily 18th and 19th-century music find little-marked scores much easier to negotiate. They don't assume that just because the dynamics don't change frequently, that the composer wanted a stiff, bland, unmusical reading. Beethoven doesn't always tell them what to do either. They are used to the fact that Chopin's dynamic markings often can't be followed, and they don't see themselves as human computers, unable to act without instructions from the page. Performers trained to play serialist music are often so overtrained that they lose the ability to feel their way through a passage of notated music. I, for one, refuse to target my music for the overeducated limitations of that relatively small cadre of performers.

My idea of the perfect performer is Bari Mort, the pianist who played in the premiere of my "Last Chance" Sonata. At every rehearsal she'd come up with a few more interpretive ideas. A couple I dissuaded her from because I felt they departed too far from the spirit of the work (and the letter of the notation, actually). Several I liked so well that I wrote them into the final score. And several others I enjoyed because they fit so well with her playing, but felt I wouldn't necessarily like as well in other hands. And every idea came from the way she came to feel the music as she played it over and over. Likewise, the pianist Sarah Cahill has created some wonderful sonic effects in my Private Dances and War Is Just a Racket, without ever violating the notation, that I wasn't aware of having written in there.

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5. Clarity of expression in music renders detailed expression marks superfluous. In that D-sharp Minor Fugue, for example, no decent musician would ever put an accent on the third note - D# A# B - because it would sound arbitrary and unnatural. But it would be quite natural to make a slight expressive crescendo toward the F# in the line - D# A# B A# G# F# G # A#. On the other hand, some might find such a crescendo overly romantic and unstylistic, and no one should be required to make such a crescendo. It was not incumbent upon Bach to put hairpins all over his score to tell the keyboardist what emotive expression he had in mind. A good musician can tell how to interpret that piece meaningfully and effectively. And contrary to what certain professionals have tried to tell me, it's not because we know the context of Bach's music that we can do that, but because the piece is so well, so clearly written that merely by playing the written notes one gets a feel for what should be emphasized.

The practice of over-notating music comes out of a stylistic period in which music was not clearly written. Twelve-tone music and the postserial styles that followed it tended toward arbitrary structures, often making it difficult for the performer to know what kind of expression was intended. (Schoenberg had to invent haupstimme and nebenstimme markings because his textures were so expressively unclear.) Had the music been well-shaped, certain phrasings would have come naturally, and all those expression markings wouldn't have been needed. Constant expression markings are a substitute for good composing, a compensation for not having written the music well in the first place. They are actually a sign of a lack of artistry. The appropriateness of Bari's additions to my "Last Chance" Sonata confirmed for me that I had written it clearly. One could imagine, in fact, a piece so perfectly written in its pitches and rhythms alone as to render expression markings unnecessary. The D-sharp Minor Fugue is, in fact, such a piece. As Heinrich Schenker said, even if Beethoven's Ninth Symphony contained no dynamic markings, we would be able to enter them exactly as Beethoven himself did.

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6. Composing music is not a profession. It is a vocation, a calling, one demanding a daunting level of radical self-reliance. A composer is an artist, not a professional. It is the essence of a professional that he or she has met the standards of a profession. The artist meets only his or her own standards, and will inevitably be found wanting with respect to any group of collectively-derived standards. The professional deals with the world from a position of power, since he or she has been certified as a member of the profession, and therefore has collective backing. An artist always deals from a standpoint of vulnerability, since his or her own inner vision must be a new one, without certification or validation from any outside authority.

After all is said and done, it may well be that a detailed amount of expression marks does certify a composer as a professional, but to that same extent, that person is not an artist. That particular style of notation is one that universities impose on young composers like a cookie-cutter, to ensure that they all turn out to be interchangeable professionals. In the scores, however, of the great artists of the past century - Charles Ives, Harry Partch, Conlon Nancarrow, John Cage, Robert Ashley, La Monte Young - one will frequently find notation that is ambiguous, idiosyncratic, even difficult to decipher. These composers, of course, are not considered "professionals" by the Elliott Carter/expression marking crowd, but they find larger and more enthusiastic audiences than the professionals.

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I notice that on the score of a recent piano piece (Lament, 1999), the composer Ellen Zwilich has added the following performance instruction: "Throughout, whether the passage is marked liberamente or not, the performer should feel free to 'sculpt' the rhythm and dynamics for expressive purposes in order to give a spontaneous, improvisatory quality to the piece. It would be ideal if no two performances were exactly alike." This is what the professional mandates concerning notation have brought us to, the point at which even a well-known composer who wants a musically expressive performance has to point out in print the obvious truths that all good musicians have known for centuries. Imagine Chopin having to spell out that it would be ideal if no two performances of his E-flat major Nocturne were exactly alike. He would think we were idiots.

This isn't to say that there's anything wrong with heavily marking a score with expression markings. If you are artistically driven to do that, go ahead and do it. If the fluid, continual shaping of dynamics is crucial to your aesthetic, by all means express it. But there is something very wrong about using such a superficial criterion to dismiss creative artists, especially when the criterion itself is a symptom of the bald-faced ignorance of the people doing the dismissing. Varese himself may have been driven to a high degree of notational specificity by his inner artistic vision. But in the moment in which he lay down that criterion as a standard imposed on others, he forgot himself as an artist, and spoke only as a "professional."

Personally, I would feel rotten if I wrote precious, delicate music, music that could only be played exactly the way I imagined it in my head without falling apart. I quite consciously and intentionally reject the stop-and-start, gestural style of much late 20th-century music (that of Jacob Druckman being perhaps the quintessential example), which I feel sounds pompous and affected, in favor of counterpoint, rhythmic momentum, and the long line. This is absolutely my right as a creative artist. It is equally my right to reject the notational practice that makes that gestural style what it is. I want my music to be as sturdy and hard-edged and clear-lined as a good old Baptist hymn, crystal clear enough in its pitches and rhythms that the performer can feel his or her way into the piece - and that is simply my personal desire, not something I mean to impose on anyone else's music.

When I hear two different people play my music, and take very different approaches, I feel like the piece is successfully out in the world living its own life, not like I failed to pin it down sufficiently in the notation. One of my favorite passages in my own music is a page of my piano piece Time Does Not Exist that consists of uninflected quarter-note chords. There are no dynamic markings on that page, no slurs, no crescendos, only a dynamic of pp on the page before, and a single word: "devoutly." I don't want the passage played coldly and mechanically, I want it played with warmth and feeling - I know exactly how I want it to sound, and I've played it through a hundred times - but I also don't want it inflected in any particular way. Any extra mark would be a falsehood - yet without such markings, the Uptown composer panels look at that page and say, "This man is an amateur, he doesn't know how he wants his music to sound." As far as I'm concerned, the passage is notated perfectly, which is to say, with clear intentions yet with an acceptable level of ambiguity.

I look forward to the day that such ambiguity, resulting from pages uncluttered by hairpins and dynamics, may no longer be seen as a sign of amateurism, but quite possibly as a sign of musical care and intelligence. I look forward to the day in which composers have, once again, the freedom to notate their music as loosely, if they so desire, as old J.S. Bach did 300 years ago - without being penalized by the profession for doing it. No task of my lifetime have I found more difficult than this: protecting the art of composing music from the professional composers.

June, 2000

Copyright 2000 by Kyle Gann

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