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If you are a classical musician, then you are probably at least familiar with the way we represent music on the page. Our notation system looks like Greek to nonmusicians, and the truth is, it’s just as confusing to musicians who can play well, but can’t read music. That’s because it’s fairly stupid.
The system has evolved over the last six hundred years from an organic representation of sung phrases to something very contrived and clumsy, containing inconsistencies (3 quarter notes are allowed to constitute a whole measure…3 quarters = a whole?) and poor representations of things like syncopations and interpretive gestures. Not that it doesn’t have its strengths…its exceedingly precise for certain kinds of music. The question is, has it helped us or held us back over the centuries?
It’s my thought that people like Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven, who did so much to expand the larger syntax of music, the organization of larger phrases and thoughts, were actually pushing against the constraints of the music they were in because they wanted to express more. And because the notation system they had wouldn’t allow them to expand the smaller aspects of the music too far, they had to expand the larger ones. You can hear Beethoven trying (and sometimes failing) to create effective syncopated phrases in his sonatas, and I think the notation itself hindered him.
Even someone like Schoenberg, who took the harmonic language of music to the end of the line, did so because he couldn’t push too hard against the rigorous rhythms allowed by Western Notation. Bartok, who studied and preserved folk music, did his best to work around them as he wrote down ideas that were never meant to be notated in that way. Later on, composers began inventing new notation systems that freed them to make unheard of sounds and ideas.
What’s interesting to me is that we can look at the barline jail of our notation system in two ways: as a prison and as an opportunity. The expansive architectural structures of Western Classical music are uncommon in many musics of the world and owe a lot to Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven pushing against their constraints. Yet if those constraints hadn’t been there, they might have pushed in different directions.
It’s like one of those trees that had to grow around a bend in a wall. They do it, and the resulting shape is absolutely beautiful…a paradoxical image of a trunk, hard as a rock, that appears to flow like water around an obstacle. Sometimes the constraint, whether it is just or unjust, results in great beauty.
I may bemoan the kinds of things that hindered me in my life, things that were non-negotiable, tragedies I breathed in my childhood that were never going away, limitations in my personality that prevented me from growing the way I might have. I can also credit those things for leading me to new heights that I simply wouldn’t have attained if I’d had the freedom to avoid them. Every constraint we face presents an opportunity to examine what’s left, whether we have a choice in the matter or not, and see where it can take us.