Notating vocal music

December 30, 2010

When music students learn species counterpoint or Renaissance polyphony, we usually have them notate in time signatures like 4/2, 3/2 or 2/2, so the page is full of half notes and quarters–rarely will one see eighth notes. Since Stravinsky, composers have dropped the typical individual flag notation, common in Italian operas from the 18th and 19th centuries. These two old traditions have problems for the readers: one looks at the page and sees a forest of flagged notes or quarters flowing, uncertain exactly how many are in the group. Whereas when we use ligatures, or beams, the brain more readily recognizes groups of notes. Stravinsky’s vocal notation is all over the place: lots of 5/8-2/4-5/16 (Les Noces, Sacre) type music as well as the traditional 3/4-4/4 music (Symphony of Psalms); I don’t recall much 4/2-3/2 type notation in his scores. In this example from “Les Noces” his publisher has not yet embraced using ligatures for vocal notation, but it is there in the instrumental parts. You see him favoring the 3/8-2/8 notational choice.
noces exc

What is odd, is that in my most recent vocal chamber work, “Duarte Love Songs” scored for baritone, violin, cello and piano, three of the four movements are largely in 4/2, 3/2 and 2/2. I find that there is a “meatiness” in the sustain representation of a quarter note or a half note. Eighths and sixteenths, even at slow tempi, LOOK fast. And when I’m writing for a VOICE, the sustain is of utmost importance when I’m composing. So, it may just be a psychological composing device for me. Here is an excerpt of my piece using the 3/2-2/2 option.
I am unclear how performers like this olden music notation these days, I guess I’ll find out.

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Eric Edberg January 1, 2011 at 11:35 am

I’m not a (professional, or even in-tune) singer. As an instrumentalist, though (and one who on occasion plays vocal parts or conducts them, or tries to play a cello like fit a confusingly-notated vocal part), I’d say that 3/2 and 2/2 makes for a less visually confusing score than X/4 or X/8 (or worse, X/16) when beams aren’t used. A string of individual notes with differing numbers of flags on them is very confusing.

If the half note is the unit of pulse, then it’s unlikely that there will be many individual sixteenths and thirty-second notes. You explained this in your post already. So here’s the mini-rant that got me writing:

Beaming can be dangerous in the wrong hands. I have played some pieces where either the notation program or the composer/arranger beamed unconventionally, and that can be quite frustrating.

Say something is in 4/4. Really in 4/4, not an unconventional meter with beats of different lengths. First beat has an eight and two sixteenths. Second beat four sixteenths. Third beat a sixteenth followed by a dotted eighth. Last beat a rest. You look at the music and see a separate eighth note (with a flag), then seven sixteenths beamed together, then a separate dotted eighth, then maybe not a quarter rest but two eighths or even something like a sixteenth rest then an eighth rest and another sixteenth rest.

Ack! A fairly simple rhythm rendered in such a visually confusing manner that instead of being sight-readable, it has to be deciphered. So then the player often has to pencil something in to make it compute in the brain.

When a first-semester liberal-arts student in a intro music theory class writes something like this, I understand it, and it makes for a good opportunity to show how beaming can visually confuse or clarify the rhythmic organization of the music. When I see it in a parts done by a professional composer or arranger, as I do once in a while, I’m mystified. (A violinist friend called while I was writing this and she shares my frustration.)

Music notated in X/2 does feel more unhurried and spacious to me, regardless of the tempo, so I agree with you there. The occasional downside of any music that doesn’t use quarter notes as the unit of pulse is that the brains of even advanced students or (especially fatigued) professionals will on occasion spontaneously default to counting in quarter notes. So that whole note in m. 7 of your example, for instance, might inadvertently get held four beats. Some people might reinforce a stereotype and say this is especially likely with singers, but I won’t go there. (Yes, I know I just did, but I couldn’t help it.)

Finally, in the example from your piece, the clear bracketing of the triplets is great. Another of my pet peeves is triplets (or whatever “let” is being used) aren’t clearly marked as such.

Well, thanks for letting me vent, and best wishes for the new year!

Leonid January 4, 2011 at 11:54 pm


You are making a good point. Stravinsky, and Shoksatovich for that matter, were, so to speak, always in a rush, musically. They were the product of their century, and being in a rush was just the right manifestation the spirit of that time.

We are now tired of being in a rush. We want to slow down. Too much Android, too much Internet, too much Putin on TV, too fast, too complicated .. . We really need some breathing space, and that should be modeled in scoring and notation. . .

My “Enigma Quartet”, op. 1 —

— which received a warm welcome from the audience (consisting primarily of myself), tries to utilize, loosely, the polyphonic techniques developed by the great masters of the past, and bring us back into balance, in an ever-changing gadget-driven technological environment.

Composers like all kind of sets. If you enter “Stravinsky” and “counterpoint” in Google Sets

— the results really make you think. Did I expected that? How do those results compare to how I might have completed the set?

In any event, it seems that if we enter 2011, equipped with a proper understanding of how the old masters worked, we will be able to better understand the world around us.

Thanks for letting me comment on a topic I’ve been thinking a lot about lately, and happy holidays!

Roger Bourland January 5, 2011 at 4:52 pm

Good to hear from you, Eric.

Perhaps I didn’t point out that most of my instrumental music IS in X/4 or X/8. I know that instrumentalists, pianists and composers prefer it to pages of whole and half notes.

My point was that for singers, who live inside of whole notes, there seems to be more meat in the visual representation than in an eighth note. To make it clear: imagine a melody with a tempo of 1/16th equals 54; now imagine the same melody in half notes that are also 54. As a singer, the sixteenth note representation would make me feel anxious, feeling as though I am going too slowly.

I’m a firm believer in beaming things so that the brain perceives groups, esp groups of four. I would not allow a rhythm in 4/4 of: quarter-dotted quarter-eight quarter. That would be in 8/8, NOT 4/4. In 4/4, it should be notated: quarter-quarter tied to an eighth-eighth quarter. The eye needs to see where the main beats/stresses are.

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