Lessons for Rufus: Music notation

May 20, 2006


[Rufus hands in a CD of “Lux aeterna” a part of his larger work “Bloom.”]

Berlioz: What is this?
Rufus: My “Lux aeterna”
Bz: Is this a notation file?
RW: No, it’s a sound file of my performance.
Bz: Where is the score?
RW: There is no score. I recorded it all in real time.
Bz: My dear Rufus, I must encourage you to practice your notational skills.
RW: I don’t need them.
Bz: I beg to differ. Notating music takes your music out of time, and allows the composer to carefully consider every tiny detail and nuance on paper, or on computer, before anyone ever tries to perform it. This is especially true with counterpoint.
RW: So you don’t wanna hear my piece?
Bz: I’d be happy to hear it.

[Rufus plugs the disc into his laptop. They listen. Berlioz smiles, applauds. Rufus combs his hair back with his right hand and reaches for a cigarette.]

Bz: Excellent m’boy. No smoking in lessons. Kill yourself on your own time, not mine. The piece has many characteristics of a good contapuntal work. The music is really overloaded with more parts than are really necessary, that is unless you were after a Thomas Tallis type mega-contrapuntal piece.
RW: Yeah, I kinda was.
Bz: You’re not ready for it. Take one step at a time. Be patient. I’d like to start you at the very beginning or contrapuntal study: modal counterpoint. In this study, we’ll do note against note exercises, half against whole exercises, quarters against whole, then a study in syncopated voices and suspensions, and then I’ll let flap your wings and try your hand at free counterpoint. The difference is that I will give you rules as to what you may and what you may not do.
RW: Sheesh, just what I need; more rules. Do I hafta?
Bz: Yes you have to. Trust the process. I’m not insisting that you follow these rule for your whole life, nor for your own music, just for this series of lessons. Think of these exercises as contrapuntal training wheels.
RW: Yeah, there’s an attractive image.
Bz: But first I want you to practice your music notation. While you’re talking on the phone, I want you to doodle drawing clefs: treble, bass and alto. Practing making notes. Notes are ovals, not circles or little specks of fly poop. They are ovals. Draw an oval and fill it in for the black note. Now notice the difference between the two hollow notes: the half note and the whole note. See how the half note slants to the right, and the whole note slants to the left. Practice drawing these differences. You may wonder why music notation looks the way it does. Composers used crow quills, or pens made from crow’s feathers. Used like this [draws] you can make a thin line, and like this [demonstrates] a fat line. Do this and the lines can go from thin to fat. For next time, I’d like you to fill this page with music notation, not music, just notation practice. Find a treble clef you like and imitate it. Try it yourself first, then I’ll show you my technique later.
RW: Cool, ok thanks dude.
Bz: I am not “dude” you may call me Professor Berlioz, or Professor, but not dude.
RW: Ok Prof, er, Professor.
Bz: Later dude.

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