UI in music

January 5, 2011

UI means “user interface.” My husband has been involved in user interface for many years and now is on the team that works on the Android operating system, so I get a lot of insight from hearing him talk. I got me to thinking:

What is the”user interface” in music?

Most musical instruments have their own UI that has evolved over the centuries–evolved to make them better and easier to use so that one can do more and more things.

For composers, the score is the UI. Baroque scores have a lot of information about notes, but not so much about dynamics, rubato, or other unnotated liberties that may have been taken at the time. Early 20th century composers bent over backwards to make sure that their music was EXACTLY how they wanted it to sound. Composers for the piano at that time (esp. Stravinsky and Schoenberg) over-notated their music to make sure that the habit of heavy pedaling, common in the Romantic era, was kept under control. The composers of the Classical period had, probably, the best of all worlds: their music was never over-notated nor under-notated, granted cadenzas were sometimes omitted.

The printed score is the composer’s UI for his/her composition. Making it as clear, simple, predictable, and neat is our duty. Thank God that Beethoven had a publisher, as his handwriting was abysmal, and I doubt anyone would have wanted to look at it! (Perhaps he did have a ‘sunday best’ autographic style, but haven’t seen an example).

It was William Thomas McKinley who made me realize that a score, especially orchestral scores, are the composer’s canvas. He taught me the importance of telling performers how to play this music, in as poetic language as you can. (One of his instructions was: “With infinite dancing.”) It was Donald Martino who taught me the art and technique of traditional music engraving and notation. Malcolm Peyton once said that the rhythmic language of a piece of music reflects his metabolism. All these influences jump into my mind when I look at musical scores.

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