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Notation: A Manifesto

Don't do this.
  • Notation should be considered a set of instructions for performers. And nothing else.
  • Notation is not art, nor is it a program note. Perhaps most importantly, it is not music.
  • Augenmusik is useless at best and destructive at worst. Baude Cordier, George Crumb and others were wrong to use it. This fact does not diminish their value as composers – only as copyists.
  • The quality of a composer’s musical idea is distinct from his/her ability to notate that idea. Composers who lack the desire or technical ability to notate clearly should hire copyists.
  • If an extramusical-idea-as-notation is necessary for a composer to move forward with the composition, then this version of the notation should be thought of as a draft. Upon completion, the work should be renotated to facilitate easier performance.
  • Performers should not be expected to renotate music to facilitate easier performance.
  • There may be extramusical reasons to provide scores to performers which cannot be played. But there are no musical reasons to do so. Performers who receive such a score should expect/request a corrected version.
  • If there is a simpler way to notate a given idea, then that is the correct way. There are no exceptions.
  • Certain instruments – in particular, most percussion instruments – do not sustain. Notation cannot make them do so. This information can be used to, for example, determine appropriate notational durations, ties, etc.
Instead, do this.
  • There is widespread belief that obfuscated, florid or unnecessarily complex notation may impress judges in composition competitions. Composers who enter competitions and who work under this assumption should then create two sets of scores: one for competition, another for performance.


  1. Well said! I try and tell student composers about this when I talk to them about how to write for percussion. I especially love when composers write too many rests on instruments that we have no control of the duration (SD, Wood Block, Marimba, etc). I am going to send this to my composition department. Thanks!

  2. Xylophone (no Breath!) is the best part of your score. More composers need to include such excellent directions.

  3. Thomas Matta Thomas Matta

    Good post.

    Note durations for percussion can be tricky. In some (rare?) cases, the composer might want a dampened sound, in which case a specific note value may be useful (rather than using continued, repetitive English instruction).


    • Dennis DeSantis Dennis DeSantis

      Yes, but the case that you mention is about specifying that a duration should be *reduced*. This is, of course, valid. It’s almost always possible to make short sounds shorter.

      What’s quite difficult, however, is making short sounds longer.

  4. […] though, take the statement to its literal extreme. The composer Dennis DeSantis, for instance, in a manifesto on notation, writes:Notation should be considered a set of instructions for performers. And nothing […]

  5. Will Kuhn Will Kuhn

    This is great – like Occam’s Razor applied to performing notated music. Also a great explanation as to why notation isn’t as necessary in electronic music; there is no separate performer for which the ideas need to be translated.

    • Dennis DeSantis Dennis DeSantis

      Well, it might be necessary to provide some kind of notation in the case of electroacoustic music. But in that case, I’d say all the same rules apply.

  6. Why is the Xylophone part notated as a quarter note followed by two rests rather than a whole note (possibly tied to another whole note)? Is the player supposed to damp the instrument on the second beat, or would that be contrary to the composer’s intentions? Would the addition of “l.v.” facilitate easier performance? Would it guarantee correct performance?

    • Dennis DeSantis Dennis DeSantis

      As a performer, I might be confused by your suggested changes. At best, I wouldn’t play the part any differently than if I was reading my version, but I’d have to think more. At worst, I’d wonder if there was a mistake, and I was actually supposed to be playing something other than a xylophone.

      Man, I’d love it if a specific notation could *guarantee* correct performance. But as long as I have to deal with people, I’ll just try to make their job as easy as I can.

  7. Daniel Daniel

    To say that Baude Cordier, George Crumb and others were “wrong” for choosing to use Augenmusik and to make notation part of the focus of their artwork, perceived or unperceived by the listener, is completely absurd. In art there is no right or wrong and as a composer living in the 21st century one should surely recognize that. Respectfully, who are you to say that notation cannot be art? And who are you to say that what the ‘eye music’ composer did is “wrong”?

    • Dennis DeSantis Dennis DeSantis

      Of course there’s no right or wrong in art.

      But this article is about notation.

      • Robert Everett-Green Robert Everett-Green

        No, this article is about notation and art. That became true as soon as you mentioned art.

      • D. M. D. M.

        Daniel brings up a good point. There is a way in which you refer to notation as something that is completely sterilized in terms of artistic value. As a composer it is mildly insulting (not that I’m taking it personally) that you consider us as simply issuers of black-and-white instructions that are completely sterile from any artistic value.

        That being said, I am not saying that there shouldn’t be a practical side of things. But the fact that you say composer’s such as Crumb are “wrong” without any backing or support behind the statement means you are passing off your opinion as fact, a statement which quite frankly takes a considerable amount from your credibility. Not that there are rules about posting stuff on blogs, but even still there is a lot of weight behind that sort of statement and you are ill-advised to use it so carelessly if you really want people to take your opinion seriously.

      • Dennis DeSantis Dennis DeSantis

        Hi D.M.

        Thanks for your post.

        Of *course* this is all just my opinion. I really *didn’t* want people to take my opinion THIS seriously. To say that Crumb was wrong is extraordinarily presumptuous. The whole post is inflammatory and more than a little tongue-in-cheek.

        But that was sort of the idea – it’s a manifesto. You can’t half-ass a manifesto. If Marx had written “The Communist Just My Opinion,” no one would have said another word about it.

        But, in the spirit of conversation, I’d like to clarify the thing you found insulting. I don’t consider composers as “simply issuers of black-and-white instructions.” I consider composers issuers of MUSIC. Everything they do should be in service of that.

  8. Stephanie Buggie Stephanie Buggie

    I agree: I’m a teacher, and I think that education needs to return to teaching the art and spirit of music as a creative,expressive art form, and not stopping at the end goal of reading notation perfectly. I always say this to the choir members: “the quarter-note police are NOT here!”

  9. Andrew Andrew

    Well, Dennis, your views are certainly not atypical, though they are intransigent. Unfortunately it is not for you to decide what means of expression are artful and which are not. A lack of appreciation for an art does not give you the ability to judge it. Just taking the dictionary entry of art “the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination”, it seems awfully high and mighty of you to rule out any means of expression solely on the basis of it being as impractical towards the status quo. I have performed the Crumb Makrokosmos, and one of the greatest achievements of the music being represented the way it is, is that it creates a very different learning experience for the performer. And that has a musical end result which is communicated to the audience. Humans react to different input differently, regardless of whether they express the same instruction or not. We’re not machines. Crumb’s music is often about drama, and if a pianist were there reading the music just flipping the pages as normal, you would not get the same musical drama. It is like saying that a music recording could ever be equivalent to the anticipation and experience of a live performance.

    And how about typography, design, architecture and other arts which are often used as means of expressing other content? Should we limit ourselves to Times New Roman, a standardized poster format, and brick buildings? If you are able to, take a look at John Cage’s “Notations” book which has hundreds of examples of other composers using notation in all sorts of ways. It’s not just George Crumb and Baude Cordier. There is a whole contigent of composers are doing very interesting musical work with notation. You may not like it, but you can not rewrite history. This has been regarded as art for a long time now.

    • Dennis DeSantis Dennis DeSantis

      Hi Andrew,

      Thanks for your feedback.

      I think it’s a bit of a stretch to suggest that I’m ruling out “any means of expression solely on the basis of it being as impractical towards the status quo.”

      I’m merely ruling out means of expression that are impractical towards performance. But don’t take it from me – ask your performers. Give them two sonically identical parts, in which one is notated as simply as possible and the other is notated in some other way. See which one they play from during the gig.

      I maintain that the goal of notation *for performers* is to make their job as easy as humanly possible. What composers do with notation that is *not* intended for performers (scores meant for framing, discussion, grant applications, etc.) is entirely outside of the scope of my argument.

      There’s no shame in creating two versions of a score. The same cannot be said, however, for creating obfuscated scores and insisting that this is somehow intrinsic to the musical idea that you expect to hear, and which no one but your players can see.

    • Yes, indeed. My Stockhausen score of Stimmung is proof of that. Also, the great Gardner Read book lists hundreds of notation systems, including one from Schoenberg.

  10. Daniel Felsenfeld Daniel Felsenfeld


    I’m not going to weigh in on one “side” or the other here (mostly because I think that’s a too-specific way to think about these kinds of matters) but I am grateful to you for thinking about this, writing about it, and keeping this important conversation going. Notation, like anything in art, is always evolving, and evolution–real evolution–requires intelligent and respectful conversation from intelligent and respectful people. Like you. So thank you.

    • Dennis DeSantis Dennis DeSantis

      Hey Daniel,

      You’re welcome.

      For what it’s worth, this was largely written from the perspective of a performer – much less so from the perspective of a composer.

  11. This is an interesting topic and I have some mixed feelings about it, most of which stem from my own experience as a composer. One of the commissions I had was for a work to be premiered at a concert at one of the first seasons of the Ottawa Chamber Music Festival. It was a suite for violoncello and piano that was performed by festival director Julian Armour and pianist Marc-AndrĂ© Hamelin. When I gave my score to Julian I warned him, “it’s more difficult than it looks” – knowing that the finale of the suite was going to be difficult for the players to put together – a fast perpetual motion movement. The notation, however, was not the issue – it was as clean as you could hope for – but – performers can sometimes be arrogant and, as I was told – point blank – “we’re professionals, it’ll be fine.”

    It wasn’t. The finale of the suite was not premiered (I had to be in New York – fortunately – so I missed the debacle) – but – nobody could blame the complexity of my score.

    For many years I’ve advocated the use of special effects only when they’re absolutely necessary (to “advance the plot” as it were) – and I’ve consciously avoided using overly complicated notations when it is possible to get the message across in a more direct, clearer fashion.

    Ultimately, composers are the literary representatives of the musical world: we speak the “language” that performers “play” on their instruments. Without composers the only thing a performer would be able to do would be to improvise – it is the literature that has been preserved through the centuries – the written music that has been passed down through the ages – that performers have at their disposal to perform, and that is what we, as contemporary composers, are contributing to when we compose. I truly believe that it is our responsibility to be as precise and concise as possible so that our ideas can be clearly expressed – by others – when we are not here to add something that is not preserved on the score.

    I’ve always maintained that when a score is complete it should contain everything necessary for a performer to interpret that composition. If that isn’t the case, if the performer needs to speak to the composer in order to clarify something, the composer has not been completely successful in their work.

    As for a score being a work of art, or being music itself – on these points I must disagree for the simple reason that, as the language of music, when I look at a score I can hear the music that it holds on the page – without the benefit of an instrument(s). As well, I appreciate the aesthetics of a beautifully prepared score – the balance inherent in a Beethoven quartet or one of his piano sonatas – the raw power in one of Bartok’s string quartets – not only is the music on the page, the page is beautiful to look at, just for the beauty of the notation. If any composer cannot appreciate that, I dare say they might be in the wrong business (see what happens when you make absolute statements? not so good).

    But seriously – a score, being written in the language of music – is music. Sound happens when an instrument is used to interpret the symbols on the page, but the representation of that sound can exist in our minds’ ear when we read the score, just as we hear a narration when we read a book and the characters come alive in our imaginations. I’ve spent over 25 years studying scores – reading them like books, and much of that without recordings – I’m a composer – it’s what I do.

  12. Ralph Stricker-Chapman Ralph Stricker-Chapman

    I don’t think your objection was initially directed at Augenmusik, and while I think I disagree with your assessment of the potential for useful information to be transmitted to the performer through artful or extravagant means in notation, I also don’t think that was the point of the post. You seem to be complaining about an established trend in academic composition which devalues or even ignores the interpretive skills of the performer, and tries to compensate for the perceived artlessness of the performer through an exhaustive and exhausting abundance of instructions. This is insulting to many performers, and they are right to be offended.

    When this trend is coupled with the sharp division which exists between composers and performers in academia, it quickly becomes apparent that the majority of composers working in an academic context do not possess the necessary instrumental expertise to give meaningful instructions to their performers, and you end up with the type of illegible garbage which you exhibited in your first example (I am assuming that you created that example on your own and that it is not taken from any real composition. If I have assumed wrong, I sincerely apologize.)

    It is a fact that our system of notation is vague, and this is a necessary and a good thing. For every aspect of performance that a composer can account for in notation, there are dozens or hundreds of variables which a performer has to consider at any given moment. Good performers have trained themselves to do this without thinking about it. Good composers who aren’t good performers have little or no idea that these calculations are even occurring. Good composers who aren’t good performers should learn to trust the good performers to do their job, is what I think you were getting at. That and they should learn to be good performers as well. Maybe then they’ll have something meaningful to say when they tell us what to do.

  13. Those interested in notation (and some of you clearly are!) might find of interest. We are an international organization of notation inventors, users, and evaluators. We both share the goals of simplicity and accuracy. Our discussion list is open to new members.

  14. john john

    you’re being too dogmatic. Basic notation principles that take into account resolution of sound into pitch/time increments is fundamental and taught by any decent comp teacher. You “try” to take your argument to an artistic level, where it collapses, because your perspective is that of a performer with (may I add) limited scope of scores. Crumb is wrong? Really? Augenmusik? Please…
    You are missing a whole other level here.

  15. ted ted

    Time is money, people! Don’t make this guy think about anything too WEIRD! He’s got art to make and there’s only so many hours in the day.

    Should I use Finale or Sibelius, bro? Which is easiest for you to read? Font size?

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