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An analogy from music

April 16, 2013

In the history of music there was a time long ago when some people argued it was impossible to write down music – music was too special, too ethereal – to ever be reduced to written form.

However, over many years the Western music tradition slowly developed a notational system for describing and sharing musical ideas. This standard format allowed great musical ideas to be shared from one musician to another without a need for personal contact.

As a result, a musician living hundreds of years later, in a very different context, can still understand the musical ideas of a composer long ago, and with appropriate skills, can reproduce those musical ideas.

Music notation does not capture everything about musical ideas – there remains a significant role for performers to bring their own interpretations to music. But musical notation contains enough information to convey musical ideas from one person to another over time and space.

Music notation does not guarantee beautiful music – indeed, mediocre music can be written down just as precisely as beautiful music. Music notation allows for many different styles of music to be described using a single notational framework. And while the Western notational framework is sufficiently broad to describe many types of music, it contains limitations that make some kinds of music (e.g., quartertone singing) difficult to describe within the standard format.

The purpose of creating musical notation was not simply the abstract concept of music representation; rather, it was a vehicle for conveying great musical ideas to others. This sharing helps other musicians to learn the crafts of performance and composition, as well as enriching countless lives who listen to music that they would never have heard if it had not been written down many years ago.

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