Musical Notation as the Externalization of Imagined, Complex Sound

Henrik Sinding-Larsen

in The Oxford Handbook of Sound and Imagination, Volume 2

Published in print September 2019 | ISBN: 9780190460242
Published online August 2019 | e-ISBN: 9780190460266 | DOI:

Series: Oxford Handbooks

Musical Notation as the Externalization of Imagined, Complex Sound

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Henrik Sinding-Larsen analyzes how new tools for the visual description of sound revolutionized the way music was conceived, performed, and disseminated. Early on, the ancient Greeks had described pitches and intervals in mathematically precise ways. However, their complex system had few consequences until it was combined with the practical minds of Roman Catholic choirmasters around 1000 ce. Now, melodies became depicted as note-heads on lines with precise pitch meanings and with note names based on octaves. This graphical and conceptual externalization of patterns in sound paved the way for a polyphonic complexity unimaginable in a purely oral/aural tradition. However, this higher complexity also entailed strictly standardized/homogenized scales and less room for improvisation in much of notation-based music. Through the concept of externalization, lessons from the history of musical notation are generalized to other tools of description, and Sinding-Larsen ends with a reflection on what future practices might become imaginable and unimaginable as a result of computer programming.

Keywords: notation; music theory; tuning systems; polyphony; cultural evolution; externalization; standardization; complexity; control

Article.  12496 words. 

Subjects: Sound Studies

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