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  • Writer's pictureCraig Birchfield

4/3/2013 A Little Bit O Soul

For much of human history people could not read music. That isn’t to say that there were not great musicians. They just could not read music primarily because it either was not written down or it was not written down in a very complete system. The earliest example of music notation of any type is from Sumer (Iraq) about 4000 years ago. This and other methods of notation from the ancient Middle East were something akin to tablature and were quite crude by modern comparisons. They might only show which strings and maybe pitch but not note duration or meter. A more complete system for writing down music was developed by the Greeks in about the 6th century BC and it was used there for over a thousand years. Although it was more advanced it was not complete enough to give musicians a true blueprint. Development of the modern system of annotating music began in Europe in the about 13th century AD and was well standardized by the 17th century.

Our form of modern notation was a huge boon to musical composition and enjoyment. With no sheet music or only simplistic tablature complex pieces played by ensembles (more than a couple musicians) were all but impossible. A case can be made that much of the explosion of musical composition during the time of the renaissance was due in a large part to the standardization of a notation system where everyone was on the same page (pun intended).

Prior to the renaissance you typically needed to have heard the song before, even if you had the music in front of you. Sheet music was just a way to jog your memory about how the song went. This is not as bad a situation as it might seem. After all, music is an aura experience. There are some great concert artists that can pick up a piece of unfamiliar music and play it in their heads with appropriate phrasing and dynamics. Mere mortals such as myself prefer to have heard it recently. The different ways to interpret any piece of music are legion if not truly infinite. It is the interpretation that makes a musical composition live and breathe. Consider sheet music a form of shorthand or better yet, an outline that makes performance much easier. The soul is in the interpretation, the dynamics, the phrasing and all the little subtleties that make music worth listening to whether it is Baroque or Bluegrass. If you have ever heard a sound card on a computer playing a score without interpretation or phrasing you know how dead and boring it sounds.

Two examples stick out in my mind. Both were at student recitals. The first recital was by a child who was very technically adept but the music was really mechanical and lifeless. It was disconcerting to hear that level of virtuosity with no musicality. The second recital was by a young adolescent who was playing Chopin’s Military Polonaise, a piece I enjoy hearing and am familiar with. What struck me was that not only was he playing it quite well but he was also interpreting it well and just slightly different than I had heard it before. He was taking ownership of the performance. Someone might say, “Who does this kid think he is interpreting Chopin?” In my way of thinking without interpretation or ownership of the performance there is little creativity.

We know what music is. I’ve studied enough music theory and physics that I can tell you what is happening down to a molecular level. We don’t know why it is. I believe that God gave music to touch the hearts of humans. Music needs life and breath and a soul or it’s just organized noise. Musicality with out skill is uninspiring. Technical virtuosity without a lyrical ear…ditto. Both are needed and both can be developed. Now I’ll get off my soap box and back to repairing cellos and violins.


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