Music doesn’t exist on paper

worksgrafThe Printed Page

For hundreds of years, people have been searching for ways to write music down on a piece of paper. While there have been great advances from the squiggles above the text in early chant manuscripts, enabling us to become more and more precise about how to replicate music, I believe that it is not possible to confine music to black and white notation.

While everyone generally acknowledges that information, thoughts and feelings can be conveyed in written words, how many people have had the joy of having an email or text message misunderstood? Even with the spoken word, tone, volume, inflection, and even body posture can add or completely change the meaning of a group of words. One of my favorite stories is about a language teacher who is explaining that in some languages double negatives make a positive while in other languages, a double negative remains negative, but there is no language where two positives make a negative. From the back of the room, a student pipes up, “Yeah, right.”

Tone and inflection can make a huge difference in the message conveyed with words. I even understand there are some languages where the same combination of sounds pronounced with different inflection become completely different words! While our music notation has become more precise over time, I do not believe we will ever manage to capture all the intricacies of tone and inflection on the printed page.


Since it is impossible to capture all the details of a piece of music and put them on a piece of paper, we have to make some form of interpretive judgment. This is where performance practice applies, but also where taste and personal judgment enter the scene. In the realm of classical music, we have scholars who research the instruments and writings of the era in order to offer opinions and guidance about how a performer of that time period would have interpreted the page of a musical score. We can choose to follow their guidance, or choose our own path. Leopold Stokowski adapted Bach for orchestra. Did he follow proper performance practice? No, but did he make music? Yes. One of the organists causing a bit of controversy with his use and view of the organ is Cameron Carpenter. He just unveiled a new touring instrument at Alice Tully Hall earlier this month. While I haven’t yet seen a video of him playing the new instrument, you can watch him play the Bach Toccata and Fugue:

Making Music

Regardless of how you might feel about Cameron Carpenter’s interpretation of J.S. Bach, he uses the printed page and the instrument available to him to convey his artistic decisions. Would these be the choices I would make? If I had his technique, maybe. Will he always play it this way? I doubt it. One of the points I believe I’ve heard him make in an interview is that often organists are more concerned about the instrument they are playing than about how they are playing the instrument, and this may be the reason why so many people have lost interest in the organ. If we pay more attention to getting off the printed page and actually conveying thoughts or emotions through music, perhaps there would be more enthusiastic supporters of organ music in the world.

I’ll be doing my part over the next few weeks to make music and keep up interest in the organ. Coming up next are a set of two organ duet concerts. The same program featuring art-inspired organ music will be performed in both Winter Park and Daytona. After that, there are several choral concerts with prominent organ parts. If you are not able to come and hear one of these concerts, I hope you will be able to enjoy some live music making in your own neighborhood!

Wishing you all the best,


Newsletter Issue 16 – 2014 03 12
See the complete list of newsletter issues here.

Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *