Exploring Graphic Scores

This exercise asks us to create our own graphic score, designed to accompany a scene from a film.  I have decided to write one for piano to accompany a short scene from The Sixth Sense where the main character, Cole, sees a terrifying ghost in the middle of the night.

It starts off setting a mood of suspense and anticipation – it is dark and quiet, and the kid is clearly afraid.  There is a sudden interruption as Cole becomes aware of the ghost passing by while his back is turned, and the tension now increases.  Finally he sees someone who he at first thinks is his mother but turns out to be an angry ghost.

The piano seemed appropriate for this as it is capable of very low, bass notes which can sound ominous, and it is an instrument I am able to experiment with by myself.  I decided to create a score with approximate pitch represented vertically on a single, large staff.  I have drawn three lines, where the middle line indicates middle C, and the top and bottom lines are roughly an octave from the top and bottom of the piano.  I have invented a few  different ways to represent the music:

  • Single notes are shown as circles
  • Where I want a group of notes to be played simultaneously I have merged the circles together into a blob (the larger it is the more notes are required)
  • Glisssandos up and down the piano are shown with wavy lines
  • Fast passages are shown with the notes very close together, and slower ones further apart
  • For dynamics I have used a colour scale – blue for quiet and red for loud (green for mf)
  • I have used squares instead of circles where I want the performer to play only black notes, constraining them to belong to the pentatonic scale which doesn’t create dissonances.  This was useful to create a change in atmosphere when the boy thinks the ghost is his mother

I was initially quite skeptical about this exercise, as most of the pieces I have listened to that were written as graphic scores don’t really satisfy my definition of music (I view them more as conceptual art, similar to the John Cage 4’33” piece).  I did however find it gave me a new perspective on composing music which might be useful for this sort of genre – film music, or atmospheric soundtracks.  It enables you to plan the overall concept of a piece and visualise it nicely without having to get bogged down in too many details from the beginning.  Perhaps it could be used as a teaching aid as well, for example in guiding improvisation.  I think as a composition tool I would only use it as a starting point though; ultimately I would want more control over the final sound.

Graphic score for piano

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