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


This bizarre work written by Cathy Berberian in 1966 features all kinds of vocal effects including singing, speaking, sneezing, whispering and animal noises.  There is a recording on YouTube where you can follow along with the score here.

The graphic score consists of symbols and drawings on three staff lines, where the vertical placement is a rough indication of the pitch (particularly where the sound is intended to slide up or down).  Many of the drawings are comic-like cartoons, e.g. of a bee buzzing.  Like many of the other pieces from this section of the course, I can’t identify any kind of melody, rhythm or harmony to make it satisfy my definition of music.  Each time I come across a piece like that I reevaluate my definition and question whether it feels like music.  This particular piece is quite humorous (a light relief from Stockhausen!), but definitely not musical to my ears.

New Notation

Kurzwellen is a work written by Stockhausen in 1968 using his idea of process composition. The piece is essentially a set of instructions on how to transform some input material – in this case drawn from short wave radio broadcasts happening at the time the performance takes place.  The performers ‘tune in’ to particular sounds and then try to replicate them on their own instruments.

As this is quite radically different from traditional music, it requires a radically different type of notation.  I haven’t managed to locate a score, but I have found some analysis on the internet (e.g. see Stockhausen – sounds in space).  It consists primarily of plus and minus sounds which indicate increasing/decreasing various aspects of the music such as dynamics, register and duration.  He also includes several different arrow symbols which inform the players when to play together and in what combinations.

The notation in Kurzwellen is very specific and clearly defined; other scores are much more abstract.  Some ideas I found in my research include:

  • Using art to simply inspire the performer
  • Traditional notation with details omitted (e.g. stave and bar lines), giving only the general idea of melodic shape and rhythm
  • Traditional notation in unusual shapes or layouts e.g. circles, creating a work of visual art
  • Explicit written instructions on what sounds to make
  • Timelines written out with durations marked in seconds
  • Colours and shapes interpreted by reading a separate key which provides specific instructions on what sounds to make

I found some good examples on the Classic FM and Guardian websites.

Irrational Time Signatures

Thomas Adès: Traced Overhead (1971)

I came across irrational time signatures for the first time in Part 1 of this course and didn’t know how to interpret them.  I have since had the opportunity to research this, and at my tutor’s suggestion have listened to this piece for piano solo which uses the technique.

I found it an interesting piece to listen to – the texture is unusual, often using the very top of the piano’s register creating a shimmering effect, as well as low notes and chords, sustained with the pedal.  The two effects are used simultaneously, which gives a very resonant sound.  It seems to be mostly atonal and often dissonant, though I think there are occasional hints of tonality.  Despite my preference for tonal music, the overall sound world Ades creates does appeal to me, particularly at the end of the piece.

I can see how the irrational time signatures work now, creating arbitrary subdivisions of the whole note, but it would certainly require some time to get used to reading them!

Clapping Music (1972)

I heard a live performance of Steve Reich’s Clapping Music last year (adapted for violin), and wrote notes about that experience on my listening log: Minimal: American Classics.  As I mentioned there, I think the piece is very successful and is an effective way of ‘spotlighting’ different parts of the rhythm as the phasing between the two parts changes.  As the piece progresses, your perception of where the start of the phrase changes.  Clapping is one of the simplest possible instruments, and I think it was chosen intentionally as it allows you to focus purely on the rhythm.  Having said that, I enjoyed the violin version more as the melodic content highlighted the phasing changes much more effectively.