Graphic Notation and Musical Graphics after 1950s

Musical graphic notation is a written representation of music that uses none or only few of the elements of traditional staff notation.[1] Graphic notation is often an indeterminate, ambiguous type of notation whose symbols and interpretations are explained in a legend or in annotations.

Musical graphics, on the other hand, has its own aesthetic value as a visual art and does not have to be defined through its translatability into music. Like visual scores—that is, images instead of graphics—musical graphics is composed not with the intent of producing concrete music; it may, however, be translated into music.[2]

The first graphic notations and musical graphics were produced within the New York school of composers around John CageMorton Feldman’s Projection from 1950 was the first instance of graphic notation (called graph notation), and Earle Brown’s December 1952 is often deemed the first work of musical graphics (called musical graph). However, the term musical graphics, or musikalische Grafik, was coined by Roman Haubenstock-Ramati in Europe, where in the late 1950s a music-theoretical discussion began that primarily revolved around the dissolution of the concept of the work of art and the aesthetics of autonomy. Starting in the 1970s, more and more visual artists began to engage in musical graphics, and improvising performance artists developed new interpretational styles.

Other categorizations of notation specify their function. Thus, aural scores are descriptive graphic representations for music, mostly for tape, that are produced after the music has been performed, with the tape possibly having been made by means of a realization score. The latter has in common with the (prescriptive) action score that the action generating the sound is described, not the acoustic result. Thus they are prescriptive.


2.1 American Development

In 1950, the New York school of composers (John CageMorton FeldmanEarle Brown, and Christian Wolff) began developing new forms of notation. The central category of this form of notation is indeterminacy, through which the composer grants the performer improvisatory latitude.[

5] Morton Feldman’s composition Projection 1 (1950) in graph (paper) notation is indetermined with respect to its pitch. Feldman does, however, prescribe three different registers and thus a framework within which the performer has to choose the pitch.

John Cage’s performance material Cartridge Music (1960) is also indetermined, as are several of the compositions in the Variations series (1958–1967), which consists of various printed transparencies that the performer can lay over one another in a new way for each performance and interpret according to Cage’s instructions. The resulting values often specify actions and not sounding results. In hisConcert for Piano and Orchestra (1958), Cage assembles a compendium of different notations for the piano solo part.

Earle Brown’s December 1952 from the Folio series is regarded as the first graphic music. Instrumentation, pitch, and rhythm, as well as the reading order and turning of the page, are indetermined. By using these types of graphics, the composer Brown, who was interested in jazz, wanted to motivate the performers to improvise.[6] Whereas Brown aimed at improvisation with the spontaneous translation of the visual impression, Feldman and Cage avoided the term improvisation and demanded the detailed elaboration and planning of each performance.

In the 1950s, compositions by the New York school of composers were primarily played by David Tudor (1926–1996), one of the leading performers of contemporary music for piano. He realized the indetermined pieces by devising a playing score: he laid down all of the decisions to be made by the performer in a rehearsal phase and put them in writing.

Between 1956 and 1962, Tudor performed at the Darmstädter Ferienkurse für Neue Musik (Darmstadt New Music Summer School). Numerous European composers wrote works specifically for him. In 1959, Sylvano Bussotti wrote the following about his Five Piano Pieces for David Tudor“The expression ‘for David Tudor’ in the title is not a dedication but almost designates an instrumentation. […] In many cases, the acoustic event that such graphics may trigger remains in the pianist’s hands.”[7]


2.2 European Development

On the one hand, the development of graphic notation can be understood as an indication of changes in music,[

8] whereby above all continuous sound processes increasingly take on more importance in the contemporary practice of composition. With the aid of graphic notation symbols, these continuous sound movements can now be fixed, whereas conventional staff notation merely symbolizes discrete pitch and tone duration.[9] On the other hand, the dissolution of discrete notation was accompanied by the abandonment of the concept of the work of art, because the frequently ambiguous and open forms no longer comply with the criteria for consolidation.

Despite the distinct pictorial nature of his graphic notation (from 1958), Anestis Logothetis (1921–1994) distinguishes it from musical graphics, which he considers a means of improvisation.[10] The symbols, associative signs, and action notations that he uses in his graphic notations cancel out any conventional reading order.[11] In contrast, Sylvano Bussotti (born in 1931) seems to be concerned with the transition between symbols (conventional notation) and graphics (musical graphics) when at the end of a system he splits up the staves or twists them. “The ways to graphically record music realize a scale from the known staff notation to the unknown symbol.”[12]

The term musikalische Grafik, or musical graphics was coined by Roman Haubenstock-Ramati,[13] who in 1959 initiated an exhibition of musical graphics in Donaueschingen through the music publisherUniversal Edition. One example of his musical graphics is Pour Piano (1971).

Often, musical graphics are also meant to open up elements of expression to the viewer or the performer that cannot be accomplished by standard symbolic notation.[14] In musical graphics, the expressive qualities that in cases of music written in traditional staff notation can be experienced only during the performance can emanate directly from the visual effect. Thus, it is conceivable to have music that is only read: Dieter Schnebel’s Mo-No. Musik zum Lesen (Mo-No: Music to Be Read, 1969) is a book with musical graphics whose sole aim is imagined sound. Schnebel blends sound memories in the form of excerpts (i.e., quotations of musical scores), creative sound presentation in musical graphics (in order to imagine unheard sounds), and quietly read text fragments.

As early as the 1950s, Iannis Xenakis (1922–2001) assumed the translatability of spatial into tonal structures. He developed the UPIC,[15] a computer with graphic interface by means of a pen that transforms graphics directly into sound.

3 Graphic Notations and Musical Graphics by Sound Artists

With the emergence of cross-genre sound art, visual artists began to use musical graphics. Their interest in the individual handwriting manifesting itself in musical graphics is greater than that of composers, who were concerned with the establishment of a new, normative graphic canon. Nelson Goodman distinguishes the autographical, artistic signature from allographic notation, which can be standardized and thus reproduced and of which there is no original.[


In the mid-1970s, several visual artists turned to the border area of music. In 1976, the artist Gerhard Rühm (born in 1930) began creating visual music, which does without a performer or assigns this role to the reader.[17] Besides Lesemusik (music for reading), freely drawn graphics on sheet music that do or do not specify instruments, there are Notenüberzeichnungen (overdrawn sheet music), in which the notes of a printed piece of music are blackened out with pencil so that the musical density developments are visually heightened.

As a sound artist, Rolf Julius deals with the structure of sound, its combination with visual elements, and its position in space, as well as with the associative potential that his musical graphics, such as theSong Books, have for musicians. In Verstrijken (2007), the artist William Engelen (born in 1964) transcribes the daily routine of musicians into a graphic score to which the musicians in turn play. For listeners, the notes are simultaneously attached to the wall.[18]


[1] On the origin and history of notation, see Willi Apel, The Notation of Polyphonic Music, 5th ed. (Cambridge, Mass.: Medieval Academy of America, 1961). See also Johannes Wolf, Handbuch der Notationskunde, 2 vols. (Leipzig: Breitkopf & Härtel, 1913, 1919).

[2] For more details, see Helga de la Motte-Haber, Musik und Bildende Kunst: Von der Tonmalerei zur Klangskulptur (Laaber, Germany: Laaber-Verlag, 1990), 47–56 and 223–251, here 53 and 227.


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