The fundamental aim of music notation is to make a lasting visible indication of musical sound, which is invisible and ephemeral. In this respect, it is intimately related to writing in general; and, in fact, music notation is a technology found in societies that have already developed a script for language. Frequently the elements of that script are used in the music notation. And indeed, wherever they have been developed, systems of music notation fulfill two of the functions of script: conservation and communication. Moreover, just like writing in general, systems of music notation are selective in what they specify, ignoring certain aspects of performance judged to be less significant. For example, just as the written record of a speech provides little information about modes of delivery, music notations generally specify pitch or duration—which can be seen as the analogues of letters and words—but leave unfixed many elements of performance. Western notations are of two major types: instrumental tablature and phonetic or pitch notations. A tablature provides specific instructions for playing a piece of music on a stringed instrument, including proper placement of fingers and performance technique, and sometimes rhythm and the relative duration of notes. Pitch notation is a collection of signs (frequently letters of the alphabet), each representing a specific pitch, and possibly other information such as rhythm and duration.
The earliest surving notation is from Mesopotamia; and the musical cultures of India, China, Korea, and Japan, as well as the Arabic-speaking cultures, have made extensive use of music notation of various types, principally pitch notation, tablature, and solmization (the system of using syllables to denote the pitches of a musical scale). (See the articles on notation in the New Grove Dictionary of Music for a discussion of Western and non-Western music notations.) Western classical music, however, has relied more on notation than any other, because notation is fundamental to the conception of Western classical music as a collection of enduring works of art, objects that can be replicated in performance but that have a separate fixed existence independent of any specific sonic realization. This is not the case in other musical cultures, or even in non-classical Western musics, which place a higher value on performance and improvisation—on the act of making music—than on a written set of musical instructions.
The metaphor of the musical "object" came into use at some point during the nineteenth century (see Goehr, The Imaginary Museum of Musical Works). Prior to that time, imprecision was a generally accepted aspect of music notation, and a piece of music was generally thought of as something that existed only in specific performances made possible by the skill of performers in using a notational "sketch" to produce musical sound. But during the nineteenth century, composers increasingly sought to control performances of their works by means of more specific notation. This led to a view that performers were not "making music" but were "producing" musical works. According to this interpretation, the canon of Western music is a collection of imaginary musical objects (which are given a sense of reality by the fact that they are notated) and temporal experiences (the performances of these musical objects, made possible by the fact that they are notated). In this scenario, the responsibility of performers is to be true to the work (in German, werktreu) —that is, true to the intentions of the composer, true to scholarly edition, true to the authentic conditions of performance. These ideas have been challenged on many grounds, as discussed above. Most notably, the actual circumstances of composition indicate that often there is no single "correct" version of a musical work. And the degree of "authenticity" of a performance is difficult if not impossible to assess. These objections notwithstanding, Western classical music is largely conceived not in terms of performance but as a collection of notated musical objects.
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