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Learning Curves, Apparent and Hidden

Back when I was a music student, it wasn’t all that unusual for people–especially students–not to have a computer at home. That’s what computer labs were for, so, yeah, my first few years of internet-use all took  place in campus computer labs. Campus computer labs tended to have only the sort of software everyone needed, so while the music notation software Finale has been around for ages, I never really learned to use it properly: the only computer I knew that had it installed was a tiny little Mac Classic in the “electronic music lab”–a tiny, windowless room mostly taken up by an antique synthesizer, to which normal music students didn’t have normal access until my final year of music studies.

The result? I’ve been carrying around handwritten music scores for almost two decades now. I’ve been carrying them around because most of them are the only surviving copy of that piece, and it’s hard to back up something written on paper. So I’ve been carrying them around for ages, but lately I’ve decided that maybe I should teach myself how to use music notation software. After all, while I’m not sure anyone would ever want to perform any of these pieces, I would be able to share them; I would also be able to stage a performance easily if I wanted–just print the score and output and print the parts. Finally, whether I trash or store the manuscripts, I won’t have to carry them around anymore.

So anyway, lately, I’ve been teaching myself to use the freeware music notation software Musescore, the freeware music notation software designed to compete with Finale. I’m still struggling with a few things, especially because of my lack of a numpad on my current keyboard–I may have to borrow my wife’s external keyboard to see if it speeds up input, and I need to spend some time refreshing my memory regarding a few input shortcuts–but overall my experience has been very positive. It’s a great program, and for free, it’s downright amazing. There are features that are “missing” but I have faith that those features will be added in the relatively near future. Certainly for most of my compositions, there’s no need for more than what Musescore offers. 

But, you know, I’ve also been thinking about languages and learning curves.

If you think about written music (aside from the most avant-garde stuff), you’ll see that it’s very constrained. You pick a tempo; if it’s tonal or modal, you pick a key signature, and time signature, and instrumentation. You put notes–of a certain length–on a music staff, and add dynamics, articulations, bowing or fingering suggestions, and other special instructions. And then, pretty much, you’re done, and it becomes the performer’s job to interpret what you’ve written.

Basically, you’re not writing music: you’re writing a set of instructions for the production of music. That’s interesting to me, because of how it is similar with screenwriting, and very different from fiction writing. When you’re writing music and scripts (and for that matter, stage plays), your job is largely concerned with learning how to notate your instructions with crystal clarity. For example, consider the following two notations:

Fig. 1: The second note is a quarter note, worth two eighth notes, but syncopated.
Fig. 2: The musical content is the same; it’s just notated differently, with two eighth notes tied across the beat.

As the captions suggest, the musical material noted in these two examples is identical: it’s just written in two different ways.

Which one is better? The answer isn’t clear-cut, out of context. It all depends on what the rest of the music looks like, what genre of music you’re working in, and a million other things. (For example, jazz notation almost always follows Figure 1, because syncopation is pretty much at the heart of jazz music; but in one piece I composed for classical piano, a professor of mine suggested it might be easier to use the method in Figure 2 for the benefit of a pianist who was dealing with stretto–that is, with multiple musical lines stacked on top of one another.)

The interesting thing is that the notation techniques themselves teach you the compositional techniques involved in music: notation actually embodies musical materials, musical techniques, because someone else has to come into the picture and perform an interpretation of your “text”; in this way, notation also constrains composition… which is why it makes sense that European musicians have, since the standardization of music notation, experimented much less with rhythm than jazz musicians (because notating and performing rhythmically experimental music is really hard within this system) and most experimental with harmony (because notation harmonically experimental music is inherently easy within this music.

(The converse is also true, right? Jazz musicians, stuck with chord notations for their harmonies, like this sequence from the tune I’m working on now:

Fig. 3: Part of the B section of Sonny Rollins’ tune “Airegin,” from Sher Music’s The New Real Book Vol. 1.

For jazz musicians, rhythmic and melodic experimentation–and of course harmonic explorations in practice— are easy to pull off, so lead sheets could remain, in compositional terms, quite simple… but dependence on notation harmony in shorthand for the improvisor seems, in my understanding, to have caused harmonic experimentation to be less common, something people turned to only after a lot of rhythmic, melodic, and other experimentation had been relatively mined out by earlier jazz musicians.)

Anyway, my point is this: internalizing the notation system of music is inherently also the act of internalizing the materials of music itself. Learning to read music may not make you able to compose a Prelude and Fugue that will stand up to the work J.S. Bach, but it does lay bare a lot of the materials Bach uses in composing fugues. And with computer notation software–the kind that auto-corrects your notation mistakes, and the kind that plays back what you’ve notated–it’s also much easier to see/hear what you’ve forgotten to do.

(For example, while notating one of my old piano pieces this past week, I realized that I’d left out dynamics instructions through a whole section of the handwritten piece… but I only realized it after I had input that section, seen the “missing” dynamics, and gone back to find what I’d forgotten to write. When I looked at the paper score, and found the dynamics “missing” there too, I realized I hadn’t seen them as “missing” on the original…)

Writing is nothing like this, and word processing software–even with grammar checking turned on–even less like notation software. Thinking over a recent discussion on an earlier post, I think I have some idea of why. Justin Howe argued that:

I don’t think the notion of “control” (and it’s a loaded word and might not be the best match, so lets not pile too many coats on it) precludes the jagged edge. The tension can exist between control and chaos, but its unlike a performance because you only see the end product. Those tensions that exist in the end, those weird frissons can be the exact thing you’re trying to achieve in the story, and it takes a controlled approach to get them that may or may not also resemble wil[d] careening.

But actually, I think the reverse is also true, though in a way writers would be puzzled about. Writing is performing, but not in the sense of the live, one-shot performance a band gives when it’s in a club, playing, but rather, in the kind of performance that happens in a studio. It’s the kind of fine-tuned, crystallized performance of text in final form. We get to edit, and musicians get to practice, in other words: the two are analogous processes.

Now, if you’ve never recorded music in a studio, that might sound odd. After all, the world is full of stories of this or that group of musicians (especially jazz musicians) who show up at the studio, record an album in a couple of afternoons, and blow everyone’s minds.

But that leaves out a couple of things. One of them is the fact that most musicians in studios actually do “edit” their work. Sometimes they do this in ways familiar to writers: adding things, making cuts, and so on. More often, though–and in my experience, more painfully–what they end up doing is recording the same thing over and over till it’s “perfect”–not a note out of tune, not a rhythm misplaced. Classical music albums are notorious for how often they’re cut’n’paste jobs. The reason this kind of thing isn’t common in jazz has more to do with how difficult it is to chop up a jazz performance this way, as much as any heroic aesthetic of musical purity, or the (admittedly, very high) premium put on virtuosity in the jazz world.

The other thing in that, while musicians cannot “edit” their live performances, they actually do prepare them over a long, long period. We call this practice. After all, there are two kinds of practice:

  1. Technique: the musician works on technical, instrument-focused skills, like scales, arpeggios, overtones, extended range, long tones, and so on.
  2. Repertory: the musician prepares pieces, either to master the piece, or to hone the details for an upcoming performance.

Most musicians do a combination of both kinds of practice, working note just toward technical mastery of their instrument(s) but also performative mastery of an ever-growing set of specific pieces of music. For example, these days, I’m working on my altissimo register–the super-high notes above the normal range of a saxophone, which (though I’m doing it on tenor) is pretty much as finicky and as much of a grind as this woman suggests:

… and I’m also working specifically, in the repertory area, on mastering Sonny Rollins’ tune “Airegin”:

I’m also thinking I’d like to try figure out whether this trick works on my particular sax:

Now, if you think about that last example: it’s from a tune I’m unlikely to ever play, so for me, that’s a technical issue. And it’s about getting a particular note to play–a note I can already play “clean”–except, how to get that note to come out “split” (or, in other words, slightly “dirty”). That’s one particular note: the specific trick won’t work on other notes, though variations might, if I sit down and figure them out. But that last three-plus-minute video is all about how to get one particular note to play in a slightly different way than the usual. Talk about insane precision.

Of course, writers are not strangers to insane precision… at least, those who take editing seriously aren’t. But like musicians who are working on mastering a particular piece, there’s nothing inherent in the process that serves as a perfect guide to what you need to do to master the piece more perfectly. That’s a kind of rabbit-hole with an endless exploration possible: you could spend years mastering “Airegin” (or most any tune) just like you could spend years editing your short story or novel, and still not feel finished with it. 

You could argue about who has the edge–composers or writers–when it comes to the first chunk of the learning curve involved in learning to writer music/fiction. After all, literacy is something expected of us in our primary education: we get taught how to read, we’re forced to write (and, if we’re lucky, to develop some sense of structure, even if it’s just in the context of crappy five-paragraph essays), and learning grammar gets incentivized, if not explicitly made part of the curriculum. Reading and writing are coupled together, in other words. With music, that’s not my experience at all: most musicians I know have written (I mean literally notated) precious little music–and almost always, in the manner of grammar analysis (what we call “music theory”). A composer must learn the grammar and learn the vocabulary at a much later age… but the constraints that are built-into notation software seem to help with this, to some degree.

Which is to say that someone who comes to writing music later in life, sees that learning curve ahead of them, in a way that a lot of people who come to fiction-writing later in life maybe don’t see as readily. People who’ve never written music before tend to know when they don’t know what they’re doing, and the music notation software helps them to see it. However, as slush pile editors will tell anyone who listens, plenty of people who don’t “know how to write” obviously do know how to write grammatically coherent strings of text in a word processor. Added to this is the fact that word processors, instead of making the flaws in one’s creation apparent, in fact seem to have the opposite effect: as Neal Stephenson noted at one point in his long-ago screed In the Beginning was the Command Line, wrote about this in the context of discovering files written in Word becoming scrambled when opened with a non-backwards-compatible version of MS Word:

Now this was technically a fault in the application (Word 6.0 for the Macintosh) not the operating system (MacOS 7 point something) and so the initial target of my annoyance was the people who were responsible for Word. But. On the other hand, I could have chosen the “save as text” option in Word and saved all of my documents as simple telegrams, and this problem would not have arisen. Instead I had allowed myself to be seduced by all of those flashy formatting options that hadn’t even existed until GUIs had come along to make them practicable. I had gotten into the habit of using them to make my documents look pretty (perhaps prettier than they deserved to look; all of the old documents on those floppies turned out to be more or less crap). Now I was paying the price for that self-indulgence. Technology had moved on and found ways to make my documents look even prettier, and the consequence of it was that all old ugly documents had ceased to exist.

It was–if you’ll pardon me for a moment’s strange little fantasy–as if I’d gone to stay at some resort, some exquisitely designed and art-directed hotel, placing myself in the hands of past masters of the Sensorial Interface, and had sat down in my room and written a story in ballpoint pen on a yellow legal pad, and when I returned from dinner, discovered that the maid had taken my work away and left behind in its place a quill pen and a stack of fine parchment–explaining that the room looked ever so much finer this way, and it was all part of a routine upgrade. But written on these sheets of paper, in flawless penmanship, were long sequences of words chosen at random from the dictionary. Appalling, sure, but I couldn’t really lodge a complaint with the management, because by staying at this resort I had given my consent to it. I had surrendered my Morlock credentials and become an Eloi.

Stephenson’s having been “seduced by all of those flashy formatting options” is something many writers experience early on, because a beautiful manuscript is an excellent distraction from an irreparably flawed text. But even if someone just sticks with plain old standard manuscript formatting, the perfectness of the display on a gorgeous computer screen can get in the way of the plain old home truth that your story, poem, or novel probably needs a ton of editing before it will actually have legs.

Or maybe this is just idiosyncracy, I’m not sure: after all, the music I’m notating has already been composed. I do in fact want to go back and edit it, but at present I’m just inputting the compositions as they were originally composed, with only a couple of small changes for clarity. I’m not using Musescore as a compositional tool, but purely as a notation tool, and that might be why I’m seeing the problems that are there more clearly. I’m not sure…

Nonetheless, I think that with writing, the learning curves are simply loaded differently. In music, people are more likely to start functionally illiterate (and with a poor grasp of grammar), and then make a quantum leap once they learn the notation system, until they outgrow its limitations and start on the much bigger learning curve between writing music and making art. Neophyte writers, on the other hand, will tend to be functionally literate (able to write, and not just to read) and have passable grammar; but it takes longer to internalize the basics of story, and these basics are not so inherently packed into the tools we use to write, in part texts are far less constrained by codified rule-systems and conventions than traditional composed music is, but also because writing includes both the creation of a narrative of some kind, and the specific performance of it. For writers (unlike for composers) notation is performance, in other words.

The interesting thing, though, is that beyond the basic mastery, the learning curve stretches off into infinity for both musicians and writers, at least those who truly want to do remarkable work…

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