The Difficulty of Seeing Music

Sort of looks like an old faded-then-digitized photograph of the Alps, doesn’t it? I should make you guess the piece, but given my current obsession it’s too easy. This is the MIDI info, player-piano-roll style, for the first six systems of the Concord Sonata. After the initial wedge motive Ives descends down to the lowest A# on the piano, and then ascends again to the highest G at the bottom of page 1, while the second half of the “Human Faith” theme is isolated, almost visually foregrounded here, in the lower register. Musical notation gives such an inaccurate sense of the use of register that I like to make MIDI charts of passages to get a better sense of pitch-space design – a trick I picked up from Trimpin, who years ago showed me such charts of Nancarrow’s Study #37 (which he had generated, of course, from the piano roll). Sometimes I even look at my own scores this way to get a better sense for improving my overall design. And yet, even this kind of transcription seems misleading, because our eyes make sense of diagonal patterns that don’t exist in music’s strictly horizontal time continuum. You have to imagine a thin vertical line moving across the image from left to right. Still, I did all of “Hawthorne” this way, and learned a tremendous amount about Ives’s use of harmonic stasis in that movement, including things that weren’t nearly as clear in the notation.



  1. says

    I remember drawing out a bunch of passages on graph paper, MIDI-piano-roll style, when analyzing Lutoslawski’s 3rd Symphony, and getting a lot out of it. It hadn’t occurred to me to look at my own works in progress that way, but it sounds like a great idea, and I’ll give it a whirl.

  2. Jim says

    Ron Squibbs (now at UConn) did his PhD at Yale on Xenakis, and his graphs of the scores he studied reveal much. Xenakis wrote lots of his music on graph paper, of course.

  3. says

    This is great, I’d never seen this strategy applied to Ives. Really gives you a sense of the geography of the piece.

    I had a teacher named Kenneth Timm (barely a trace of him on the internet now) who used to make graphs of Webern pieces – Op. 21, and Op. 27 for example – including different colors for different instruments in Op. 21. You could see the locked registers and the palindromes very easily.

    Really looking forward to the Concord book, Kyle.