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Ear vs Eyes

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NoteBoat
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After all, Ray Charles and Stevie Wonder et al did just fine without it.

This is a common misconception. Both COULD read music - in braille. Here's an image of Stevie reading music in braille: , and here's one of Ray Charles:

It's true that there have been successful blind musicians who can't read, just as there have been successful sighted musicians who can't read. But it is NOT true that there are musicians who can create sophisticated musical arrangements without some reading ability. There are a whole bunch of technical reasons for this, ranging from understanding counterpoint to coping with the transposing instruments. A decent analogy: it would be like becoming a physicist without knowing math. Standard notation is the language on which music theory is built, just as math is the language used to construct theories in physics.

Don't just take my word for it. This is by Tyler K. Thompson, blind guitarist and keyboardist:

Braille music is incredibly important to a blind musician. In order to be literate you need to be able to read and write. In order to be musically literate you have to be able to read sheet music, chord charts and notation as well as write sheet music, chord charts, and notation. In the same way a blind person needs these skills, to read music and write music. Braille music not only makes this possible, it makes it practical.

What I'd like to emphasize most is that I can read braille music and I do have a strong music theory background. I am also able to read chord charts. I can sightread in braille music and I have the ability to transcribe braille music back in to print music so sighted musicians can follow along. I've been in many jazz bands where what we did is go through old fake books and pages of complex sheet music and a combination of these skills let me stay right with the band.

(In case you're wondering how Tyler can translate braille back into print music, he uses a computer.)

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Chris C
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This is a common misconception. Both COULD read music - in braille. Here's an image of Stevie reading music in braille: , and here's one of Ray Charles:

Fascinating to know that. Thanks for the info. :) It hadn't occurred to me, but it makes perfect sense!

However, it's not quite the same as sight reading - in the meaning of the guy in Chris's original question - as you would presumably find it hard to use your hands to 'read' the braille score and play at the same time. It would certainly work for picking out the notes and committing them to memory, but you still couldn't play a new piece and follow the score at the same time in the way that an accomplished and dedicated sight reader could. Apparently Ray Charles said: "Learning to read music in Braille and play by ear helped me develop a damn good memory." So he still needed the ear and memory.

Perhaps a better example that I could have picked might be Paul McCartney who states that he still can't read music today. Lennon said "None of us can read music. None of us can write it." - (John Lennon, 1980). So, if one of the most successful and enduring song-writing and performing teams in history couldn't read or write music at the time, then it may not always matter. They weren't short of work either. However, I still believe that it's a very good skill to have, and the same goes for a reasonable knowledge of music theory. Again, perhaps not strictly essential for many but still very useful.

You can always come up with examples of successful musicians with limited skills - another who springs to mind is Irving Berlin, another hugely successful songwriter, who was by all accounts a relatively mediocre piano player and who used a piano that could transpose keys by means of a lever to avoid needing to play in a lot of different keys. If such people have a requirement for a transposed score or a particular written arrangement - for business reasons - then they can hire somebody to do it, as Berlin apparently did.

So, if I had to choose between them I'd still go for 'ear' - but as I don't have to choose then it seems fine to me to do both but favour one more than the other. That's not to say that I disagree with your reasons for making the choices you have, it's just that we have different priorities and doubtless different personal learning styles too.

Cheers,

Chris


   
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NoteBoat
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I agree it's not the same as sight reading. You only NEED sight reading if you do gigs that require that skill - radio jingles come to mind. While tone quality and phrasing are still a factor, the real goal is to get the music on tape (or in digital bits) as quickly as possible when the meter is running.

Even in the symphonic world, where virtually all performers are great at sight reading, they're not actually doing sight reading in performance. The music is on the stand as a reminder if they need it; their focus is on the gestures of the conductor, and anything they play is actually largely from memory. If you couldn't sight read, you could conceivably still have a concert career, but you'd have to put in a lot more time than the better readers.

Where reading is truly essential is in arranging music. It's true that many bands come up with arrangements on the fly - but those typically aren't very polished. Get into the studio and you'll usually find someone else working behind the scenes to make it happen - and that's virtually always someone who can read.

Paul McCartney wanted to (and did) write a symphony. In an interview with classicfm.com he talked about the process:

“So I had musical associates working with me on Ecce, but a rule I made was that all the notes had to be mine. They might say, ‘That’s too high for the horns’, so I’d listen to them and suggest the clarinets or oboes take the notes. They helped me arrange and notate, but the piece is totally mine.”

It's pretty clear to me from that statement that the piece ISN'T totally his. His piece has horn parts that are too high. Someone else had to collaborate to make it practical. Going back to his days with the Beatles, he had George Martin helping arrange (Martin studied oboe and piano at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama). From the same interview:

“But when I say ‘I can’t write music’, I can; I just can’t notate it. I remember one occasion when John and I were writing and we both said, ‘Oh God, we can’t notate’. Someone said, ‘But the great Pharaohs never wrote. They had a scribe to write everything down.’ Me and John thought, ‘That’ll do us!’ So we never tried to learn; instead, George did it for us. We just went with the Pharaoh theory.”

Martin's initial impression of the Beatles was that they were unpromising, but he liked their vocals. From the very beginning it was Martin who shaped the sound, bringing in studio musicians to do what the Beatles couldn't (the drums on Love Me Do were played by Andy White - Martin moved Ringo to tambourine) and writing the full arrangements for things like Eleanor Rigby, Pretty much any iconic Beatles tune only sounds that way because of what Martin did with the raw ideas.

McCartney isn't proof that reading is a useless skill; he's proof that sometimes essential skills can be outsourced.

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Chris C
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McCartney isn't proof that reading is a useless skill; he's proof that sometimes essential skills can be outsourced.

Agreed. I don't think that anybody would ever claim that reading is a "useless" skill. I also don't think anybody here has tried to argue that. And, yes, the Beatles certainly outsourced the work they needed to for recording purposes. I originally wrote a longer post that included detailing George Martin's role with the Beatles (along the same lines as you did above) but cut it out to save some space, leaving Irving Berlin to stand for them all as an example of useful outsourcing. Outsourcing the work you either can't do well, or don't wish to do, seems perfectly OK to me - in music or any other business. It's obviously good to have multiple skills, but it's also true that we don't all have the time, or necessarily the inclination or ability, to develop them all to the level we'd like. So it's very often a case of choosing the path you feel most comfortable walking and paying less attention to others. I'd outsource whatever I could if it gave me the end result I was after. :)


   
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Chris C
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BTW, I've never met a musician who regretted being able to read music, but I've met a few who regretted that they couldn't.

I'd certainly agree with that. :)

I've never met anybody who regretted learning to read either. But on the other hand, I've also met quite a few players who regret being unable to comfortably play by ear and/or improvise fluently. I guess you often want the bit you haven't got yet... :wink:


   
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fleaaaaaa
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Where reading is truly essential is in arranging music. It's true that many bands come up with arrangements on the fly - but those typically aren't very polished. Get into the studio and you'll usually find someone else working behind the scenes to make it happen - and that's virtually always someone who can read.

I'm not sure if that's entirely true anymore, there's so many IDM (intelligent dance music) artists that make music (on computers) that is almost symphonic and (most of them) don't read music. Some people are just geniuses in music no matter how little or how much musical education they have had, just as some people are utterly dull at music no matter how much education they have had.

Artists I would cite:
Aphex Twin
Boards of Canada
Orbital
Future sound of London

together we stand, divided we fall..........


   
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notes_norton
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I'm not sure if that's entirely true anymore, there's so many IDM (intelligent dance music) artists that make music (on computers) that is almost symphonic and (most of them) don't read music. <...>

I have to respectfully disagree here. I hear nothing like the themes, variation of themes, and development of themes that define a good symphony in any of the sample, copy, and paste music of today.

I played Dvorak's "New World Symphony" when I was in school. I wore out a couple of LPs, and went through a few CDs until I found a conductor that interpreted it the way I like to hear it.

I probably listened to it many hundreds of times, seriously listening, and one day while driving in the car, somewhere in the fourth movement, I heard something I never heard before. Of course I heard this movement and these very notes many hundreds of times but one day I realized that Dvorak had combined four major melodic themes and mixed them all together. One theme for the melody, one for the bass line, one for a counter melody, and one fragment for an ornamental part. They were of course variations of the melodic themes, but they were there. I had an eargasm.

As much as I like many different kinds of music, from 3 chord blues to progressive rock, to whatever, there is nothing that can compare to a well written symphony as far as complexity, variation of themes, and development are concerned. This is perhaps the reason why I never get tired of listening to my favorites, even though I've listened to them many hundreds of times each.

And you can't write or play that kind of music without knowing how to read music notation.

Insights and incites by Notes

Bob "Notes" Norton

Owner, Norton Music http://www.nortonmusic.com Add-on Styles for Band-in-a-Box and Microsoft SongSmith

The Sophisticats http://www.s-cats.com >^. .^< >^. .^<


   
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NoteBoat
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I'm with Notes... electronica as a genre doesn't measure up to the standard of a "sophisticated" arrangement that I mentioned before. When you listen to a Beethoven symphony you can get lost in an oboe line that's buried in the mix. The tight horns of Glenn Miller, or even a barbershop quartet doing "Sweet Adeline" isn't something you're going to get through computer generated music or sampling - the results you get are still trial and error, no matter how polished the result may seem to a casual listener.. And the skills required to produce rich, layered arrangements depends on understanding counterpoint and harmony at a level you just can't grasp without reading.

I look at that genre (electronic music) as music, certainly. But it's like looking at Grandma Moses as being representative of art. Naive art can still be art, but her works just don't rise to the level of Rembrandt or Titian. It's lacking in fundamentals.

Understanding fundamentals isn't a prerequisite for making great art, but it sure makes the path shorter. As Pablo Picasso said, "Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them as an artist."

It's quite possible that someone can create a great work of art by trial and error, rather than understanding the history of the art and making an informed artistic decision to do something different. But you'll see the difference in their sophomore work: it won't measure up. If you put an infinite number of monkeys at an infinite number of typewriters, eventually one will produce "Julius Caesar". You probably won't see "Midsummer Night's Dream" follow.

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Chris C
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As much as I like many different kinds of music, from 3 chord blues to progressive rock, to whatever, there is nothing that can compare to a well written symphony as far as complexity, variation of themes, and development are concerned. This is perhaps the reason why I never get tired of listening to my favorites, even though I've listened to them many hundreds of times each.

And you can't write or play that kind of music without knowing how to read music notation.

Insights and incites by Notes
Hi Notes. I'm with you, in as much as I love so called "Classical Music" too. In fact I used to own a small shop specialised in selling it on CD (a great way not to make any money incidentally...). The good stuff has a depth that I never tire of.

But I still think that Fleaaaaaa has a point. Computers may not yet be able to generate exactly the sort of sophisticated arrangement that you would enjoy hearing (despite your work with Band in the Box!), but they can still be a fine tool for assembling a composition, even if the composer has limited or no traditional reading skills.

Notated scores obviously aren't music, they're just a convenient vehicle for storing it - noiseless 'dehydrated' music you might say. So, if computers can provide an alternative method of storing the information then I can't see any reason why composers can't use them to produce music that is as sophisticated as they want it to be.

For instance, I could compose a melody line and play it onto a track of ProTools (or whatever) using a midi keyboard. I could then gradually add any number of tracks - drums, synths, bass, horns, individually written parts for a string section, or whatever I liked, using the same system. I could even use real audio for the instruments that I can play, and midi versions to stand in for those that I can't. Storing the information in midi format doesn't seem much different to me than storing it on a page in traditionally notated format. It's just a different form of notation.

Of course, I'm not saying that a midi track will necessarily sound as good as a professional audio track, that's a different discussion. Although you can get amazing results with a good keyboard and sound library if you know how to use the tools properly (i.e. the pitch bend and mod wheels etc). I'm simply saying that it can work as a composition tool. Indeed, many writers already use it that way.

As you know, a midi 'score' has quite a bit in common with a traditionally notated score when you view it on screen, and you can edit it much as you might change a paper score. You can add or subtract, move or extend, etc. So you can experiment and build up the score of your composition, track by track, line by line, much as you would on a traditional music sheet.

Finally, a composer isn't required to be a virtuoso player on every instrument that he or she includes in the score. They just need to be able to imagine what they want them to play, and have some idea if it's possible to do it comfortably on that instrument. So if a computer based non-notation reading composer isn't satisfied with the quality of the sound they've generated for a particular track then they still have the same option as the traditional composer. They can print out a notated score for their hired musician(s) - or send them a sound file. Best of both worlds really. :)


   
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NoteBoat
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For instance, I could compose a melody line and play it onto a track of ProTools (or whatever) using a midi keyboard. I could then gradually add any number of tracks - drums, synths, bass, horns, individually written parts for a string section, or whatever I liked, using the same system. I could even use real audio for the instruments that I can play, and midi versions to stand in for those that I can't.

Chris, a tremendous amount of popular music is composed exactly as you describe. I even compose "classical" music that way. But if I couldn't read, I couldn't use that process to write a work for a symphony orchestra, or even many chamber ensembles - although I might be able to do a string quartet.

There are a couple of reasons that approach works for small ensembles, but not large ones in the hands of a non-reader. The first is an understanding of orchestration, which requires a solid foundation in counterpoint and harmony - the kind of understanding you can't distill down into non-reading terms. Large orchestrations require many doublings. A symphony orchestra may include 100 musicians playing 17 or more different instruments at the same time... but a symphony will rarely play even five different notes at the same time - three or four is typical. If you play too many notes at once, you end up with some tone clusters - groups of overlapping dossonance (think of playing the piano with your forearms).

The way a composer gets around this is by assigning the same pitch to different instruments. At any given time, oboes, violas, basses and trombones may all be on C; flutes french horns, violins on E, and a piccolo and cello on G. You hear a C chord. At the next moment you'll hear some different chord. A non-reader's ability to distribute tones will be limited, and the default model will be parallel lines - two or more instruments playing exactly the same melody. The results will sound dull and hollow. A reader will write a line that has separate melodies in the horizontal axis that create chords in the vertical one: flutes go C-A-G-C, french horns go E-F-G-C; bassoons take G-D-F-E; basses play C-A-B-C.... four different lines that combine for C, Dm, G7, C. (Notice there's no D in the G7 chord - the reader knows he or she still gets the right overall tone).

You can do that with simple music. Put four studio musicians in a room and tell them to play blues and you'll end up wiith an acceptable result. They listen, improvise, anticipate, improvise, listen, improvise... you can get a cohesive result. Put twelve studio musicians in a room with the same instructions and you'll get junk. There's simply too much going on.

For large ensembles the computer is wonderful - I use it all the time for composing. It eliminattes my need for an eraser :) Instead of MIDI, I use VST instruments, so my cello line is made up of samples of cellos playing those notes. But here lies another danger: a computer doesn't know what can't be played. Every couple of years I see a score that includes unplayable things written by reading composers (and in fact, in college my first composition was unplayable) - for non-readers that would happen much more frequently. A composer or orchestrator needs to have a working knowledge of how each instrument produces tones, and the physical problems a line will present to the musicians. Some flute trills can't be done (but a computer will hand them to you without knowing that, and you'll think it's fine). If your brass line has too many notes in series that don't follow the natural harmonics the players will struggle. Range is always an issue - last month I saw a score by a reading composer that had a note for the bassoons that the instrument can't play. And if you don't play a wind instrument, you're not really aware of the demands of breathing and tonguing... using a keyboard sidesteps that issue (and it's the reason my first composition wasn't playable).

A non-reader can layer things to create a sort of sound painting, as the electronica folks do. But it's not going to approach the level of a halfway decent arranger.

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fleaaaaaa
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I wonder if McCartney's piece would have been closer to what he actually had in mind if he'd used a computer to write it all down. I mean sure he would still have needed a real arranger to sort out notes that couldn't be done. Anyway I've written music on computers as long as I played guitar, I learned a lot doing that. Though I could never make music as good as the artists I've mentioned, which as soon as I mentioned Notes+Noteboat assumed they were certainly one thing or the other and I bet they never even heard them, oh well.

together we stand, divided we fall..........


   
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NoteBoat
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I hadn't until yesterday. After your post (but before my response) I listened to some Aphex Twin and Boards of Canada.

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Chris C
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There are a couple of reasons that approach works for small ensembles, but not large ones in the hands of a non-reader. The first is an understanding of orchestration, which requires a solid foundation in counterpoint and harmony - the kind of understanding you can't distill down into non-reading terms.

Tom, I agree with all your points about the necessity for a really thorough knowledge of counterpoint and harmony to write successfully for big orchestras. And I'd add that the book I have on orchestration uses traditional notation to illustrate the points too. So if I want to absorb what the book says I need to at least have a basic understanding of what the dots mean (and a good chunk of the underlying theory too). However, my continued support for the idea that I can manage to write music without notation is based on three things.

  • a) The market for new orchestral work is very small compared to the one for popular songs, jingles, etc. I personally have no intention of ever attempting a symphony. My goal is writing songs. I could get by without traditional notation if I had to. In fact, I have done so to date and I mostly use my knowledge of notation for reading sheet music of songs.

    b) It would presumably be extremely unusual to learn orchestration in any detail without previously having some knowledge of notation, because the institutions (colleges, Conservatoriums, etc) that teach orchestration would surely assume a prior working knowledge of reading and writing music. That's the way it's always been done in the past, so why would they change a working formula? Likewise, as I mentioned, the books assume that if you want the second set of knowledge you will already have a working knowledge of the other. Notation is certainly a good way to illustrate the points. But the notation isn't the knowledge, it's just a way of displaying it. In itself, it won't tell me if something works for a certain set of instruments - I'd have to build up a working knowledge of the instruments for that, not just alone but in context with others (as you said). You can write a crummy unplayable score on manuscript paper just as easily as on a computer. I believe that it's possible to acquire the knowledge I need by listening and by experimenting with what I've 'written' into the computer. I also have a moderate amount of theoretical music knowledge now (unconnected to notation as such) which I can apply, irrespective of how I store the results. It's the depth of study and experience that's more important to me than the particular vehicle used to notate or store the attempts.

    c) I'm not talking about a collection of musicians in a room improvising an unwritten song together by ear. I'm thinking about a single composer (preferably me!) sitting at computer and working through the possibilities until I like what I hear. I definitely understand the need to arrange and distribute the tones in the manner you describe (although clearly not as well as you do) So I believe that I could (with a lot more practice!) do that on a midi score as well as on a written one.


  • To that end I have a computer with software like Finale, ProTools, Melodyne, Garritan libraries with the Aria player, etc to help me along the way. On the hardware side I have an audio interface that will handle either midi input or audio input from a mic, directly from a bass or whatever, plus various instruments to make the sounds. Plus a midi keyboard and a Roland electronic drumkit that allows me to assign whatever voice I like to the keyboard or to individual elements of the kit. I don't do it that way because I'm anti-notation (which I can both read and write if I want to) but because it seems more direct to leave out the extra conversion stage that I don't need.

    I don't think that traditional notation will die out - much as the piano didn't completely kill off the harpsichord. But my guess is that more and more music will be written using similar computer tools (and ones as yet unbuilt) and that writing notated scores will become more of a niche activity. Competing ways of storing the required information, contained in electronic files, will increasingly become a competing de facto standard.

    No? Too bold a prediction? :twisted:
    Instead of MIDI, I use VST instruments, so my cello line is made up of samples of cellos playing those notes.

    Instead of MIDI - how? Surely, your VST intruments store your selection of cello samples, or any other line, on a midi score? Mine do. The score can then be edited - in midi - however you like. The player then chooses the appropriate sample to use at playback time. It sounds to me as if you're already using midi to compose, you're just not using the other writing and editing possibilities it offers, because you prefer a more traditional way. No?


       
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    notes_norton
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    I have nothing against computers or MIDI to make music, as some of you know I write MIDI aftermarket styles for Band-in-a-Box http://www.nortonmusic.com and I create the backing tracks for my duo http://www.nortonmusic.com/backing_tracks.html

    For 30 years MIDI has become embedded in the DNA of virtually every pop music production (paraphrasing Craig Anderton who was quoting Alan Parsons).

    I see MIDI sequencers as a digital piano roll for synthesizers and I see nothing wrong with computer music. I have an Internet Friend who is composing a 'classical' concerto for 2 wind synthesizers and MIDI orchestra. But it's not being done by snipping, copying, and pasting the works of others. Instead it is being done as the old masters did it, by knowing the rules of classical composition, but using the new tools.

    Using the copy and paste technique, or even using my 'most excellent' styles in Band-in-a-Box will give you a pleasurable piece of music, but it cannot compare to a symphony by Dvorak, Beethoven, Prokofiev, Tchaikovsky, or any of the others. Nor does it pretend to.

    To follow along the visual art analogy, here is my personal comparison. Making music by copying and pasting snippets of other people's music is like a collage as opposed to an oil painting. Both are considered art, but the skilled painter can create a masterpiece that the collage artist cannot come close to.

    IMHO reading music is an essential tool for any musician - this includes guitarists, percussionists and even vocalists. And I'm talking about standard notation, not just tab (although you can add that). It is the lingua franca of musicians - the common language. It is how musicians who speak different languages can get together and play the same piece of music together. It is how a fugue by Bach can be played but a player of today. Reading music to a musician is like reading these words on this post to a speaker of English. Without that skill, you are musically illiterate.

    That doesn't mean that there aren't exceptional people who can create truly great music without knowing how to read music, but those are few and far in between. And there is a limit to what you can do without knowing how to read music and understand music theory. I don't think it's possible to write even a mediocre symphony without it.

    I bought Paul McCartney's "Standing Stone" CD when it came out, and even with the help he had, it pales in comparison to a good symphony. Paul admitted that he doesn't know anything about the variations and development of themes. Not that it's a bad work, just not a great one. Billy Joel's Chopin-esque work was much better developed.

    It also doesn't mean that reading music is the only tool you will need. Your most important tool is your set of ears, without those, reading the music will most likely be sterile.

    Also, I don't think it is necessary that you be able to sightread either, although if you read enough, you will develop this skill. And most will never sightread very complex works (that's what the proverbial woodshed is for). I've read music since I was a child, and consider myself a good sight reader (sat first sax in the all-state band each year I was in school) but a very difficult piece sends me to the woodshed. But reading the dots on the page will not necessarily get me the essence of song, especially a pop or jazz piece, because in these and other genres, the dots are an approximation of where the notes go, not an exact representation.

    So again, it's not Ear vs Eyes but Ear PLUS eyes.

    Insights and incites by Notes

    Bob "Notes" Norton

    Owner, Norton Music http://www.nortonmusic.com Add-on Styles for Band-in-a-Box and Microsoft SongSmith

    The Sophisticats http://www.s-cats.com >^. .^< >^. .^<


       
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    Chris C
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    It also doesn't mean that reading music is the only tool you will need. Your most important tool is your set of ears, without those, reading the music will most likely be sterile.

    Also, I don't think it is necessary that you be able to sightread either, although if you read enough, you will develop this skill. And most will never sightread very complex works (that's what the proverbial woodshed is for). I've read music since I was a child, and consider myself a good sight reader (sat first sax in the all-state band each year I was in school) but a very difficult piece sends me to the woodshed. But reading the dots on the page will not necessarily get me the essence of song, especially a pop or jazz piece, because in these and other genres, the dots are an approximation of where the notes go, not an exact representation.

    So again, it's not Ear vs Eyes but Ear PLUS eyes.

    Insights and incites by Notes

    Notes, I agree with what you say. Traditional notation is indeed the de facto lingua franca of music, and has been for a very long time. It's why I learned to read. But I don't think that its place is so secure any more. Modern technology seems to be breathing down its neck with alternative ways of storing and notating the required information. I'm not satisfied any more with just writing the score on a page, I want to hear it all as I go. The computer gives me that option. I could use standard notation on the computer, but I don't have to any more.

    Cheers,

    Chris

    For anybody else reading this who might think that midi is still just rinky dink stuff that uses a bunch of crummy inbuilt computer sounds, this is an interesting 14.5 mins demonstration that shows part of what it can do. In this instance they start by converting an audio file to midi before building their arrangement, so that they can match the timing to an existing video (Warning: Bagpipes!). But composers can use the same technology to build an entirely new original piece. As some now do.


       
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