Iconic Notation and Music Literacy

Version 2Honestly, for years I considered iconic notation a cheap substitute for “real” music notation. I thought it was something music teachers used as a last resort when they had thrown in the towel at successfully teaching their students to read and write in standard music notation. Because of this view of iconic notation, I avoided it, thinking that I was somehow taking the higher ground. Of course, this was faulty thinking on my part. Iconic notation has been employed by respected composers for decades when standard notation was inadequate for representing what they wanted performers of their music to do, and far from being a poor substitute, iconic notation is an excellent way of teaching the concept of notation in general; that is, the written representation of a specific sound and specific direction for producing that sound. Music is written down, in whatever form, so that it can be shared with other musicians who can use it to perform a musical work, thereby sharing it aurally with an audience. It does not have to be done through written notation, but notation is a sufficiently important media to warrant its teaching in music education. The key is getting music passed from creator to performer. For a musically literate person, learning music from notation is an efficient method.

As with any written system, the key is to first have a sound in mind, then to associate that sound with a particular written symbol. When many different sounds are involved as they are in music, it helps to have a verbal name for each sound which then is attached to the written symbol along with the actual sound. In iconic notation, I might want to write down a symbol that will tell the performer to oscillate between two tones, so I make the sound of my voice going back and forth between two pitches that are approximately a minor third apart. I call this sound a squiggle. My students then perform a squiggle, so they all know what it sounds like, and they all know what it is called. Once that is in place, I draw a squiggle on the board, and tell them that is what a squiggle looks like. Whenever they see that symbol, they are to sing a squiggle. I can control the rhythm of the squiggle by making the drawn squiggle tighter or more drawn out for faster or slower, respectively, and I can control the distance between the tones by the height of the squiggle. All of this is somewhat subjective, because I cannot indicate precisely what tones to produce, or how quickly to move between them, but I am leaving iconic directions on what and how to produce my sound; how to perform my music.  If I were to publish this work, I would not be able to teach about my squiggle to a class, so I would do what many composers have done–I would include written directions in the first pages of the score. This is necessary because, unlike standard music notation, iconic notation is not necessarily universal. In other words, my written squiggle might not mean the same thing to as many musicians as say an E-flat on a treble clef would.

Now back the the music classroom. Once I have taught my class about the squiggle and allowed them to practice performing a short musical work made out of squiggles of various speeds and sizes, I will have them create their own sounds and symbols, and teach them to each other. This can be done first in a whole-class setting, where one student at a time creates a sound and symbol and teaches it to the class, and then later in small groups, where the students create sounds and symbols, compose a work using them, and then performs the work for the class from their iconic notation. A variant of that is for each group to teach the class how to use their iconic notation, or to write clear directions, and then have another groups perform the work from the iconic notation. In this case, the composing groups can see how clear their directions are, and how closely others will capture their intent by reading their iconic score. This opens the possibility for valuable dialog between composers and performers, and makes the composers aware of their responsibility to make every effort to realize other composers’ intent when they perform other music.

Here is an example of a music composing project using iconic notation. In it, pitch is indicated by the vertical placement of the symbols, while duration is indicated by the size of the symbol–larger shapes are longer, while smaller shapes are shorter. There are also instances where beaming is borrowed from standard notation to group tones together that are to be performed in especially fast succession. Rests are notated with double vertical squiggles. Though it is unclear without speaking to the composers, the faces drawn on the larger symbols introduces the possibility of notating a desired emotion to individual tones, where some tones would be “happy notes” while others would be “sad notes.” Happy and sad might then be worked out by the performer by manipulating the tone to be darker or brighter depending on the desired emotion.

Here is an ingenious musical work that is written in iconic notation. Different instrument timbres are represented by different shapes, and durations are represented by relative distances between symbols. The timing of each sound onset is controlled by the dial which rotates through the performance. Dynamics are indicated by the size and color of the symbols. While this method lends itself to the computerized presentation shown here, it could also be used by live performers, where a “conductor” moved the dial and the performers played “notes” when the dial passed over the symbol associated with their instrument.

It is worth mentioning that this particular work is much better suited for iconic notation than standard music notation. Imagine trying to notate and then read the rhythm of all those dotes.

There is no doubt that iconic notation is useful in introducing music notation to young or novice music students, and it is sure to be of value in early music education. Its use should not be abandoned with older students. Iconic notation can release students to compose creatively without being restricted by what they can notate using standard music notation. In some cases, composing in iconic notation will be a gateway to discussing how to notate the same work using standard music notation. In other instances, as in the example above, it will be best to leave the work in iconic notation. Either way, iconic notation is a valuable tool in teaching our students music literacy.

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