graphic score music notation

This traditional way of writing down music can take a long time to learn. It has rules that a musician needs to follow. However this isn’t the only way we can write down music.

In the 1950’s, composers began experimenting with new sounds and needed another way to write down their music. They developed a new way of visualising music known as graphic scores or graphic notation.

Postwar composers, such as Cage, Cardew and Crumb, have left an exuberant legacy of seductive graphic scores that still puzzle and fascinate the artists and musicians of today.

Musicians have been experimenting with graphic notations since the early 20th Century.

Some graphic notations are just an augmentation of traditional notation, still notated on ledger lines but with new symbols.

Some only show approximate pitch whereas some only show approximate rhythm.

Chamber Music – Graphic Score

Some still use traditional elements but along with abstract symbols that are completely open to interpretation (Cornelius Cardew, Treatise).

Cornelius Cardew’s Treatise (1963-67) | Graphic score, Sketch book

Moreover, graphic scores are also used as a representation / transcription of the original music as in the case of Rainer Wehinger’s graphic notation of György Ligeti’s Artikulation.

György Ligeti’s Artikulation, part of the graphic score
György Ligeti’s Artikulation, part of the graphic score

Graphic scores often look very different to traditional musical scores. Instead of lines and dots on a musical stave, graphic scores can use all sorts of different images and symbols to tell the performer what to play.


Throughout the 50s and 60s, a new generation of post-war composers like Krzysztof Penderecki, Karlheinz Stockhausen, John Cage, Roman Haubenstock-Ramati started using graphic notation as a serious and necessary alternative to tradition forms of notation.

Roman Haubenstock-Ramati

Brian Eno is one of the more well-known contemporary musicians using graphic notation. Eno is very open about not having a formal musical education and thus being unable to notate in an orthodox way. He has used graphic scores out of necessity and has made it a normal part of his process.

The Ambient Collection / Brian Eno – Graphic Scores

He told an interviewer that ‘quite a lot of what I do has to do with sound texture, and you can’t notate that anyway… That’s because musical notation arose at a time when sound textures were limited.’ Eno gave the musicians on the recording of Music for Airports a lot of latitude in interpreting the score with instructions such as ‘play the note C every 21 seconds’. The score is reprinted on the back of vinyl release (CD) of Music for Airports.

Brian Eno, Music for Airports released in 1978 / republished in 2018
Brian Eno, Music for Airports released in 1978 / republished in 2018

A great compilation of graphic scores was made by composer John Cage called Notations (1969). The book is made up of a large collection of graphical scores, facsimiles of holographs, from the Foundation for Contemporary Performance Arts, with text by 269 composers, which are presented in alphabetical order, with each score allotted equal space, and in which the editor has no more authority than the reader in assigning value to the work (Kostelanetz, 1993).

John Cage Notations (1969)
John Cage Notations (1969)

Notations 21, published by Mark Batty Publisher (2009), is a compendium and anthology including composers from around the globe exploring experimental notation in the last 40 years, deriving its inspiration from Cage’s seminal work Notations (1969). Thousands of new composers are creating scores, that are graphic in nature, inspired by technology, science, and visual art, etc. liberated from the traditional staff, that intrigue the eyes of the viewer in presentation. The modern music world did not cease its notational experiments but has continued on with many new developments that are represented in Notations 21.

Theresa Sauer Notations 21, published by Mark Batty Publisher (2009)
Theresa Sauer Notations 21, published by Mark Batty Publisher (2009)

Practical matters

The orchestral score, graphical or otherwise, is a remarkably efficient way of organising and producing a large quantity and variety of musical events in a short time. This fact is not lost on Hollywood producers and music supervisors, who still prefer to commission a film score that can be completed in days rather than months. Film and pop scores are rarely published and sometimes discarded, much to the chagrin of film music record companies attempting to re-record classic film soundtrack

Cybernetic-Serendipity

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