Many folk songs were never written down. Even many skilled performers and composers, such as the legendary songwriter Irving Berlin, relied solely on their ears and were not able to read music.

The writing down of music has two main purposes. First, it enables a piece of music to be "recreated" over and over again fairly exactly. It thus gives the composer more precise control over how the music sounds. Think of the difference between verbal driving directions and a road-map: It is much easier to convey precise and extensive directions in written form. Second, written music enables musicians to move together in more intricate, flexible and strictly determined ways.

One further benefit of a musical score is that it enables a piece of music to be studied without being played. It is through a close examination of the musical score that composers learn how a piece that they admire is put together. Music may be notated in a variety of ways. Some notations are very general, giving only approximate indications, others are more specific. In Western music, conventional notation has become more and more well defined. The 18th-century master Johann Sebastian Bach often did not specify which instruments were needed, marked only general dynamic levels of loud and soft, and used very approximate markings for the speed of the music. These issues, therefore, are left open to on-going interpretation and debate. By the 19th-century, composers such as Beethoven and Brahms marked specific instrumentation, and notated more gradations of dynamic levels and more precise indications of speed. Some 20th-century composers have gone so far as to mark a different dynamic level on every single sound!

Avant-garde composers in the 20th-century have experimented with unconventional means of notating music. They did so to break free from traditional sounds and methods. For instance, the American composer Earle Brown wrote "graphic" scores that consist of lines of different lengths and dots of different sizes, arranged in patterns on the page. Reading such a score is very open-ended: Each performer interprets it in his or her own way. Such unconventional notation is often very useful in working with young or untrained musicians: It takes imagination, but not necessarily expertise, to write it down or perform it.

Learning to read music opens the possibility of a deeper and more careful study of music literature. Like learning to read languages, learning music takes consistent practice. Many useful tools, like flash cards, are readily available at music stores and on-line. The Connexions web-site has excellent tutorials on standard music notation (

< previous next >