How Can There Be Wrong Notes When There Aren’t Any Notes At All?

In my studies at MUSIC FOR PEOPLE I learned that there are no wrong notes.  My favorite Thelonius Monk quote is “The piano ain’t got no wrong notes.”  Well I’m here to tell you that the piano ain’t got any notes at all.  Read on.

I’m always on the lookout for things that get in the way of us all being our complete musical selves.  I feel that if we identify these blocks we can learn to step around them or dance around them.  And we can sing while we dance.

I think that one of the global blocks is notation.  It affects everyone even if you don’t read or try to read music.  The reason for this is that it affects the way our culture perceives music.  We think of music as more complex than it is.  It can be complex if we want it to be but so can conversation but that doesn’t stop most of us from speaking.

Music notation and music complexity evolved together.  The first notes were simply reminders which is why they were called notes.  Notes took many forms over the centuries from places like Mesopotamia to ancient Greece but the trajectory that led to modern western notation started in the middle of the 9th century.  People would write diagonal lines called neumes above the words of poems to indicate whether the melody went up or down.

It took another fifty years to place the neumes at varying heights above the words to suggest the shape of the melody.  Then they started drawing horizontal lines to really zero in on the pitch.  They started with a red line then added a yellow line and by the 11th century they had four lines.

The 5th line took another two hundred years.  Rhythm was another matter.  The notation of rhythm started with rhythmic modes.  There were six of them in the eleventh century and they were based on the cadences of poetic verse that people of that time were already familiar with.  I am not familiar with those verses so I don’t even try to comprehend.

In the next century they started to dissect the rhythms into discreet parts using different note heads with names like long, double long, breve (for brief I’m guessing), and semibreve which would be subdivided into twos and threes as the imperfect and the imperfect respectively.  These would all be interpreted based on their relationships to each other, again way too complicated for me.  Time signatures and bar lines weren’t invented until well into the fourteenth century.

Why was it so difficult to nail this stuff down?  They’d been doing it with words for hundreds of years.

My theory is that in the beginning individual notes didn’t exist as separate from the words and melody and all the indescribable nuances of the song.  The concept of individual notes had to be created right along with the notation that was being invented. To parcel everything out was a technological feat on par with extracting iron from ore.  The music they had could not be written down so they had to create music that could.

There was a time when you could sing a song to someone and they could sing it to someone else and other people could join in just like in any conversation.  And when the singing stopped the song would only exist in memory ready to be sung again as a different piece of music whenever it was desired.

I believe that speaking and music developed concurrently in our evolution.  To me they are inseparable.  When words are spoken it’s pretty darn difficult to keep the music out of them.  Words and music are quite the package.  Words convey thoughts and music conveys everything else.  That’s why jingles are so effective. Like salt and water, once you combine them it’s very difficult to separate them.  The truth of the music becomes part of the words to the point where people believe that the words are true.  Maybe Gregorian Chants were some kind of early form of jingle.

Like I said at the beginning, this block called notation effects us all.  Whether we can effortlessly read whatever “music” is put in front of us or if we have managed to keep written music out of our lives completely it’s hard to escape from the paradigm that music can be broken down into individual parts and that it doesn’t simply flow through us a like a river.

You can put your bucket in the river and attempt to distill it down to its essentials or you can jump in and swim.  And the next time you tackle a “piece” of Mozart remember to make it your own.  Mozart has long ago let it go so you are free to do with it what you will.  And the next time you have a musical inspiration and you want to write it down remember that the notes you write are just notes to remind you of where to look knowing that when you find it the music will be completely different from what it was.

Music is who we are.  Let us be who we are.  Let us not be notes.

4 thoughts on “How Can There Be Wrong Notes When There Aren’t Any Notes At All?

  1. I love your ideas. It reminds me of academia in general; it breaks the flow (the whole) down into tiny little pieces in order to study, over-study, obsess and ultimately understand the whole better. Of course, this only works if the tiny pieces are reassembled again, and then the whole is understood as more than the sum of its parts. Hmmm. In my experience it is rare to find any academic, be it musician or writer or scientist, who is adept at dissection and integration. This is what I am always striving for in my life.

    1. LOL! Thanks Meg. I thought it was funny that now I am receiving these facebook feeds about how musicians are sexy! So when what was posted was just about drumming, ( and having been in an orchestra at one time I wondered about that since I was nine) I thought, playing my PART on the clarinet made absolutely no sense whatsoever to me, not like the piano did which is what my first really love was, that is until I actually started singing…BUT when it is all put together it makes actual MUSIC, the definition of which I still have trouble with defining. Sorry it took me so long to reply to you. I have so many irons in the fire but comMUSIKey is such a passion of mine now…Unfortunatetly school starts for me on Monday and I have to focus on that and just the music and my son and ket some other people and stuff slide as a result…I am looking forward to meeting you in person. Oh! And next semester, you may see me occasionally at YC Chorale Union Events. I lost the piano long ago though Jonathan has offered to help me restart that again as it was my first instrument after all…I will be singing with Chris Eubank and Angelorum starting in January..

  2. OMG! This concept of music is too true to be ignored! Hebrew which is thought to be the language of God whatever you call THAT, is such a musical language as is Gaelic and Italian well sort of! Did you ever hear a Scot talk? or an indigenous Irish or Native American? When did this separation of music from language occur….? Hmm great food for thought! I LOVE IT!

  3. Thank you Jonathan! I love what you wrote about music, and it reminded me of this great book, “The Music Lesson”, by Victor L. Wooten, who wrote something very similar, particularly on the natural relationship between Music and conversation! I’ve always felt like I sing when I speak in a foreign language, including in English (French being my native language :-)).

    I am going to circulate your article to my friends :-).

    Thanks again, and keep up the great work!!


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