Friday, June 26, 2009

Copy that

At least half my training as a composer has come from copying music. Not imitating the music of others but the note-for-note copying of scores by others both as work for hire and for my own use, to play and study. (See also this post). Whether with pen and ink on paper or by pointing and clicking with an engraving program, copying invites, indeed forces, one to attend to the music in an analytic and intimate way that, in my experience, casual listening to a recording cannot replace, and to hear imaginatively, interpreting both details and larger passages in the in-and-out-of-time unique to the written score. A major part of the copyist's work is planning the project, finding the most efficient way to move notes from the original to the copying, figuring out the most elegant layout of notes, measures, systems, pages, all of which is analytical work, tracing phrases, sections, processes, resemblances and differences, identifying local tactics and global strategies of both original and transcription, as well as the inevitable and incalaculable surprises. Even deciding where to place page turns is a matter that invites analytical and interpretive engagement!

Composers have probably trained by copying music for as long as music has been written down. The tales of the youthful Bach and Mozart copying music by others are familar to many young musicians (as I remember them, these tales often include mention of candlelight and ruining ones' eyes). While it is entirely possible that copying, indeed written notation altogether, will fade even further away from widespread use, in favor of more purely aural/oral transmission, recordings, and possibly even new technologies as yet unimagined, it is hard to escape from the recognition that copying has been a useful skill, and written notation an effective and long-lived technology for moving music from here to these as well as preserving and learning about music.

An effective technology, but not a perfect reproductive technology, in the sense of a perfect digital copy of a sound file: the risk and the charm — and, to my ears, ultimately the advantage — of the handmade copy is the interjection of interpretation into the path of transmission. On the one hand, this is just another example of (Richard K.) Winslow's law at work — "if you want a perfect copy, learn it by ear, if you want to garantee that it changes over time, write it down" — but on the other, this interpretative act can be a first step in a process moving inevitably towards new composition. Each work I have copied (as a teenager, I copied lots of Webern and Machaut and Cage and Harrison and Purcell and Lully and transcribed almost every note of Harry Partch, I later earned part of my living copying for colleagues and doing ghost-scoring for films; now I do some interesting work for Material Press) has been an invitation to compose something new, as if tracing the paths of each of these pieces has made more urgent the paths not taken.


Alfredo Votta said...

May I translate this and publish on my blog?

Daniel Wolf said...



paul bailey said...

i learned a lot by copying scores and i think transcription is the other side of that coin.

i used to do a lot of score study, but these days i'd rather just write it down by ear and figure out how it works.

both are valid and essential tools

Alfredo Votta said...


The translation is published here:

to my language, Portuguese.

Kit said...

Being familiar with the stories of Handel, Bach, etc., copying scores and learning that way, I've tried it myself--I still remember copying most of the overture of Handel's Watermusic. My problem is that (a) it takes so doggoned long to do if you write neatly, and (b) I learned very quickly that I could copy without really focusing on the material at hand (I've since learned that I can also read aloud but be thinking about something else entirely). Ultimately, it just seems to work better for me to study the scores and put the same attention into examining the parts and textures that I might have in transmitting them to a new format.

P. S.: Winslow's law re: perfect copies transmitted by ear suggests that he may have been unfamiliar with the problem posed to folk song archivists--namely, the innumerable variations of even well-known tunes. See the work of Ralph Vaughan Williams, Gustav Holst, Zoltan Kodaly, et al.