Friday, October 03, 2008

Keyed up

Western music notation has had an astonishing stability in that the designs of the various signs and other notational conventions remain similar enough that contemporary musicians are backwards compatible enough to read from original notation, both printed and in manuscript, dating back to at least the late 18th century. (A nice counterexample to this stability is in German written texts: most German speakers living today can decipher Fraktur typefaces or blackletter handwriting only with great difficult, if at all.)

Within that extended period of time, there have been temporary and local variants in notation style, but most differences are minor enough that competing versions of sign graphics are usually interchangeable. Indeed, most contemporary scores are assemblies of signs and conventions gradually accumulated over music history rather than the representation of an overall design concept.

The clefs — the treble especially — have images that stabilized rather early in this period, and these images (alongside those for rests and the serifed fonts associated with piano pedaling and numbering of rests) have a decidely archaic quality. I was recently playing around with a change in my own engraving style, switching from traditional wavy flags on eighth and smaller notes to straight angled flags, as a small salute to modernity. In the same spirit, I then decided to push the point a bit further and seek out a more modern-looking set of clefs. This has proved to be much trickier. First of all, because my computer graphic skills are limited, but more importantly, because defining the necessary or desired features of these signs is just plain hard. Should a clef extend in height beyond the staff? Should it emphasize the vertical or lean backaways? Should a clef legibly represent the note to which the clef is keyed (G, C, F)? Should that note be pointed to graphically (e.g. with an arrow or a colon or crosshairs)? Should the clef be straight, angled or curved? Should all parts of the clef have the same width? Should it have a tail? How much of a spiral should it have in the middle? Is the loop at the top round or pointed? Should there be the serif-like circular (the ball at the bottom of the tail) and pointed ends? How far away from a traditional clef can you get and still have a recognizeable clef?

(The image includes examples of manuscript clefs by Cage, Babbitt, Harrison, & Young.)

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