Arranger’s Toolbox 5: Non-Traditional Notation

What, you can't read this?

What, you can't read this?

If you went back in time with only your computer, it’s saved internet cache, and a love for a cappella, how would you teach an arrangement if music notation hadn’t been invented? Well, if you’re Guido of Arezzo, you’ll just invent notation and that will be that…or you could utilize some non-traditional notation techniques. Fortunately, this article (hence the saved cache…get it?) will help timetravelers or acamembers who don’t read sheet music.

[Aside: While it’s nice to use swanky ways of notation to cater to everyone’s skill level, if you have someone or are someone who is in for the long haul it would behoove you/them to learn the rudiments of sheet music. The empowerment to communicate beyond an arcane language to a more universal language is empowerment indeed.]

Let’s learn by example:

Alto intro for What's My Age Again, by Blink182 width=

This comes from an arrangement by MusicaRanger

You wrote a beautiful intro phrase for an alto from Blink182’s “What’s My Age Again“. Unfortunately, she can’t read sheet music. Here are three ways to circumnavigate: Visual notation, mechanical notation, and contextual notation (these terms aren’t “standard terms,” they’re just something to work with for now).

Three ways to Zion.

A handy chart.

  • Visual Notation

This method is pretty explanatory, but it gets dicey when you have active passages. For many background parts, the vocal line can be distilled to a couple of lines and instructions of what to say. This harkens back to the good old days of Neumes, for you history buffs.

Of course, the part will need to be sung first before arbitrary lines will be of any help. Someone will have to know how big a jump it is between two lines…this visual notation can be used as a memory aid after a part has been quickly taught. Also, if the alto loses one repetition of “Beck-eh,” she’ll be off by half a beat but not know it…until something sounds atrocious in the chorus.

  • Mechanical

So maybe your alto remembers some things from General Music in 7th grade, or doesn’t have someone around who know’s the part. An set of instructions in English, translating the music language, is another way of non-traditional notation.

In this example, the major fourth can be described as the opening fanfare from Star Wars (the “da da da da dum” that starts the main theme). This is half a measure’s worth of music, so it repeats to fill the measure then continues for six more measures.

The downside to this is that it gets wordy, and somewhere there will be multiple ways of describing one nuance of the music and confusion will set in. However, a mechanical way of describing the music can be quick in a rehearsal and usually memorable. Once people are off book, the music director more-often-than-not will correct oopsies with mechanical direction (and that’s when really colorful imagery will drive home a part…”imagine your friend Becca loves Star Wars…”).

  • Contextual

Sometimes it’s easiest for someone to learn how their part makes up a whole. If we take a look at the Soprano part…

Soprano Part, which makes up the rest of the arpeggio with the alto part

Soprano Part, which makes up the rest of the arpeggio with the alto part

…we see that it makes up a second-inversion F# chord. If you listen to the original, you’ll hear this arpeggiation. The alto part and the soprano part in this arrangement make up a composite part (See Composite Parts). So, a way that the alto can learn her part without looking at sheet music is hear how she and the soprano link up. Big picture learning, eh?

The downside to this learning is that if the boat starts to sink, it really sinks. If the soprano bobbles something, the alto in turn will bobble. However, this serves as a double-edged sword: you can bet your alto is listening to the soprano, and you’ll probably get a much tighter sound because of it. Ideally, once everyone is off their music, a little contextual listening will really glue the parts together.

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Major 4th should be perfect 4th. And “Star Wars” is a perfect 5th. =P Not that it matters a whole lot. Other than that, excellent article. =)

Written By Amanda on April 18th, 2011 @ 11:29 am

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