November 20, 2012 § 2 Comments
Why is it so hard to read music? One reason is that doing many things at once, like reading and interpreting symbols, listening to the sounds you’re making, operating complex machinery at a high speed (that’s the piano, folks), coordinating 2 hands and 2 feet, 2 eyes and 2 ears in real time to a beat in your head, and trying to make sense of something you really care about, is genuinely HARD.
The other reason is that music itself is hard to WRITE. To simplify the process, lots of shortcuts have been made through the centuries. That leaves us with a system that is full of fancy repeats, symbols with multiple meanings, sporadic instructions (Key signatures? Accidentals?) and the things that try students’ patience and, fortunately, keep music teachers employed.
If it sounds like a lousy bargain, speeding up the writing but slowing down the reading, you have never written music by hand. It is a fussy, demanding job. And, up until computers, preparing the plates for printing was a laborious craft. Each mark on the page had to be made by hand, on a steel plate, backwards, perfectly, for printing. Every note, every stem, every slur, every dot, every flat, every sharp, every everything had to be scribed on the steel by hand. There is no moveable type for music. Gutenberg’s revolution missed us musicians.
This video, by the music publishers G.Henle Verlag, show the process in precise detail. The camera looks over the shoulder of a craftsman as he puts in the staff, knocks in the note-heads, rules the bar lines, scrapes, etches and punches his way through a line of music. It even shows how he corrects mistakes.
I could hardly breathe while watching this the first time. I knew it was an exacting craft, but I had no idea it was as demanding as this. This is the best video ever because it shows one reason why music is so hard to read: it is really hard to write.