Music and its media
Music and its media

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Music and its media

1 How is music transmitted?

Before you begin to work through each of the case studies, you should first consider some of the main ways music is transmitted, and the issues you should bear in mind when examining instances of these. Below is a brief chronology of the main developments in the transmission of western music.

  1. Oral/aural transmission. To begin with, pieces of music could only be passed orally from one person to the next. While this oral or aural transmission of music allowed recipients to experience first-hand how a piece might be performed, the scope of communication was limited to this contact between individuals.
  2. Manuscripts. In certain contexts, oral/aural transmission was not felt to be sufficient; there was a need to have a more permanent and visible record of musical works and practices. This led to the representation of musical sound through forms of notation – the origins of current western notation can be traced back to plainchant manuscripts of the ninth century. Through this written communication, musical pieces and practices could disseminate further. In these early years, this visual representation of music was purely in manuscript, and these handwritten documents were copied only for the small section of society that was musically literate.
  3. Printing and publishing. The invention of the printing press in the mid-fifteenth century, and the gradual development of music publishing, allowed for the dissemination of pieces to a wider audience.
  4. Recording. Finally, the invention of the phonograph in 1877 introduced the possibility of recording musical sounds without the need for visual representation on the page. It allowed the transmission to a wide audience of music that was not notated, such as certain kinds of folk and popular music in the western and non-western worlds.

This chronological outline should not give the impression that each form of musical media was supplanted by the next – all of the above forms of communication are still in use today. In the UK, we can transmit and experience musical works orally/aurally, through forms of notation (handwritten or printed) or through recordings. Nor is the above chronology necessarily an indication of increasing sophistication in the communication of music. Different cultures and different musical genres have adopted one or more of these forms of media as a reflection of their social and musical circumstances. Whereas in western art music, for example, a piece might be communicated through various means (a composer’s manuscript draft of a piece might be transmitted further in a printed edition, which is then performed and recorded), some musical genres, such as pop music, have focused on recording technology rather than notation for the creation and dissemination of works. Other traditions, including many in the non-western world, have passed on musical practices and works largely through oral/aural communication.

In spite of the technological developments listed above, the one form of communication which remains inherent to all our musical experiences is the oral/aural transmission of pieces and practices. We have all experienced this way of communicating and learning music, without reference to notation. Consider, for example, the playground songs you shared as a child, or well-known football chants or Christmas carols. Furthermore, even when a piece has been notated, there are always unwritten performance practices that can only be learned orally/aurally from another musician. Notation has limitations in communicating performing conventions, and is typically just a starting point for the performer – other features can be learned only by listening to a performance, from subtleties such as dynamics, timbre and rubato, to more substantial changes, such as the addition of ornamentation or sections of improvised material. This is why the use of recording technology is so significant for the transmission of music: it not only allows composers to create and communicate unique pieces of music without the need for notation, it also provides a means of documenting orally transmitted pieces and practices that we might find difficult to represent on the page (Taruskin, 2005, p. 481; Boorman, 1999).


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