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Understanding musical scores
Understanding musical scores

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1.1.1 How do musical scores work?

A standard definition of a musical score is ‘a copy of a composition on a set of staves braced and barred together’ (Oxford Classical Dictionary) or staves ‘that are vertically aligned so as to represent visually the musical coordination’ (Grove Concise Dictionary of Music). Put very simply, it shows all the parts of a piece of music and how they fit together.

The function of a musical score is to document a piece of music in a written format, but many different types of notation can be used to achieve this. Look at these examples and consider how the sound and the visual representation of that sound relate to each other.

Some notations tell the reader what to do physically with fingers and hands on an instrument while others indicate a general sound structure such as a chord and expect the player to make sense of the rhythm and melody from that. Listen to the song Greensleeves. This piece of music is over 400 years old. How do you think it was written down?

Download this audio clip.Audio player: Greensleeves
Interactive feature not available in single page view (see it in standard view).

The lute was very popular during the early modern period, and music for this instrument was written in a notation that presents a clear instruction to the player about where to put their fingers on which specific string of a lute. Horizontal lines represent the strings of the instrument and letters the frets. The marks over the lines are indicators of rhythm. You can view images from a digital version of the original manuscript [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] online, by searching for William Ballet’s lute book (MS 408/1).

Modern guitar chord symbols work on a similar principle, but they only provide a suggestion of where to put your left-hand fingers, and nothing else. Other types of notation such as lead sheets, rely on the improvisation skills of the player who is expected to construct melody and rhythm from just chord indications and perhaps an outline of a known melody. These are often used jazz standards and rely on the player being familiar with the lyrics and structure of the song, and also with how chords are constructed and what they should sound like.

Now try Gershwin’s famous I Got Rhythm. Look at an image of the music for I Got Rhythm, and listen to it below.

Download this audio clip.Audio player: louisarmstrong.mp3
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Now look at this score of a fourteenth century song, Belle, Bonne, Sage, Plaisant by Baude Cordier. What ideas do you think the writer was trying to convey in sound?

Figure 6
Download this audio clip.Audio player: bellebonnesageplaisant.mp3
Interactive feature not available in single page view (see it in standard view).

As you listen to the sound and look at the images of the notation, do you think these examples show how all the parts of the music fit together? Can you work out how what you are seeing connects with what you are hearing? Of course, they all represent sound in some way, but can you identify what particular aspects of sound? This is quite hard, so don’t worry if you can’t find anything that remotely connects sound and vision. It is precisely because it is hard that musical scores have taken several centuries to develop into the forms we now know.