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Composers Who Can't Read Music

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Ok so there are a lot of composers out there and a whole bunch of the well known ones today can't read music! For example Hans Zimmer can't read music but yet he composes quite well. So here in this forum please feel free to tell us of the composers you know that don't or can't read music, and fell free to speak your mind about it.

P.S. Personally I think composers that can't read music are quite brave. :lol:

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Irving Berlin

Lionel Bart

Jerry Herman

Anthony Newly

Adolph Green

Danny Elfman

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wes montgomery. but are you sure zimmer can't read?? so how can he write if he can't read??

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wes montgomery. but are you sure zimmer can't read?? so how can he write if he can't read??

Yeah that would blow my mind if it were true... Now there are obviously a ton of musicians who can read western notation, but how many of them, do you think, can look at a large score and hear it all going on at once in their head?

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He comes from a rock background, which is almost exclusively an aural tradition. Also, he was a programmer first and foremost, and to program a synth, you definitely don't need to know how to read. However, at this point in his career, I'm sure he's picked up how to read a note or two.

When one sequences, you don't have to necessarily know how to read western music notation.

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Oh, this is a good topic.

See, from an Ethno-musicological perspective, there's this "schism" if you will that composers who don't use western notation to write music are somehow "inferior" (or something) to those of us who can. There's even a backlash from this issue with a host of little propositions for, yet, another form of music notation like this...

http://musicnotation.org/

Of course, I don't support such a movement to a chromatic notation system. The one we have is versatile enough, and though there are plenty of variables to consider in reading music, there's no real benefit to changing notation. This is because music notation doesn't exist in a vacuum. If you fail to understand what written notation "might" or "should" sound like when performed, then you're really no better off. If you have no development of motor skills to perform/sing music written on a page, you're no better off.

The understanding of notation itself is really not a prerequisite to being a composer or musician. If you have developed the skills to perform or the interest in creating music by writing in any form you wish, as long as you can explain to others how it's supposed to sound (if you even need someone else to perform it), then there's no need for western notation. The only reason we use it in western music today is because of our ability to continue the tradition of music dating 400+ years ago. We can have a Beethoven Symphony programmed alongside most works of living composers today (that we usually don't is a topic for another thread, mind you).

The very idea that music notation is considered this "right of passage" into "legitimacy" is way too elitist for my taste. All the obsessing over creating a new notation system is even more laughable to me, but the most significant thing to remember is that music doesn't just happen because there's ink on a page. Music happens when people perform music by playing instruments, singing lyrics or syllables, and more generally, when sound/silence happens to be heard as music by one or more people. None of this hinges on notation universally... only in a very minuscule amount of the world pedagogy of music.

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Yeah that would blow my mind if it were true... Now there are obviously a ton of musicians who can read western notation, but how many of them, do you think, can look at a large score and hear it all going on at once in their head?

i think good conductors can do it, i'm not sure zimmer is one so it might be he is using a software to translate his computer works.

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Well actually, Zimmer has a studio with like 40 other composers working for him, all he does nowdays is come up with a few themes and harmonies and hand it down to a young noob fresh from the academy to orchestrate it for him. Danny Elfman could not read music and when he got his first gig as a composer in hollywood he said he has spent two months locked in his flat working on a score. He was composing, learning how to read and write music and transcribing at the same time. He had a friend that could read music helping him, but still... thats a lot of work. But you can still find articles and intreviews on the web about other composers in the industry calling him a "whistler" (a slang for a composer who can't read or write music so he has to whistle his ideas to other musicians or transcribers). Something similar with Zimmer too.

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SSC - Great points.

I'd like to add that learning to understand notation (and not necessarily Western notation) is useful to all musicians. However, all composition is realizing imperfectly what we hear within and what we reinterpret and reorganize outside ourselves. So composition requires a receptivity and stillness rather than a mastery of notation. The benefit of learning some musical notation is to realize its limits of communication.

For example, I had a lesson with my organ teacher and i began to play a Bach fugue subject. It seemed very simple on the page for someone familiar with Western musical notation. 4/4 time, three half notes ascending stepwise to a half note tied to a quarter note, then a series of quarter and two eighth notes with more active movement. For those familiar with solfege:

Do-Re-Mi-Fa--MiReSolMi(ReMi)Do. The Re and Mi in parenthesis are eighth notes.

Anyway, we spent 45 minutes on phrasing it as Bach Urtext do not provide any phrase markings, articulation or dynamics. Bach assumes the player knows this subject is to be played like a vocal or choral fugal subj- one suggestion is divide it into three smaller phrases. The danger of the fugal theme is to play it too uniformly - eg AS WRITTEN! You need to use your ear but you need to understand the context of the musical composition.

Anyway my long explanation is just to show how much is left out of notation. Funny thing too is when you try to notate every nuance, things still are left out. Realizing this can actually ENHANCE you ear and your composition just as composers who read music well need to do the opposite - they need time to hear music.

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Yeah that would blow my mind if it were true... Now there are obviously a ton of musicians who can read western notation, but how many of them, do you think, can look at a large score and hear it all going on at once in their head?

That's, IMHO, impossible to answer since it's an entirely gradual thing. Most musicians can look at a simple folk song and imagine how it sounds. Somewhat less can do it with a Haydn string quartet. Much less with a Scriabin symphony. And who the hell can do it with an orchestral work by Ferneyhough? And next to -these- gradual differences, there are also the gradual differences in what exactly you can imagine and what not. You may have the harmonies, but maybe not in their original tempo. You may miss out on details of the articulation, for example. And so on. Even just a fugue from the well-tempered piano is very hard to be imagined if you really want to be aware of all four voices as separate entities at every moment - yet it's fairly easy to imagine simply the -sound- at every given moment. There are many people who can look at relatively complex scores and get a good idea on how it will sound - but it still will be an entirely different experience to physically hearing it.

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How many musical events one can imagine varies from person to person. But I personally don't think it is really necessary to be able to hear everything and every nuance in your head simultaneously - either as a composer or when reading notation. You can compose by layering - focusing on one layer and creating it, then on the other and so on; you may have a general idea of what you want without being able to imagine it clearly. And here you use your craft to achieve what you want and fine-tune it. Doing this, one could create quite rich and complex textures, no matter how many simultaneous musical events one can imagine.

Even just a fugue from the well-tempered piano is very hard to be imagined if you really want to be aware of all four voices as separate entities at every moment - yet it's fairly easy to imagine simply the -sound- at every given moment. There are many people who can look at relatively complex scores and get a good idea on how it will sound - but it still will be an entirely different experience to physically hearing it.

As I understand it, you mean a kind of general vague idea in one's mind?

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Well, in a sense. I just mean various degrees of vagueness that will always be there. But with the last sentence I mean that even if your imagination of a score is actually very precise and contains many musical parameters, the actual physical presence of the heard sound will always be something different. Just consider the many composers who, despite having a great musical imagination, still decided to change around some things after they heard the first performance - or at least conceded that they weren't quite happy with some aspects of their piece. (Or of course, the contrary: That they discovered things while hearing the piece that they didn't actually expect like that, but liked a lot. And I mean that regardless of the quality of the performers.)

I mean, to make some rather blunt examples, just the physical presence of a really loud sound that blows our socks off, or a low sound that makes the whole room tremble, etc. is something that, despite our knowledge of these things, we simply can't truly experience in a mere "mental simulation".

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The whole point of musical notation is to have a standardized method of writing down, in code in a way, a piece of music so it can be performed by someone completely unrelated to the situation. This is true of any language. Written English has standardized symbols that are interpreted by other English speakers by a generally accepted standard of semantics (dictionary!). Same with music: we have notes and lines and time signatures and dynamics and whatever, and they all have specific meaning set forth by the composer.

One may ask how as notation developed because languages develop too. Well, think about 200 years ago, there was no notation for the "glissano" or "harmonics" or "clusters" or a whole array of over modern techniques. New words in English have also developed such as "Google" or "Eye candy" etc.

Point is, notation is a unified system that is intended to make reading music by musicians simple. If one doesn't learn it, fine, but it's gonna be a lot harder for them to describe what they mean to the musician, especially those who aren't as patient as some of the "new music" people out there, Lord bless their souls.

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On 5/3/2010 at 11:35 PM, The J said:

wes montgomery. but are you sure zimmer can't read?? so how can he write if he can't read??

 

As I understand he can write it ok. He produces short scores which he then hands to his orchestrators.

.

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13 hours ago, ★ NET1™💋 said:

Hi

 I cant read a single note of a Music score.....................

Richard Branson doesn't have a  "Business Degree".

So is he INFERIOR to some one that does ?

 

That's not actually an equivalent comparison because a Business degree is a certificate of education where as writing and reading notation is a skill itself.

The relevant comparison to Branson example would be having a music degree vs being self-taught. 

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Most composers today who say they can't read music actual can, just not very well or it's just not the main way they do things.  But to say Hans Zimmer and Danny Elfman can't read music is not entirely accurate, nor does it logically make sense considering their need to collaborate with notation-literate musicians and editors and publishers and copyright lawyers on  daily basis.  if you walked up to them and thrust a musical score in their hands, they won't find it an unintelligible mass of blobs.  They're more than capable of identifying notes on sheet music.  That's just not their main method of composing, usually.

You might appreciate this video I found of Paul McCartney actually diving into his compositional process using a computer for his classical music.  He too, can read music, he understands exactly what different pitches and chords are and what they sound like, but that's just their most natural and expedient method of creation.

I can read piano rolls, I can read DAW timelines--but I'm slow at it and find it inefficient, for me.  A composer should know as many information mediums as possible.

 

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7 hours ago, ★ NET1™💋 said:

I must be the exception to the rule, as i really, Can not read a note.

I use my EYES to create Motion-Graphics

I use my EARS to create Music

I cant do it the other way around x

 

If I may ask, have you ever endeavoured to learn how to read traditional notation?  Or is it relevant to what you do?  Do you even want to learn traditional notation?

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@Net1, that's very unfortunate you experienced a music education in such a way.  All I'm going to say is musical notation is a tool just like any other, being able to identify sounds as visual markers.  I find it to be the most efficient way of organizing sounds in a logical, strategic manner, like how a sniper doesn't just shoot a  rifle with crack-shot gut instinct, but measures wind velocity, Coriolis effect, etc.  Or how a painter who creates lifelike impressions doesn't just dab with a brush but measures all of the elements of perspective.  On the contrary, music notation does not hinder creativity, it enhances it.  When you have the time, I highly recommend you take the time to learn the fundamentals of traditional music notation, for your own curiosity--it will be an added tool in your box and might open ideas you never initially imagined.  But you're the artist, you know what is best for you.  

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