As composers in the mid-20th century began wild experiments in sound, the practice of traditional music notation became increasingly inadequate. How, for example, could the sound of John Cage’s amplified cactus, or the electroacoustic experiments of Pierre Schaeffer be effectively scored by notes on a staff?
As a result, the art of graphic notation — the use of shapes or patterns instead of, or together with, conventional notation — began. The scores generally fall in one of two categories: Some strive to communicate specific compositional intentions, while others are meant to inspire the performer’s imagination.
Here’s a look at a few graphic scores, the ways they’ve been interpreted by performers and how the tradition has evolved over the years.