What are graphic scores?
Introduction to graphic scores
“One feature of many graphic scores is they can be played by any number of players, of any standard, on any instrument. No two performances sound the same, but all the players will be following the same instructions.” classicfm.com
What is a score?
A score is the name we give to music when it is written down. It usually looks like this:
This traditional way of writing down music can take a long time to learn. It has rules that a musician needs to follow. However this isn’t the only way we can write down music.
What is a graphic score?
In the 1950’s, composers began experimenting with new sounds and needed another way to write down their music. They developed a new way of visualising music known as graphic scores or graphic notation.
Graphic scores often look very different to traditional musical scores. Instead of lines and dots on a musical stave, graphic scores can use all sorts of different images and symbols to tell the performer what to play.
Stripsody by Cathy Berberian (1966)
Here is a video of Cathy Berberian performing this piece.
Q. Can you follow the graphic score along with the sounds she is making?
Waterwalk by John Cage (1959)
Here is a video of John Cage performing Water Walk.
Q. What did you think of this performance?
Try for yourself
You can try to create you own graphic score or make a performance of a score that someone else has made.
Further resources and examples
Here are links to more graphic scores for you to study and enjoy:
- Classic FM: ‘John Cage, Aria – Art and music collide in these 20 stunning graphic scores’
- David Hall: ‘Visualising Music Graphic Scores’
- The Guardian: ‘Playing pictures: the wonder of graphic scores’ by Tom Phillips
- The Guardian: ‘Graphic music scores – in pictures’