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welcome to the score in western music

Above, an image of the original handwritten score from Waltzing Matilda, called by some  the second national anthem of Australia.

Explore the score of Waltzing Matilda. See what a genuine musical score looks like. Follow the music and lyrics in the score as you hear it played. While you do, learn a bit of its history.

The Muse Of Music invites you to explore the role of the score in modern Western notation systems and in music of the Western tradition.

the musical score in western music

In sports they say you can't follow the players or the game without a scorecard. In a similar manner, in music they say you can't follow the music without the score. What is a musical score?

What's a score?

A specific musical score is a written record of a single piece of music. With few exceptions it contains all the music notes and directions a musician needs to play the piece of music it represents. When the musician plays, she translates the written symbols on the score—symbols that represent the recorded music—into actions she needs to take to play her instrument.

In effect, a musical score is the music.

Following the score—The Performer

We say that a performing artist follows a score when she plays or performs a specific piece of music; by that, we mean that a musician translates the notes and musical directions she sees in a score into music by manipulating an instrument. She follows the notes and directions placed there by the composer.

By appropriately manipulating the instrument, she converts the symbols she reads in the score into the sounds that can be heard, sounds which are the piece of music. This translation takes place whether the instrument is her voice or a manufactured apparatus for producing musical sounds, such as a violin, organ, or piano.

Scoring—The Composer

We say that a composer scores a piece of music when he writes or composes it. A musical score represents a composer's musical composition in the following manner:

First a composer draws staves on a page of music, one stave under the other down a page. Or he uses pages that contain pre-printed staves. Staves can be drawn or printed on successive pages if a piece of music requires too many staves to fit on a single page.

A stave, also called a staff, is a set of parallel horizontal lines. Modern scores contain staves composed of five lines with four corresponding spaces between them. One stave represents the music to be played by a single instrument or soloist, but a stave can also represent music to be played by more than one instrument if all the instruments play exactly the same music together, as a group.

Next, a composer adds notes and directions to the staves. The notes, directions, and staves on a page or pages comprise the score. These recorded vocal and instrumental notes on staves indicate what music the composer has created and what performers must play or sing to recreate the composer's musical ideas. Together, the staves, notes, and directions represent all the vocal and instrumental parts that musicians will translate into actions they take on instruments when they play what the composer has written.

Following the score—The Audience

The performing musician isn't the only one who follows the score.

Serious listeners follow the music they are hearing by reading the score while an orchestra or soloist performs. The score helps them confirm what their ears are telling them about how and what individual musicians or groups of musicians are playing; it helps them interpret the composer's meaning.

Opera buffs are particularly interested in following a score while they watch a performance because it informs them about the characters who are singing at any moment and the words they are pronouncing. It also helps them understand how the words and music interact and work together to express the composer's ideas. It helps them interpret and separate the different melodic lines and words that are simultaneously sung by two or more characters in duets, trios, or quartets, or when groups of soloists are accompanied by a chorus.

Trained music buffs, music store owners or clerks, music students, scholars, and others read scores the way most people read books. Accomplished score readers "hear" the music in their heads. theycan pick up a score sight unseen, read it, and hear the music as if were being playedeven if they never heard it beforethe way others pick up a novel and understand what the author is saying, starting with the first page.

Reading and following scoresMore about performers

A scorecard indicates the teams and the people who are playing ball and their past performances. A musical score indicates the actions a musician needs to take to play or sing a piece of music.

A baseball scorecard is typically printed on paper or on a similar medium, as are many musical scores. But musical scores are often also stored in and displayed on computers.

At a game baseball fans keep track of player stats and team scores as the innings go by; they enter box scores in their scorecard. Musicians often write comments on their scores while they are learning or practicing a piece; they make notes to help them remember how they want to play.

Most often musicians follow a printed score whenever they play, practice, or learn to play a piece of music; they look at the pages on which it is printed while they perform. We say that a musician reads the music because she reads the notes and directions on the score and follows them while she is playing.

Once a musician learns a piece by reading the score, she may be able to play the piece from memory, without looking at the score again, if it is not too long or complex. In that case, she remembers what she originally learned when first she read and learned the score. The fingering of her instrument and the melody are etched in her brain.

Soloists especially sometimes memorize a piece of music and play it before an audience without looking at or thinking about a score. In cases like these, the performer doesn't remember the notes or how they looked on a page when she learned them; the score has been transformed into pure music that's stored in her brain. The actions she takes to play are automatic and she knows what keys or valves to depress or what words to sing without thinking about them. We say that the music is in her head or that it's in her fingers.

more About scores with missing notes and directions

Not all scores contain all the notes and directions that a musician needs to play. This fact was pointed out above in the section called What's A Score?

There we weren't referring to parts of a composer's score that might be missing because some or all of his score is lost or damaged. We were referring to scores from which a composer deliberately omits portions of his piece, and he knows when he writes his music that his entire piece cannot be played without them.

Why would a composer deliberately write a piece of music like this? There are two kinds of music where a composer might deliberately write an incomplete score: cadenzas and jazz; and the answers to this question are different for each of them.


scores and Notation systems in western music

When it comes to scores, a musical notation system is a sine qua non; no score can exist without one. Every musical score is written in the language of a given musical notation system. What is a musical notation system?

Any musical notation system is a specific system for writing music. In a sense, musical notation systems exist to allow people to write scores for others to read, remember, and play, and for no other reason.

A musical notation system is similar to a written language. The musical notes and directions in a score are similar to the words and sentences on the pages of a book. To be able to read a book, one must understand the language in which it is written; to be able to read a score, one must understand the musical notation system in which it is written.

As a musician plays a score, he is said to read or follow the score, much as a reader reads or follows the words on the pages of a book. The musician's brain translates the musical symbols and other directions written in the score into physical movements by which he manipulates his instrument, causing it to produce the sounds specified on and by the score. The word score is used to describe the music itself because of this close mental association between the written symbols in a score and the music that is played.

  • Explore the concept of musical notation systems at The Muse Of Music's page called Welcome To Music Notation: click here.
  • Explore Western Music and the nature of the musical score in Western music at The Muse Of Music's page called Welcome To Western Music Notation: click here.

As with written languages, musical notation systems vary according to the culture, nationality, and musical tradition in which they originate. A score written to express the music of a specific culture or nationality will usually employ a notation system developed by that culture because the score must be able to represent the sounds, musical styles, instruments, and words that are inimitable to the culture's native musical tradition. If the score were not written with the native notation system, it would be unable to express the indigenous music of that culture and it would not be readable by a musician native to the culture. The notation systems and scores of Eastern cultures, for example, are radically different than those of Western cultures in part because their music is so different.

It is important to keep in mind that the pages you are now reading treat scores that represent music of the Western tradition. Other traditions have their own notation systems and ways of relating to scores. Some traditions are aural; they do not write music and consequently do not employ scores.


explore a specific western musical score—Waltzing Matilda

There's nothing like an example to drive home an idea. The Muse invites you to Explore the score of Waltzing Matilda. See what a genuine musical score looks like. Follow the music and lyrics in the score. Learn a bit of the song's history as you go.

  • Visit the score of the song Waltzing Matilda; learn more about scores from this example and what they can do for you: click here.


take it easy

Rome wasn't built in a day, as the saying goes. As you read about the score of Waltzing Matilda, you may encounter some musical facts you don't have the background or musical training to understand. If that turns out to be the case, don't let that discourage you. The Muse hopes you'll stick to your guns and keep trying; you'll probably walk away understanding more than you realize and you'll lay a foundation for future progress.

more about scores

Continue your exploration of musical scores at these web sites:

  • Explore the world of music scores at at the International Music Score Library Project (IMSLP). Obtain free public domain scores: click here.
  • At IMSLP, see an extensive, current list of web sites, libraries, universities, music schools, databases, manuscript libraries, repositories, collections, and archives that provide sheet music or scores free, hold them in repositories or collections, or sell them: click here.
  • See an extensive, out-of-date but still viable list of web sites, libraries, universities, music schools, databases, manuscript libraries, repositories, collections, and archives that provide sheet music or scores free, hold them in repositories or collections, or sell them.
  • Explore the Petrucci Music library of public domain scores that you can download: click here.

It's all there, waiting for you in the score.

music terminology

As with sports, so with music: You can't read the score card without learning the words. Musical terminology is an important part of any music notation system. The Muse invites you to explore the following pages at Electricka's web site.

  • Explore music terminology at The Muse Of Music's page called Music Terminology: click here.

the glossary of musical terms

The Muse Of Music is pleased to offer you an extensive automated glossary of musical terms designed to assist anyone interested in looking up the meaning of a musical term, whether a professional, amateur, or non-professional. It takes the form of a searchable and sortable table containing hundreds of musical words, signs, symbols, and their definitions.

The Glossary is divided into two sections:

Section 1A page called About The Glossary Of Musical Terms that explains the Glossary and how to use it. If you are accessing the Glossary for the first time, The Muse recommends that you visit this page first: click here.

Section 2The Glossary Of Musical Terms itself in the form of an automated table. If you are familiar with the Glossary and have used it before, you are ready to look up a word now: click here.

ETAF Recommends

This book demystifies and explains the subject progressively, as you read it. It will inform you about the various types of scores and their uses, the historical development of scores, the visual appearances of scores and the various kinds of notation they use, the techniques of following a score, and about orchestras and their conductors. There are practice examples of increasing difficulty taken from scores of well-known works from various periods.

To hear as you read, you will have to supply your own recorded music.

This book will help you whether you play an instrument or just like to listen. But before you buy, you might want to check to see if you know enough about musical notation to profit from it. This book is for people who already know how to read music and who want to follow along while the music plays. It's for those who are interested in orchestral music (where a full orchestra is playing), not in soloists or small ensembles. You'll have to judge for yourself whether the level and focus of this text is right for you.



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