About Dots

Some Thoughts on Written Music

One of the challenges faced by many newcomers to traditional music is the matter of learning by ear. If your previous musical experience is founded on written music, the idea of learning and playing without it may be alarming and confusing. Feelings of being asked to perform a high-wire act without a safety net may start to creep into the back of your mind. Yet, there are many reasons why learning by ear is not just the preferred method in traditional music, but is profoundly essential to what traditional music is.

First and foremost, this music is part of an aural tradition. Many of the tunes we play have been passed from person to person and across generations for hundreds of years before ever being written down. Like bits of flame passed from candle to candle, torch to torch, carried from one village to another, traditional tunes persist and spread, and yet remain undiminished. When you learn and play and share a tune, you become a part of this tradition. You are participating in an experience shared not just with the people around you now, but with other people across the world and the centuries.

This is not to say tunes are immutable. They do change, not just over time, but across space as well, carried in the minds and hearts and fingers of travelers across oceans and continents. As they travel, they acquire the distinct accents of the regions they pass through, and this too is fundamental to the nature of the music. A traditional player often will not play a tune in exactly the same way twice in succession. Similarly, in some regions it would be considered odd to offer a tune and play it just the same way that another person plays it. After all, if you're not bringing something new, something of your own style and personality to the party, why are you there?

Seen in this light, the idea of writing a tune down seems somewhat strange, for how can one hope to capture a living thing on a page? Some would go so far as to say a tune dies as soon as it is written down. This may be a bit of an extreme position, but the thought is worth considering. Playing a tune is a living act, a moment of existence that will never happen again. We strive to let every note be not a duty, but an expression of joy. To try and capture this on a piece of paper is ultimately an exercise in futility that will only distract from our real purpose. The music becomes the object, the musician the objectifier, and in the schism between the two the spirit is lost.

Another drawback of written music is that our musical notation is fundamentally inadequate to capture all of the nuances and subtleties of this music. If it were, though, this would not be a solution to a problem, but simply a more elaborate cage.

It has been said, in comparing classical music to traditional music, that classical music is the realm of the composer, and traditional music is the realm of the performer. That is, in the classical world the written music is considered the Truth, as enshrined by the composer, and it is the job of the musician to bring forth, with some interpretation certainly, the intent of the composer. In traditional music, on the other hand, oftentimes the composer is lost in the obscurity of time, there is no written Truth, and the performer is completely free to make of the music what they will. There are of course traditional styles that the performer may wish to adhere to, just as the classical performer will be informed by the styles of the period of their music, so the comparison is not as stark as might be supposed.

The point of this, though, is not to pit the two realms of music against each other, but to shine a bit of light on the difference in perspective and mindset that a person coming into the traditional world from the classical world may have to contend with. And again, it is to show why freeing oneself from the confines of the written page is so essential to the traditional music experience. Dots on a page are merely the passing shadow of a tune soaring overhead. As it turns out, you are being invited to perform a high-wire act without a net, and therein lies the beauty and the joy.


All this metaphysics notwithstanding, dots do have their purpose. Once you have absorbed the style of a tradition, the dots are a convenient way to communicate the skeleton of a tune, a rough sketch of what you can make of it. We often use the dots to remind us of tunes we already know.

With or without dots, you will encounter arguments about what is the right way to play a certain tune. Often these will take the form of, "That's the way so-and-so played it, and she composed it, so that must be the One Correct Way." This argument often collapses when it is pointed out that the same person, in some other setting, played the same tune in a very different way. It is true, though, that sometimes different variations of a tune do not mesh together well, so when a group is playing a tune together it works best if they're playing something like the same version. Here, dots can be a help. In the SFSF, many people learn tunes from the same source at the same time, most often at a camp, a workshop, or as part of the Spring Concert lineup. This becomes the de facto club version of the tune, and there is an effort to get that version into the written archives.

You can find written music for nearly every tune in the traditional repertoire, and often many different versions of that same tune. There are a number of famous collections dating back hundreds of years, and there are searchable on-line databases that are constantly growing. Again, the point here is not that these should be shunned, or that there is shame in referring to them. They are in fact valuable resources. But remember that all they contain are shadows.