Tool #46: Textual Instructions

Sometimes normal notation simply cannot seal the deal.  Sometimes even graphic notation cannot convey what you want.  Luckily, we as composers always have a multitude of languages we can use besides notation.  One of those is text.  When a certain idea or gesture becomes too cumbersome to notate, or when there simply is no other way to convey it, take the liberty to use textual instructions.

Here are some examples of how textual instructions can provide clarity that notation cannot.  Please note that these screenshots are taken from an unfinished, very sketchy (and thus not engraved) piece of mine on which I am currently working.

  1. Convey a mood – the most common manner of using these, like creating tempo marks, but not necessarily with the tempo informationScreen Shot 2016-02-08 at 5.56.47 PM.png
  2. Convey a sound that you are trying to achieve – another common manner of using theseScreen Shot 2016-02-08 at 5.57.59 PM.png
  3. Convey an actual technique (see above, but more specifically below)Screen Shot 2016-02-08 at 5.59.27 PM.png
  4. Convey a concept integral to the work – sometimes a greater understanding of a piece can help a performer become more invested in a piece, or help them perform better and with more confidenceScreen Shot 2016-02-08 at 6.01.02 PM.png

The list of these uses goes on, given a little imagination.  Here are some key factors to consider when using textual instructions:

  1. Be specific.  Say what you mean to achieve, and be clear and precise in saying it.
  2. Go for your “dream” explanation–in other words, ask for everything you could possibly want, so that the performer knows what you are trying to achieve, even if it is likely that you won’t get it, or won’t get it in most situations.
  3. Be descriptive.  Explain your metaphors, and use the imagery that best captures your ideas in text.
  4. But, be succinct.  The fewer words you can use to explain your perspective, the less rehearsal time is used collecting and processing your words, and the faster they are realized.
  5. Know that there may be a language barrier for performers, depending on from where the performers originate.  This may be in dialects, colloquialisms, figures of speech, time differences (will people 50 years from now know what “like an angry Jeb Bush” means?) or actual language differences.

The language of text is incredibly powerful.  Use it often, and use it wisely.  It can help you accomplish many musical acts that are otherwise unwieldy to document or describe.

Questions?  Comments?  Let me know!

Thanks for reading,



One thought on “Tool #46: Textual Instructions

  1. Pingback: Koti Jaddu – Untitled – Composer's Toolbox

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