Behind the Notation: Musical Spelling for Composers – 4

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4. Think Local, Then Regional. Then Maybe Global.

You can ignore some of the guidelines we’ve observed so far when bigger-picture factors prevail. In other words, what may be the right spelling for a given note, based on the note or two right around it, may no longer be right when you look at notes further away.

Zahra Partovi: Spring, for violin and piano (excerpt)

Balancing Horizontal and Vertical

Vertical: in certain kinds of music such as piano chords or choral scores, where performers not only need to read note to note but also need to coordinate with other notes above and below, you might spell a note “incorrectly” for an individual line, to make it correct in the context of the chord:

But to every exception there is an exception: you might sometimes override the desire to keep things in sync up-and-down-wise. Why? For the sake of keeping the performer’s life easy, of course!

Here is a case with the same pitch spelled two different ways at the same time. In measure 8 we have a D-flat in the voice over a C-sharp in the piano (purple notes) — and then in the next bar, a C-flat over a B-natural (also purple)! What the heck?

Robert Schumann: Dichterliebe Op. 28, No. 12
(excerpt; copied from an early score edited by his wife Clara, pub. Breitkopf & Härtel).

Compare the first chord of the piece with the second chord in measure 8: they sound the same, but G-flat is respelled as F-sharp (both marked green). Why? For the answer, follow your ear first: listen to where each chord goes next. It’s the same sort of interval issue we’ve been talking about: the first time, the G-flat resolves down a half step to F-natural (per guideline #1); the second time, that same pitch, now spelled F-sharp, resolves up a perfect fourth to B-natural. This avoids the nasty augmented third G-flat to B-natural (and when inverted, we have a nice a perfect fifth down, instead of a confusing diminished sixth).

So far so good. But what does the singer think he or she is doing with that D-flat over the piano’s C-sharp, and the C-flat over a B-natural (purple)? At the very least, the same pitch should be spelled the same way at the same time!

The reason is this: there is a tension here between spelling the piano chord correctly (F#-A#-C#-E dominant seventh), versus spelling the vocal melody in the way that best shows the melodic shape: starting from the B-flat, the tune goes up a half-step to C-flat (not B-natural, per guideline #1) then a whole-step to D-flat (not C-sharp). The only other way would be to switch from B-flat to A-sharp midstream, or be willing to live with that G-flat – B-natural augmented third in the piano (and its inversion, the diminished sixth).

The point is: by respelling either line, we would make that line, by itself, harder to read. And who is reading each line? An individual person, with only one brain. Keeping that brain’s life simple is a worthy goal.

Still, it’s a judgment call. Robert Schumann’s wife Clara, who was an expert composer and the person who knew Robert best, chose this option. But we are getting into territory where two well-informed experts might definitely disagree!

Horizontal: at other times, reading a bar or two forward or backward within a single line might prompt you to favor an otherwise inadvisable spelling:

Chopin: Ballade No. 1 in G minor

CONTINUE to Closing Section: Other Handy Tips

Previous Page: Double Sharps, C-flats, and Other Strange But Necessary Beasts