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Graphic notation: a brief history of visualising music

Design and music intersect in many areas; fashion, art, filmmaking and set design, yet one relatively obscure but staggeringly creative area, is in the design of graphic notation used by composers. Graphic notation is one side that is relatively unknown outside the sometimes rarefied world of orchestral and experimental music.

Composers have always grappled with ways to express themselves, and in the twentieth-century, several began using this radical graphical approach to writing scores. It was a two-fingered salute to the prevailing musical establishment.

Graphic notation works differently to traditional musical notation, as it uses images, abstract symbols, graphic elements, illustration, and text to convey meaning in both linear and non-linear form to the performers. A few of these composers incorporate traditional notation and then bend it in unique ways.

The visual comparison between traditional and modern graphic notation can be striking. Traditional notation is linear and rigid. Modern graphic notation is open, can offer flexibility, and allow the performer to interpret the composer’s ideas.

Traditional versus Graphic-Notation

It all started around 840 C.E. when a former monk named Aurelian of Réôme created one of the first examples of Western musical notation. This was a basic attempt to create a treatise on music theory called Musica discipline.

Page from Musica Discipline

By the Baroque era in Europe, composers wanted to set down their work with greater consistency and leave less interpretation open to performers. Now musical language was becoming codified. Yet various composers like Beethoven, then Gustav Mahler in the late nineteenth-century, strained to break free of the traditional boundaries. Their orchestral scores are full of scribbles, footnotes and marks, as if sticking to the rules was too much for them.

We can feel Beethoven trying to break free from the constraints of conventional notation in his score from his Piano Sonata below.

Page from Beethoven’s Piano Sonata N°32, op. 111

In the early twentieth-century, composers such as Henry Cowell began experimenting with notation and his New Musical Resources (1930) was a radical attempt to change musical notation. Increasingly throughout the twentieth-century and following the horrors of the Second World War, there was a growing feeling among composers that traditional Western notation was inadequate to express their musical ideas.

The earliest example of full-blown graphic notation within a score is Morton Feldman’s Projection 1 (1950) for solo cello. It features an entirely original notation, which looks more like a circuit diagram. It sounds and looks ahead of its time. Listen to it here.

Throughout the 50s and 60s, a new generation of heavyweight post-war composers like Krzysztof PendereckiKarlheinz Stockhausen, John CageRoman Haubenstock-Ramati started using graphic notation as a serious and necessary alternative to tradition forms of notation.

Arguably the greatest musical score ever designed, a pinnacle of graphic notation is by Cornelius Cardew, entitled Treatise (1963-1967). The piece comprises 193 pages of highly abstract scores. This is the Sistine Chapel of notation. His training as a graphic designer is obvious. He even used principles of cognitive psychology, which is central to design.

Cardew’s motivation was to inspire creativity and interpretation of the performer. The score gave no specific instructions on how to play the piece, not even what instruments to use. It’s a dense piece, allowing multiple explorations and interpretations. Following along with the score is a rewarding experience. Listen and watch the score unfold.

Morton Feldman’s Projection 1

As the complexity and abstraction of music increased, so too did the scores. Many of the pieces that these scores are referencing are obtuse to the point of incomprehensibility, but there remains genuine beauty in them.

Brian Eno is one of the more well-known contemporary musicians using graphic notation. Eno is very open about not having a formal musical education and thus being unable to notate in an orthodox way. He has used graphic scores out of necessity and has made it a normal part of his process.

He told an interviewer that ‘quite a lot of what I do has to do with sound texture, and you can’t notate that anyway… That’s because musical notation arose when sound textures were limited.’ Eno gave the musicians on the recording of Music for Airports a lot of latitude in interpreting the score with instructions such as ‘play the note C every 21 seconds’.  I can see the score on the back of my faded copy of Music for Airports.

To end this whirlwind tour, I present a few of my favourite examples from the last sixty years.

John Cage, Fontana Mix (1958)

Toru Takemitsu, Study for Vibration (1962)

Cornelius Cardew, Treatise (1963-1967)

Cathy Berberian, Stripsody (1966)

George Crumb, Spiral Galaxy (1972)

Andrzej Panufnik, Universal Prayer (1968-69)

Roman Haubenstock-Ramati, Konstellationen (1972)

Albert Bernal, Impossible music #9 (2006-)

Wadada Leo Smith, Symphony No. 1: Fall (2008)

Gabrielle Cerberville, ‘Particle’ for solo piano (2018)

Originally published in DOC Magazine


Gallica, digital library of the National Library of France

Theresa Sauer, Notations 21

Paul Griffiths, Morton Feldman

Brian Eno, Interview Magazine

If you enjoyed this, you might like…

Cardew’s Treatise: the greatest musical score ever designed

The ‘Mount Everest’ of graphical musical scores, Cornelius Cardew’s ‘Treatise’ still surprises with its invention and beauty. It’s also one of the finest f*ck yous to the musical establishment.

Read article


  1. Feb 6.2018 / 3:40 am / Reply

    The graphic scores is very beautiful, just like a painting. However, can the performers really understand them? What if they cannot perform the correct music the composer created?

    • Jul 25.2018 / 5:05 pm / Reply

      @Haoyang Li

      Most of the graphic scores don’t have the meaning of playing the exact music that the composer was thinking of. It’s an interpretation of the music, thats the meaning of graphical scores. You are free to make your own piece of the score, just follow the movements and rules.

  2. Aug 11.2018 / 11:07 am / Reply

    Also. Graphic scores, who evolve on screens, are exciting questions of our time. We are going toward a “multimedia music notation” with no doubt. The potential developments are not simply considered in their technological aspects, but to enlarge the art of sound, composition, interpretation and performance. This because music notation always been adapted to new technology, from the Neums and even before, to our time.


    • Jul 28.2019 / 10:00 pm / Reply

      @Leonzio Cherubini

      I think you will find that Percy Grainger’s Free Music no.1 from 1936 is actually the first ‘modern’
      Graphic score

      • Jul 29.2019 / 9:48 am / Reply

        @Cat Hope

        Thanks, that’s really interesting. I have fallen down a rabbit hole now. I followed the email and have discovered many interesting articles like this Decibel Score Player

  3. Aug 17.2018 / 2:18 pm / Reply

    Nice work. You might like to pass this link on to Wikipedia: they seem to be having trouble breaking loose from notion that screen savers represent the apex of music visualization. 😉

    You might like to take a look at: https://visualfutureofmusic.blogspot.ch/

    This blog maps out (based on a real life proof-of-concept) possibilities that span world music notations, instrumentation and music theory models, art, psychophysics and esoterica.

    I would love to see some of these images brought to life by score during playback.

  4. Oct 12.2018 / 6:01 pm / Reply

    Very interesting read, but don’t you mean George Crumb rather than Robert Crumb as the composer for Spiral Galaxy? It is from his collection of piano pieces entitled, “Makrokosmos”.

    • Oct 12.2018 / 10:09 pm / Reply

      @Lindsey Jacob

      Hi Lindsey. That’s a funny slip. Robert is a very different character. Thanks for the heads up.

  5. Nov 2.2018 / 3:43 pm / Reply

    I’m curious about your article on graphic music notation. You have a great collection there. It seems most graphic notations embraces a kind of extreme subjectivity that is to me beautiful, unattainable by tradition notation, but also troubling. If the purpose of notation is to communicate to the listener (via the performer) a set of concepts, feelings, emotions; which the composer has carefully crafted, then the precision of traditional notation (or something like it) is necessary. But if the composer wants the performer to construct their own conceptual world in which the listener is to inhabit, then graphical notations are apt.

    You may be interested in my new notation called pitch bracket notation. It adopts a more precise method like traditional sheet music. But my notation embraces mathematics and art unlike traditional sheet music.


    • Nov 6.2018 / 11:43 am / Reply

      @Cory Gledhill

      Hi Cory, Pitch Bracket Notation looks really interesting. I’d like to see some real world examples or even the notation synched to music like the Cardew piece https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JMzIXxlwuCs.

  6. Nov 6.2018 / 3:15 pm / Reply

    Good article! You should also check a pretty new book called Tonebook which was published by Impatient Press with works by Phill Niblock, Lea Bertucci, Stephen Vitiello, Alan Courtis, Zeena Parkins, Elliott Sharp, Aki Onda and more: https://inpatientpress.bigcartel.com/product/tonebook
    here you can also check some of the scores:

    • Nov 8.2018 / 8:44 am / Reply


      Thanks for these examples. Amazing creativity.

  7. Jan 30.2019 / 3:35 pm / Reply

    Hi! I would love to know who is the composer of the colorful score on the top.
    Thank you,

    • Jan 31.2019 / 5:44 pm / Reply

      @Andria Nicodemou

      Hi Andria, it’s by Roman Haubenstock-Ramati for his score, Komposition (1974)

  8. Mar 30.2019 / 3:21 pm / Reply

    Is there a book that has these and more in?

    • Apr 1.2019 / 8:38 am / Reply


      The only book I know that deal with this subject is Notations 21 by Theresa Sauer, but nothing that charts the history of it.

  9. Jul 28.2019 / 10:50 pm / Reply

    Email me if you want to see some animated graphic scores which combine a painterly background with music

    • Aug 4.2019 / 11:38 pm / Reply

      @Vinny Golia

      I would love to see some. _Cristian Amigo — camigo@mac.com

      BTW. I am joining the sound design faculty @ CalArts School of Theater beginning Fall 2019. It will be nice to meet you. – Cristian

    • Aug 7.2019 / 8:25 am / Reply

      @Vinny Golia

      Hi Vinny. I’d be interested to see your scores.

  10. Jul 29.2019 / 10:55 am / Reply

    It would be interesting to investigate the historical crisis in the notation of music written in the European Classical tradition that led to the appearance of ‘graphical scores’ in the mid-20th century. Scores which are not scores, but puzzles without solutions. There is something reminiscent of Lem’s ‘His Master’s Voice’ here; and perhaps the political milieu that prompted Lem’s dystopian sci-fi has something to do with it.

    • Jul 29.2019 / 10:20 pm / Reply

      @Henry Gough-Cooper

      I read His Master’s Voice a long time ago and your comment makes me want to revisit it. An interesting connection. Puzzles without solutions indeed. Abstract art, graphic notation, free of political ideology.

  11. Aug 5.2019 / 2:31 pm / Reply

    I’ve been lucky enough to be part of a project with the artist Jo Ganter and the composer Raymond MacDonald:
    Here’s a video of our band playing one of these scores on one of the coldest nights that Glasgow’s ever seen!
    Jo has also made animated scores with Marilyn Crispell:

    • Aug 7.2019 / 8:24 am / Reply

      @George Burt

      Thanks for sharing this George. Some beautiful work here.

  12. Jan 12.2020 / 3:32 pm / Reply

    Check Augenmusik. Crumb’s example, and many music by Brown were influenced by this Medieval printing trend

  13. May 25.2020 / 12:45 pm / Reply

    Nicely done David , thank you! I have a graphic score for you.

  14. Apr 4.2022 / 7:39 pm / Reply

    Dear David, Thanks for this very informative website. Much appreciated. However, I think you may have made a mistake in the caption to the last score (the sun-like, yellow circle). I think this is by Wadada Leo Smith (https://wadadaleosmith.com/philosophy-and-language-of-music/ankhrasmation-gallery/) and not Albert Bernal. Otherwise, great!

    • Apr 5.2022 / 9:07 am / Reply

      @David Adamcyk

      Thanks David for the heads up. I see the issue.

  15. Sep 21.2022 / 8:27 pm / Reply

    Great stuff! There’s also this book by Thor Magnusson with some interesting points on the subject.

    • Sep 27.2022 / 2:00 pm / Reply


      Hi Joao Thanks for this reference. It really looks amazing. Beautifully designed> I might have to buy it.

  16. Jun 2.2023 / 9:09 pm / Reply

    Wow, this article is pleasant, my sister is analyzing such things, thus I am
    going to inform her.