Music Reading is Becoming a Cautionary Tale

The overabundant use of courtesy accidentals (also known as cautionary accidentals) is causing terrible discomfort in music reading.

What follows is a somewhat technical argument, but rather than making sense only to musicians, it should also be comprehensible as an analogy for anyone who feels that a language must continue to follow known and universally agreed-upon spelling rules, rather than appearing in a phonetically or otherwise incorrectly written fashion upon the printed page (or screen, as it were).  Admittedly, the latter group of believers is diminishing daily, as is made clear by the evidence in publications on-line and off, and as for the woes of those involved in music reading  — whether for study, profession, or simple pleasure — they seem to be increasing by the day.

Notation progresses and so does printing, making for widespread music reading

The conventions and customs of music notation as they have developed from before the Baroque era up until the present, although idiosyncratic and full of exceptions to the rules like the orthography of most languages, adhere to certain standards which should be upheld by those who are writing and publishing music, and are expected by those involved in music reading. The specialized demands of music printing, with efforts throughout the ages in producing and dispersing printed pages to musicians, led to numerous methods, refinement of techniques, and ingenious inventions all meant to reduce the necessity of music scores’ being arduously handwritten (and later, engraved and hand-set).

Modern convenience not necessarily an improvement for music reading

Medieval Music Manuscript,
White on Dark Blue Courier Bag

by missprinteditions

Several years ago, I was attempting to help a friend of mine who had transcribed a Bach fugue for a chamber orchestra he was conducting. I volunteered to extrapolate the instrument parts from the score he had written out, and installed a software program for music notation (the sort of magical items one could purchase from on my computer, cheerfully congratulating myself on what I thought I was about to accomplish. To my great distress, I ended up wrestling continuously with the program, which insisted — try though I did to override, convince, and subvert — on inserting a so-called courtesy or cautionary accidental the next time any note appeared in the score after having been modified earlier from the key signature. This must be one of the most disturbing-looking music notation symbols imaginable, this unwanted visual distraction which gives the impression another change has been made, rather than that the note has reverted to the parameters delineated by the tonality. Most of my energy went into fighting this tendency of the software, as I could not correct it in general, nor could I accept that the parts for music reading would be printed with such glaringly out-of-place accidentals.

During the course of my life as an orchestra musician, my education has been ongoing, always updating through the last measure of the most recent piece played. I have been extremely gratified to see how solid the fundamentals of my early music training. I had the benefit of very demanding teachers of flute, violin, music theory, and sight-singing, among other subjects, who insisted upon proficiency in sight-reading: that is, playing or singing something unknown as accurately as possible the first time read. These regimens have stood me in such good stead while coping with the demands of performing in an orchestra that I cannot overstate my gratitude for what those instructors and my own practicing did to enhance my music reading skills. I did not anticipate that something would come along in the latter part of my career which would cause sometimes dangerous double takes while looking at well-known passages.

If only publishers would make music reading clearer instead of more difficult

Time goes on, section parts wear out and are replaced, and one cannot help but notice that the old music type-setting methods have given way increasingly to computerized methods. The spacing is a bit off here and there, too equal instead of more erratic as befits the visual representation of how the rhythm fits between the bar lines. I try not to be taken in by that, despite expecting something different. However, the convenience for the publishers and printers occasioned by the advent of the computer is resulting increasingly in that horror of horrors for music reading: the undesired and undesirable courtesy accidental, discourteous to the extreme. Little did I realize, when I was struggling with that Bach transcription, that the cautionary accidentals were telling a cautionary tale.

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