Graphic Scores explained

11 May 2022

How do you play a picture? How do you paint music? Get the low-down on the unconventional world of graphic scores

a group of bold shapes drawn in configuration around graphic lines

A graphic score is just another way (besides the more conventional 5-line stave) of notating music or sounds on a page. Unlike a normal piece of music, with its lines and dots showing exactly what note should be played when, a graphic score may be interpreted differently by everyone who plays or sings it. Some graphic scores have timings on them instead of bar numbers, showing when something should happen, but others are completely open to interpretation.

The artist Paul Klee said that a drawing is simply a line going for a walk, and we also talk about a tune being a line of music. Imagine your favourite tune… What would that look like if you wrote it as a line on paper?

Every composer does something different when they make a graphic score. They might use long lines, short lines, bold lines, faint lines, tiny spots, big splodges, all the colours, one colour, bits of musical score, pictures, cartoons, words…the list is almost endless!

Experience graphic scores for yourself

We're running a free workshop all about graphic scores with Britten Sinfonia on Sunday 22 May at 2pm in the Salvation Army Hall in Saffron Walden. It's open to anyone aged 14+, no art or music experience necessary!

Brian Eno

‘Music for Airports’ was written as graphic scores because Brian Eno doesn’t read music. He writes textures that can be interpreted into music.

John Cage

An performance of Cage’s ‘Water Walk' which uses a number line alongside text and icons to guide the performer.

John Cage Water Walk - Come Together resources

Cathy Berberian

Berberian wrote ‘Stripsody’ in 1966 for her own voice – it’s written using comic book sounds! Here’s a film of her performing it too:

Come Together Resources

What's On