Article The Challenges of Notating Music in General and Coptic Music in Particular: Observations of a Professional 'Cellist, Composer, and Linguist

Image: First page of the big Alleluia
The big alleluia: a midnight hymn sung in Advent [manuscript] / transcribed by Ernest Newlandsmith. Performing Arts Reading Room, Library of Congress.


Languages exist for the purpose of communication: communication of thoughts, stories, impressions, imagery--all of which are greatly intensified by emotion if the language be music.

However, language itself is inherently elusive, for, in its essence, language --whether spoken or intoned--is quite simply sound moving through time.[1] It is by nature transient, with what is present instantly becoming past, leaving memories perhaps, but nothing tangible. And along with this intrinsic transiency, two human factors contribute to its elusiveness: (1) No person ever produces a given sound in exactly the same way twice, and (2) neither do any two persons ever hear a given sound in exactly the same way.[2] In sum, language is not fixed, nor is it universally understood.

Therefore, granted our need to communicate with one another, a need heightened by our deep desire to reach those beyond earshot, it is no wonder that early on we human beings sought to capture language and put its sounds--both musical and non-musical--into some sort of written form so as to provide a definitive record for those separated from us in space and time, folk miles and continents distant, decades and centuries removed.[3]

The Challenges of Notating Music in General

It is not within the province of this essay to discuss the various systems for writing language that have evolved across the world over the years. But, in the case of music, it is important to state that its notation poses not only the problem of representing the sounds in question, but also the additional challenges of indicating their rhythms, pitches, and relationships to each other.

Moreover, since what is written on the page comes alive for others only when it is performed, the notation should be set down in such a way that the reader/performer--who may never have had a chance to hear the piece at hand--can interpret what is written with a reasonable degree of accuracy. This entails notating just the right amount of detail--not too little and not too much, i.e., what the French call la mesure. Too little detail is, of course, not explicit enough, while, on the other hand, too much detail overwhelms the performer with redundancies.[4]

Thus far, the present system of musical notation which has evolved in the West seems to be the most practical method yet devised, at least for notating what has become the music of Europe and America. Indeed, it has also become the basis for attempts at notating much non-Western music. However, while it is truly a wonder to pore over just one page of a Western orchestral score, and an even greater thrill to bring it to life in performance, our Western system -- as wondrous as it is -- is not always adequate, nor can it always be slavishly obeyed by performers. Even musicians trained only in our Western musical tradition intuitively make adjustments in pitch and rhythm not written on the page so as to accommodate the demands of the music (see below).

The Western System of Notation: Advantages and Disadvantages

The Western system of notation is governed by rigid elementary mathematics inherited from the ancient past.[5]

As for rhythm, this system is based on a series of notes whose duration is multiplied (lengthened) or divided (shortened) only by two with no flexibility in between. Furthermore, our musical mathematics places these notes (whatever their duration) into groups basically reduced to two or three per beat, groups which may then be further reduced to one and two.[6] Again, we have no in-between symbols to indicate the flexibilities and nuances of rhythm that do not fit these prescriptions. What to do?[7]

Composers have tried to resolve these rhythm problems by relying on descriptive linguistic terms such as rubato, più mosso, ritardando, etc., and then leaving the interpretation of their scores to the skills and musicianship of the performer, into whose hands the music ultimately falls anyway.[8]

As for pitch--which is measured by the number of sound waves vibrating per second--we base it on the octave wherein the vibrations per second double for each octave higher and are halved for each octave lower.[9] The octave itself is then divided into twelve equal degrees of pitch, i.e., twelve half-steps, and these divisions have now become the standard for the Western system of notation.

Such calculations do accommodate our modern "'tempered scale" to which all keyboard instruments are tuned. However, just as there are nuances of rhythm, so are there nuances of pitch that this Western system cannot notate. Even when performing compositions from our Western (European/American) tradition, musicians--guided by their ears--intuitively adjust pitches so as to play in tune those sounds that "fall between the cracks" as it were. This is especially true for players of wind, brass, and string instruments which can accommodate many minute variations of pitch.

To illustrate these phenomena, I offer a few personal observations from my own experiences in adapting pitches and rhythms not notated.

As a 'cellist, I well remember many times when playing string quartets how I've had to raise the pitch of a given note by as much as a "big" quarter-tone so as to be in tune with the changing harmony even though there was never any such indication written in either the score or the 'cello part. Nor will I ever forget how that great master 'cellist, Pablo Casals, showed us, his students, how tempo and pitch are related--how as the tempo becomes faster (increases in speed), the half steps become smaller (closer together) while, conversely, the whole steps become larger (wider apart), and how one adjusts one's fingers to keep the passage in tune.[10]

Once again, although such nuances of pitch and rhythm are not notated, performers -- guided by their ears -- intuitively play them. In sum, performers execute many rhythms and pitches that are never notated in our Western system of notation.

The Challenges of Notating Coptic Music

As is well known, Coptic music existed for centuries without being notated and was passed unwritten from generation to generation by master chanters who both learned and taught their intricate melodies by rote. In fact, because this music was held as a sacred trust by those who learned it, it was purposely not notated lest it fall into the wrong hands.[11] Also, because these melodies were deemed sacred, no change in their rendition was permitted.[12] For centuries, this unique tradition remained carefully protected, almost isolated from the world.

Thus, a non-Copt exposed to these melodies hears unusual nuances of pitch and rhythm organized in ways never before known. It is akin to being immersed in the sounds and logic of a strange and foreign language. Even Dr. Norma McLeod--that renowned pioneer of ethnomusicology, herself accustomed to studying non-Western music--once asked me in reference to Coptic music, "How can you tell when one piece ends and the next begins?"[13]

For myself, after months of intensive, and admittedly frustrating listening to numerous Coptic music recordings, the day I suddenly recognized certain melodies as something familiar, as pieces I had previously heard, it was as if a thick curtain had lifted to reveal music no longer strange and obscure, music with it own logic and full of emotion. (Inwardly I shouted "Hallelujah!")[14]

Interestingly enough, it was not the Copts, but rather the Europeans who first attempted to notate these ancient melodies and, in so doing, they quite naturally employed the Western system of notation.[15] This meant that these strangers tried to fit Coptic sounds--with their special nuances of pitch and rhythm--into a method of writing which unfortunately had (has) no corresponding symbols to represent the intricacies involved. The process may be compared to the challenges one faces when transliterating (not translating) the sounds and terms unique to one language into another tongue whose symbols (alphabets) are completely different. No matter how carefully crafted is the transliteration, because each language has its own indigenous sounds (vowels, consonants, rhythms, etc.), the writing seldom represents the sounds involved.[16]

And such is the case when we try to notate Coptic melodies in our Western system of notation. The needed symbols do not exist, and so the notator must ignore the problem or improvise signs and then explain their meaning.

Moreover, since -- as has been mentioned -- no two persons ever hear a given sound in exactly the same way, neither will they notate a given Coptic melody in exactly the same way. The notation inevitably reflects the musical training, interests, and cultural background of the notator.[17] No matter how elaborate, intricate, and beautiful are the written notes--or no matter how plain--the score is only an incomplete outline to guide the scholar/interpreter/performer, who him/herself comes with his/her inbred prejudices.

Coptic melodies notated in our Western system -- based on its strict mathematics of pitch and rhythm -- will appear as if bound in a strait jacket, stripped of their innate flexibilities and freedom. But, at present, it is the best writing solution we have. Therefore, let us thank those intrepid musicians who have labored to give us a notated record of this music.

However, let it be emphasized that these notations are only rudimentary maps and not a set representation of the sounds. The most meaningful, most accurate, most efficient way to become acquainted with Coptic music is to listen, listen, and listen. And let us listen to as many cantors as possible, for each singer brings his own personality, skills, and background to his performances, which themselves will be different every time.[18]


Listening thus brings us full circle. Coptic music--like all language--is basically sound moving through time. While the structures of the melodies are essentially fixed, their sounds are nonetheless transient, leaving memories, impressions, and feelings, but nothing tangible. We ultimately come to understand this venerable music by listening; and by listening patiently, with open ears, open minds, and open hearts.

Then may we come to appreciate and delight in this unique, vibrant, ever pertinent musical tradition so treasured by the Copts.

January 2009


  1. With language, writing follows sound. Even when silently perusing a written text or poring over a musical score, the reader hears the sounds in his/her mind. Admittedly, works of art such as painting, sculpture and photography--which are essentially "light confined in space"-- might also be considered language in that they communicate emotion, evoke memories and inspire thoughts. But these are ideas for another essay. The reader is hereby referred to Laokoon, that landmark treatise by Gotthold E. Lessing (1729-1781). [back to article]
  2. Ever changing circumstances and conditions unique to each individual account for this state of affairs. [back to article]
  3. The relatively recent inventions of audio- and video-recordings--to be discussed later--are providing a brilliant solution to this need. [back to article]
  4. As a young musician hearing my compositions performed for the first time, I came to learn that too many details written in the scores only caused the performers to exaggerate my thinking. Their innate musicianship sufficed to produce the desired effect. As for editing, the same discretion is necessary. Too much editing only serves to limit the performers. [back to article]
  5. This concept derives from the venerable Quadrivium of the Middle Ages, which categorized music as "the mathematics of proportion" (with geometry being "the mathematics of space," astronomy being the "mathematics of time," and arithmetic being "the mathematics of numbers"). [back to article]
  6. As for duration, the notes line up as follows: musical notationwhen halved = musical notation; musical notation when halved =musical notation; musical notation when halved = musical notation; musical notation when halved = musical notation, etc. A dot [ . ] placed behind a note increases its duration by one half again, i.e., musical notation(2 +1). Notes within a beat are grouped as follows: two notes = one plus one (1+1); three notes per beat are ultimately reduced to two plus one (2+1) or one plus two (1+2); groups of four are basically reduced to two plus two (2+2); groups of five per beat are reduced to three plus two (3+2), or two plus three (2+3), and so it goes. At present our musical mathematics gives us nothing in between. [back to article]
  7. Some non-musical mathematicians have suggested that the needed flexibility in notating rhythm may be solved by placing a series of dots after a given note
    (musical notation), with each dot diminishing the duration of the foregoing dot by one half. While this may sound feasible in theory, unfortunately in practice, it merely adds to the rigidity of the notation and becomes much too complicated for any performer to reproduce with ease. [back to article]
  8. Composers first used Italian for these descriptive terms, but during the late nineteenth century and early twentieth centuries, as nationalism crystallized, they began using their native tongue, such as French plus vite, or German schneller, etc., instead of Italian più mosso. [back to article]
  9. These divisions conform to the mathematics of Pythagoras and Ptolemy. The standard "A" to which we tune has 440 vibrations (beats) per second, while the "A" one octave higher has 880, and the "A" one octave lower has 220, etc. Interestingly, this standard "A" of 440 has gradually been rising, with some American symphony orchestras now tuning to an "A" of 444 and higher. [back to article]
  10. The author was a performing student in the Master Classes taught by Pablo Casals at UC Berkeley in the spring of both 1960 and 1962. These adaptations in pitch and rhythm may seem more obvious when playing the 'cello because of its size, particularly for the lower pitches where the distances to be covered are the largest. [back to article]
  11. The musical notation of two ancient manuscripts found in Egypt are Greek, not Coptic; and neither has intervals or melodies similar to anything known in the Coptic tradition. As for the papyri analyzed by Jourdan-Hemmerdinger, it has merely been proposed that they might contain musical notation, and they have not been deciphered into musical form at this writing. [back to article]
  12. One may cautiously suggest that despite the varied embellishments and ornamentation each singer brings to his performances, the basic structure of these pieces (the Urmelodien) has remained essentially the same. [back to article]
  13. Norma McLeod, conversation with the author (Salt Lake City, ca. 1980). [back to article]
  14. Conversely, my Coptic friends, steeped in the refinement and complexities of their own tradition, find our Western (European and American) classical music somewhat coarse, disjointed and earsplitting. Even a composition as elegant as a Mozart aria bothers their sensibilities. [back to article]
  15. For a good discussion and assessment of the efforts made over the years to notate Coptic music, see Carolyn M. Ramzy, "Notating Coptic Music: A Brief Historical Survey" (Washington, D.C.: The Library of Congress, Music Division, Coptic Music Web site, 2009). [back to article]
  16. One may cite, as one example among many, the transliteration of the Coptic phrase transliterated Coptic phrase ("Thine is the power...") = European Thōk te tigom or Arabic Arabic script (Coptic reads from left to right; Arabic from right to left). These transliterations, no matter how carefully crafted, do not actually represent the Coptic sounds and rhythms. [back to article]
  17. See the many different ways in which various musicians have notated the same pieces of Coptic music. One may cite, for example, the processional hymn Tenouōsht... ("We worship..."). [back to article]
  18. When personal contact with cantors is not possible--as it rarely is for any lengthy time -- one may access the many audio-recordings now available, such as those made under the aegis of Ragheb Moftah now housed in the Music Division at the Library of Congress. [back to article]

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The Challenges of Notating Music in General and Coptic Music in Particular: Observations of a Professional 'Cellist, Composer, and Linguist
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Robertson-Wilson, Marian (author)
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Article. Then may we come to appreciate and delight in this unique, vibrant, ever pertinent musical tradition so treasured by the Copts. January 2009
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