Apr 082019

I’ve been thinking about music and what it is, how it’s written and how we perform it. I first showed the following sequence in a workshop at Chichester University in 2018. Let me know what you think!

A group of white dots

What do you see?

The image above contains a number of white dots. There is very little meaning in those dots other than how many there are and something about the positioning.

The same group of white dots but now some are coloured in blue

What do you see?

Now some of the dots are coloured in. It is still difficult to guess their meaning.

The same group of blue and white dots but now they are spaced differently into groups

What do you see?

In the third image, the same group of white and coloured dots are grouped with gaps between the groups. We get the sense that there is meaning in the grouping but it is still difficult to decide what that meaning might be.

The same grouped white/coloured dots now have stems added indicating rhythm and five-line staves indicating pitch. This is how music is written

What do you see?

Finally we have a context for those dots. By adding the five-line staff we have a context in space for identifying pitch differences. And by adding stems to the notes we have a context for identifying note durations and therefore rhythm.

But is that all?

Yes, pretty much. The main identifiers of music are rhythm and pitch. Anything else is the composer’s attempt to give the performer some indication of tempo, volume changes, phrasing (whether notes belong to each other or not) and, in the case of singers, words and how they fit with the notes. And all of these indicators are relatively vague and open to interpretation.

What’s also interesting is that the notes and rhythms themselves are open to interpretation. If you’re singing classical music you stick moderately closely to what’s written (see below) and if you’re singing contemporary commercial music you add your own styling, riffs, extra notes and personal rhythm changes.

Don’t believe me?

Classical singers I work with can get annoyed with me for saying they’re not singing the notes and rhythms, since one of the main beliefs is that you stick as closely as possible to what the composer wrote and you guess his/her intentions to the best of your knowledge.

So here’s a transcription of Amazing Grace (the melody above) sung live acapella by world-class opera singer Jessye Norman.

Jeremy Fisher's music transcription of Amazing Grace as sung acapella by opera singer Jessye Norman live on television
Created by Jeremy for the Oxford Handbook of Singing 2019

Notice all the extra notes and slides? And the complex rhythms? And where the consonants happen rhythmically and pitch-wise? It’s close but not what was originally written.

Now look at the same song, sung in a similar key but with a very different sound quality by Pop/Country singer Leanne Rimes.

Jeremy Fisher's music transcription of Amazing Grace as sung acapella by Leanne Rimes
Created by Jeremy for the Oxford Handbook of Singing 2019

Notice the extra notes, slides, frys, tunings and yodels? Not to mention the incredibly complex rhythms, and even the breath in the middle of the first word?

But which one is more correct? The answer is both and neither. Both because they represent heartfelt performances of the spirit of the song. Neither because they ain’t accurate!

So how do I find the correct version of a song?

Since two of the world’s bestselling artists produce two completely different versions, there isn’t really a correct version to find. The best version of the music is the one that reflects you and your tastes/beliefs/expertise the closest.

So remember when you’re learning a song, decide which context you’re singing it in (opera performance, recital, gig, theatre show, recording studio etc), then which “genre flavour” you’re going to use (early Romantic Classical, Berlin cabaret, Motown, Trance etc) and add the style features of that genre to the basic melody and rhythm of the song. That’s a great way to truly make the song your own.



PS If you need some inspiration to find your version of a song, book a coaching session with Jeremy in person or online.

  4 Responses to “What is music anyway?”

Comments (4)

    I think Hildegard of Bingen had a better way of describing sound with her ‘worm’ notes .
    Black dots are a necessary nuisance and hinder classical singers the most who often think that’s what music is because they aren’t taught to ‘feel’ sound or encouraged to dig down inside themselves to match the composers intentions .
    A good discussion.
    Natural singers are easier to encourage to do this as they aren’t ‘controlled ‘ in the same way.
    Even Ben Britten who’s Scores are littered with how to do things, was working with a very limited vocabulary which he must have found frustrating at times.


      Hey Lorraine, if you’re comparing me to Saint Hildegarde of Bingen, I’ll take it!
      I think it’s part of the classical training that you attempt to understand the composer’s intentions as much as you can, and all you have to go on is the dots and possibly some anecdotal stories.
      In the CCM world it’s much less about the composer and much more about the individual singer taking what was written and morphing it into something that speaks to that particular performer’s skills and emotions.
      Theatre is a hybrid in that it’s written down accurately but still very dependent on the performer making it work for the context.
      I think that’s why music sounds best when it’s in your head.


    Excellent article Jeremy, and I have been excited to see all the email notifications of tweets and posts lately.. all self contained thought provoking ( to me) fascinating self contained essays that leave me hungry for more!
    This is a topic that you covered in some part in a day workshop last year… I am looking forward to hopefully more courses/ educational days that are suitable for me to attend.


      Thanks Janet. We’ve upgraded our email sender and I’ve been typing like a demon on the new articles so I’m glad you like them! Yes, we’ve got more courses coming up after we’re back from Australia so we’ll keep you posted. Cheers!

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