Behind Bars: The Definitive Guide to Music Notation

By Elaine Gould

This is the kind of book I really have no business reading—as in, I’m woefully unequipped to understand much of its subject matter, and no practical benefit will accrue to me from reading it—but it looks awesome and somehow fun to read anyway.

Behind Bars is an “indispensable” and “magisterial” book, “undoubtedly the masterpiece of its genre.” What is its genre? It’s quite specific: basically the book is an exhaustive technical guide to all the intricacies of musical notation. Gould gives brief sections on historical context and how to use the book, but mostly jumps straight in to the technical minutiae of musical notation, and continues for 700 pages—from chords to key signatures, dynamics and meter to the “idiomatic notations” of various instruments, to layout and presentation.

The first chapter alone goes into detail on staves, clefs, “noteheads”, and many intricacies of positioning the various elements of notation. Scanning the list of chapters, I can see a lot more goes into this stuff than I ever imagined, and it really makes me appreciate the complexity of conveying music via text—an amazing and subtle art of translation!

Gould wrote the book based on decades of experience as a music editor, something I never realized was even a job, though of course thinking about it now it seems obvious! So I can see how, as one reviewer remarked, it’s “an encyclopedic distillation of practical professional wisdom”. But it’s more than that, more than just a “manual of notational best practice”—it also “expounds an alchemical formula for musical communication…a practical revelation of the poetics of musical communication.” That sounds impressive indeed.

Will I ever buy or read this book? Not likely—but I’m in awe that it exists. I love seeing and marveling at something this fantastically comprehensive about a topic which, though it touches my life in a lot of ways and in some ways *seems* accessible, is also way beyond me reach and current knowledge.

Additional information:

  • ISBN: 978-0571514564
  • Publisher: Alfred Music

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