This paper draws upon recent studies of writing systems, buttressed with material drawn from general linguistics and semiotics, to develop an approach to the analysis of musical notation as a system of signification in its own right (as opposed to a mere representation of musical sound). Scores are herein understood, following Nicholas Wolterstorff’s formulation in his paper “Towards an Ontology of Artworks” (1975), as “a record of the artist’s determination of correctness-conditions.” Our analysis must, then, provide a clear explication of the means by which these conditions are communicated – even where these means are not readily understood as drawing on any known signifying convention. With this in mind, the method of analysis is designed to be flexible enough to accommodate any notated document purporting to be a musical score regardless of the particular notational conventions used. A description of the relevant linguistic and semiotic terminology and its uses is followed by a discussion of their application to the study of elements of standard notational practice. A sequence of steps, through which the analysis of an unconventional “graphic score” is to proceed and by which musical meanings are to be assigned to the score’s markings, is presented. This sequence is illustrated through a progressive sample case that offers a range of possible musical interpretations for variations on a simple notation of the author’s devising. Finally, a discussion of the possibilities for evaluating unconventional notations, once musical meanings have been ascribed to all markings within the score, will be undertaken with reference to John Cage’s “Variations I”.

The author, Douglas C. Wadle is adjunct professor of music theory and analysis at the California Institute of the Arts, where he studied composition with the late James Tenney. He also holds degrees from the University of California, Los Angeles (ethnomusicology), and New York University (comparative literature). Wadle is an active composer and performer (on trombone) of contemporary and experimental music.

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