Peter Bjuhr Composer

Peter Bjuhr Composer

A while ago in a series of posts Tim Davies argued that many scores these days are over-notated, and introduced the concept of the default interpretation or performance. The basic idea is that by notating what the players would do anyway by "default" you're wasting your own time as a composer/arranger/orchestrator and distracting the players. (Check out deBreved).

I find this whole idea very interesting. Furthermore it's a bit counter to what I have been taught, which centered much about clarity and avoiding questions.

Redundant information

Let's start with a very simple example to explore this idea: if you are writing music for strings (let's say a string quartet) arco is the default playing technique, so it would be totally redundant to include the text 'arco' on top of the score. Only if you have a previous 'pizz.' marking it would make sense to add an 'arco' marking. With Tim Davies terminology we could say that to put 'arco' at the start is an obvious example of not knowing the default.

This example is somewhat trivial but it's a good starting point because here I think not many would disagree with Tim Davies in trusting the default and omitting the 'arco' mark at the start of the piece.

Counterproductive information

To expand on Davies point I also think that one can find examples where trying to notate the default would be not only redundant but even counterproductive. I'll give an example which I think is quite relevant and clear:

The default for the string players would include some amount of vibrato so therefore it would be productive to give the instruction 'non vibrato' (or senza vibrato) which would give no vibrato (or at least less than the default amount). It would also be productive to call on 'molto vibrato' to have more vibrato than default.

But would happen if you give the instruction 'vibrato' in the hope of getting the default vibrato? I'm pretty certain that the performer will give you more vibrato than default just to make sure. But if you write 'poco vibrato'? I'm pretty certain that this will result in less vibrato than default (but not as little as 'non vibrato').

The best way to make certain that you get normal vibrato is to explicitly call for normal vibrato (or something equivalent such as vib. norm, vib. ord). This is also recommended notation when you return from a non-default vibrato (see Gould: Behind Bars pp 146-147). You can give this instruction without risk of being counterproductive, but it is perhaps even more obviously redundant than an 'arco' marking (if used without any previous non-default playing).

I'd also like to add another example: For strings the default without any articulation marks is to change bow direction with each note and to add no space between notes. Let's not even go into the bowing but only ask - can you notate this default articulation with any combination of articulation marks? I think the closest thing would be to add tenuto marks but that would imply slightly more emphasis on each note.


Changing standards

It's time to look at this concept of the default from a more critical perspective. Things change, one cannot assume that what is default performances today will remain default forever. Earlier it was stated that 'arco' is default playing technique for string players (or at least for the string quartet in the example) but there's an example where this has changed; if you play jazz style contrabass, pizzicato is obviously the default instead of arco.

Wouldn't it be better to try to anticipate these changes of standard and try to be more precise in the notations? Then the score would be future secured. It's hard not to find this objection convincing, but it seems to me that it misses the fact that the notation standard change as well as the performance standard. If early music were more precisely notated would it be more easy for today's performers to do it justice? Yes, perhaps but only given that we could interpret the meaning of there symbols correctly. As musical notation is a form of communication I think it's better to focus on the communication with contemporary performers and only hope that future performers will do it justice (if at all). Furthermore if you really want to make sure the future will perceive the music as you want them to, you should make a good recording that gets preserved.

No default

So far I haven't raised any major objections to the idea of the default. But I think there's one comment that has to be made. It doesn't seem to me that there are defaults that cover the whole range of musical notations. The most obvious counter-example to me is dynamics. With the exceptions of instruments like the organ or harpsichord that doesn't suit well for dynamic considerations, you have to notate what dynamic level you're aiming at. There isn't any dynamic level that will take precedence.

At the moment I don't have any more examples of notation contexts where the idea of a default doesn't apply. If you have some additional ideas on this please write a comment below!


If we imagine a score with the bare essentials needed for a performance. We can assume that it contains pitches and durations. It would also contain some tempo indication. I've also argued that it would have to include some information about the dynamics. Maybe there also need to be some more information. What we're after is some score that contain all information needed for a non ambiguous performance (hence no questions) but which contains no more specific performance instructions. The view is then (following Tim Davies proposition) that we should add only those performance instructions to this basic score that would change the performance (compared to the performance of the plain score). All other indications are redundant, or worse - misleading and counterproductive.

Peter Bjuhr

Peter Bjuhr Composer

Here I publish information of the music I've written. I also blog about my projects and thoughts about music in general.

I am a contemporary classical composer and compose music for classical musicians, but as you can see from my worklist I've also done other things - including live electronics, electroacoustic music (eam) and music for other types of ensembles (e.g. a jazz trio).

My works have been performed globally, including Europe, Asia and North America.

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