• cambridgefemalecomposers

The Minerva Festival’s Guide to Graphic Scores

contributors: Marcella Keating, Joanna Ward, Leia Devadason

Scores come in all shapes and sizes. In recent years, some composers have begun practising in ways in which their scores tend toward being visual objects as well as instructions for performance: we call these graphic scores.

Such scores often suggest some fixed and some free elements of a composition for those performing from them. For example, in the following score, rhythm and dynamics are free; pitch is inexact, but we can assume that it is relative to which of the three lines the words are on; the content of the sounds (words like “knock knock”) are more fixed.

Figure 1, Cathay Berberian: Stripsody (1966)

In order to make the process of translating the visual into the sonic easier for your performer, you might want to think about how different musical elements can be represented by visual elements. Common terms between the visual and the aural - such as ‘shape/line’, ‘space’, ‘rhythm’, and ‘texture’ - are often helpful starting points.

However, it can also be interesting to think beyond these more conventional or ‘linear’ ways of signifying meaning in your graphic scores. What might it mean to present a totally abstract image to a performer? - there could be a multitude of different interpretations, depending on what elements catch the eye of the performer or how literally or abstractly they choose to see the graphic elements of the score. Appealing to the subjectivity of performers in this way is one of the joys of creating graphic scores; their interpretation is inherently a collaboration, between the composers’ and the performers’ perspectives.

You can feel free to add words, musical notes, and anything else that you feel represents your intention. Just because it’s a ‘graphic score’ doesn’t mean it can’t make use of symbols from conventional music notation - they are graphics too, after all. An example of this which I love is from Claudia Molitor’s score MELT. In this score, she makes frequent use of symbols from musical notation, but takes them totally out of their usual context, making the performer have to take a moment to consider what they might mean in this new context.

Figure 2, Claudia Molitor: MELT (2018)

In this context, we see ‘flat’ symbols, circles which are perhaps noteheads, and lines which are perhaps from a stave - but they are all jumbled and wound together, and there are certainly more than the usual five lines which would make up a stave. We also see hills in the background, which tells us that this is an image, helping us imaging the perspective, distance, and material texture within the situation which has been photographed. In this sense, Molitor helps a performer by giving them the ‘in’ of conventional notation symbols, but has blurred their meaning to create the openness of interpretation which is inherent to graphic scores.

Thinking in this way is really exciting, as it makes us realise that the way we interpret musical scores usually is totally dependent on a commonly understood, tacitly agreed on understanding of the symbols’ meanings - but what might happen if we chose to see a particular edition of some Bach as a graphic score too?

As in the Molitor score, we can see that composers don’t always use the traditional media of paper and pen in making their scores. This score uses paint as well as an overlay of digital illustration, done in graphic design software.

Figure 3, Joanna Ward: Before / beyond (a page in a book) (2020)

This score makes use of conventional musical notation, within an abstract, colourful and textured background which adds meaning and context to the music notation. Also, who’s to say that the paint elements actually are the background - in the world of graphic scores, it would be perfectly acceptable to only focus on one small part of the score and ignore the music notation completely! In this sense, graphic scores encourage us to reject the linear way of reading, interpreting, and thinking which pervades Western culture.

And perhaps we don’t even have to make sound in response to scores - in this way, they can help us think about what ‘performance’, listening, audio, and a ‘musical score’ actually constitutes, too.

Figure 4, Mary Lucier: 2, from Women’s Work (1975)

For example, this score by Mary Lucier does have explicit instructions, but they do not necessarily correspond to any sound! It then becomes fascinating to consider how this functions as a score: how might we interpret it, or perform it, or present it to an audience? What (if anything) is the object or result of that interpretation?

Graphic scores don’t even have to be understood as a ‘set of instructions’. They can be much more open - simply a prompt to make sound, think, or feel! In this and many other ways, they open the door for more collaborative, subjective, experimental, and DIY approaches to making musical scores, and this in turn inherently makes them inviting spaces: open to those without formal musical training, or knowledge of the very disciplined way that we are taught to make traditional musical scores. This open and inviting nature has made graphic scores a home for those who have traditionally been disenfranchised by traditional ideas of the ‘composer’ or the ‘musician’: women, and disabled folks, for example, as well as those resisting the idea of the ‘genius’ composer which is embedded in white supremacy and capitalist logics.

This is such an exciting space to be working in, and I hope you enjoy making your own graphic score!

If you want more inspiration, take a look at the prompts and example scores below to guide your composition!


  1. Consider your surroundings and what they evoke. Look at the shapes of buildings or of nature, listen to the sounds around you, and sense what the environment makes you feel or think about. How can you use graphic elements to represent this?

  2. Think of a place you love. How can you represent what you love about it?

  3. Write your piece for someone. Try to represent something about them through lines and shapes.

  4. Take a phrase or a section from a book. How could you translate these words into music? Or how can you set these words in a suitable visual environment?

  5. Try to recreate an existing piece of music graphically.

Figure 5: Louise Bourgeois: Untitled from the ‘Fugue’ Collection (2003)

Figure 6, Louise Bourgeois: Untitled from the 'Insomnia Drawings' collection (1995)

Figure 7, Claudia Molitor: MELT (2018)

Figure 8, Pauline Oliveros: Rose Moon (1977)

Figure 9, Udo Kasemets: Timepiece for a Solo Performer (1964)

Figure 10, Katalin Ladik: The Queen of Sheba (1973)

Other Resources:

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