How do Illustrations Work like a Piece of Music or Sound? 3/3

This Essay is part of my MA Art and Design (Illustration) research on Illustrating music. It discusses the relations between musical aspects and artworks. By artwork I am referring to visual presentations such as drawings, illustrations or paintings. The thread of this paper is to explore territories of illustration and music in ways to deepen the understanding of how visual mark making corresponds to aspects of music.

I have noticed that motives of using musical aspects in paintings vary. As I described on earlier post, there can be seen the fashion when the impetus of music is based on the perception and structural studies of music as in Klee’s art. Alongside the settled classical music notation structures of counterpoint and polyphonic music that Klee explored in his practice, a new way to depict music developed in the first decades of the 20th century. That is, on the third part of the essay I’m introducing  two music scores of which give an idea of ways of depicting music. At first I’m presenting a visual music score December 1952 (1952) from Earle Brown;  and secondly a visual listening score (1970) of György Ligeti’s (1923-2006) composition Artikulation (1958) from Rainer Wehinger.


The new approach concentrated on the requirements of musical developments, which was the main reason to abandon the original notation form and develop music notation in a more visual direction in the first decades of the 20th century. Ways of making, hearing and producing music changed gradually and so did the approach to notation. Development of electronic and aleatoric compositions required a new way of depicting music, which brought the visual music scores to light (Thompson 2006). Artists took inspirations from each other, that is the movements in the music world influenced the visual art world and vice versa. For instance, as Dennis (1966:14) has suggested that the way Schönberg constructed his music was inspired by Cubism movement. Having noted that, it is visible that the structure of music started to lose its importance in the sense it had remained in previous decades, which obviously affected visual arts as well as they treated the pictorial space differently. (Dennis 14)

Thinking about notation and visual music scores the relation is very interesting. As earlier described, traditional notation has been a standardized in music for centuries, and one could read it and use it as a language inside the practice. Regarding to visual scores, they don’t work the same way. As Bossis (2006) describe in electroacoustic music, the language is not standardized, which leads to the reason why individuals have their own methods to depict sounds and to the fact that perception is not that standardized either. (Bossis 2006) Sometimes one might not even know where the reading starts or ends. Due to that, visual scores are guidelines for performers and/or audience in order to gain understanding of complex music pieces and to depict subtle harmonies and timbers. In addition they look like pieces of abstract art and I would say, in one level, they are working like art.

Bearing that in mind I suggest that visual music scores are somewhere between notation and art, and in that sense it can be partly studied and explored as an artwork. The notion above might help to understand the relations of visual music scores and art. Now, have a look at December 1952, a visual music score from Earle Brown. At the first sight one may think how do the drawn lines work like music? The score consists of black horizontal and vertical lines with different thicknesses but apart of these facts it might be challenging to understand the message of the visual marking method. Regarding Rawson (1988;40) relations between visual units build a connection system in drawing. As Brown(2008) has mentioned, the score is not composed, rather it suggests the relationships between elements. The purpose of the December 1952 is to help a performer to improvise. In other words, it would help a performer to correspond with the elements and communicate through their own inner poetism, as Brown described.(Brown 2008) Indeed, these lines are not just random separately located black strokes, rather one has decided to construct them at specific places on the surface, leaving some space between the elements.

Brown (2008) has described loosely how to read the particular score. He suggested that top of the page represents the higher register of instrument and with the same logic bottom page stands for the lower register. Left-right scale is suggested to be time, and the size of the lines indicates the volume of the sound. The line thickness is also suggested to indicate cluster sound, which basically means that many closely occurred tones should play at the same time. Brown also suggested imagining the sheet as a three dimensional space where the elements would physically move with different speeds in different directions in front of the performer. That is, the performer would connect to the physical movements and would improvise by perceiving the suggested relationships which are given from the elements movements. (Brown 2008:4-7)

In that light, reflecting to the guidelines and looking at the image, the first description would seem to quite obvious but it is quite challenging to gain the understanding of 3D form just by looking at the Brown’s work. However, whether it is 2D or 3D, it is clear the relations between lines plays the key role. The way the lines are organized is very standardized and reminiscent of small rectangles. Some of the lines are closer to each other and create line groups, and at the same time lines bridge the gap with other line groups and so on. They create a rhythmic body structure. Even the score is for improvisation, and in that sense it would be assumed that the structure is free. I can recognize the same strict and absolute appearance of music structure in the way lines are executed as it is in Klee’s work in the form of colour blocks. The main difference is that the expressive aspects, the poetic part Brown mentioned, are left outside for a performer, as the work is not a painting but a score.

Going further, and analysing another music score Artikulation (please see below video). The main difference between Brown’s score and his is that it is made to support the perception of the music piece. Certainly, it is called a visual listening score. The score illustrates Hungarian composer György Ligeti’s electronical composition Artikulation, which Wehinger created in the 1970’s. The listening score is based on the aural impression of the piece. It is a visualization of the sonic texture and the musical structure, and the purpose of this score is to give the idea and illustrate the music piece for an audience. (Guardian 2013; Thompson 2006; Levy 2006) Wehinger’s score is originally made on paper sheets. On the presented video music is synchronised with the score. The piece lasts almost four minutes, and to follow the score the black vertical bar is added afterwards to indicate the current position of listening (Graig D 2007; Northern 2009) It is vital to mention that Ligeti’s electronic piece is a whole composition when Brown’s was a guide for improvisation.

Rawson (1987;36) mentions that all forms of drawing should be reviewed in two ways. Firstly it is vital to understand that units and systems of the drawing carry emotive and associational contents. Having heard Ligeti’s electronic music piece I agree that shapes corresponds to the heard sounds on one level. I perceive that the round shapes sounds like soft bubbles and the combs create the illusion of sharp undulating movements. However, perception can be argued. Shapes also create other associations, which may not be that direct. To analyse the score, it is relevant to note that Ligeti’s piece was made in the 1950’s, but the score were created two decades after, which is seemingly recognizable of its typical visual language. Different shapes and colours mirror the time, for instance, bright colours and geometrical shapes, but also round organic shapes in the background, depict design from the 70’s. As a reflection to Rawson, this perception of time can evoke feelings, perhaps memories, which one can link to past. It seems to me that in a way the forms and shapes carry the meanings, of which I would argue the particular music piece wouldn’t evoke alone.

The second point of reviewing forms of drawing is connected with the structural function of methods used. Rawson states, structural function enables the work to be related to system. (Rawson 1987:36) Wehinger’s score not only concentrates on depicting the timbers but also illustrating the structure of composed music and it’s progress with the same logic as an original notation, where time is suggested to pass from left to right, and due to that overlapping elements on the surface are indicating sounds playing at the same time. It can be seen that the pictorial space of the surface is framed with a black stroked square, in which all the musical elements are situated. Time is indicated outside of the square with numbers and measure lines. Wehinger created a system for a score, which is divided in four element categories; a music score consists of a mix of geometric, colourful elements. Regarding Northern (2009) dots are indicating impulses, combs illustrate noises and colours are representing values and variations in timbre and pitch.

Adorno and Gillespie (1996: 69) mention that one often thinks that space in paintings is the same as time, nevertheless they don’t share directly the same identity; temporal organization is not simultaneous but successive. When considering the rhythm, Langer (1967) and Adorno and Gillespie
(1996: 69) describe, it as something which prepares the future. It is one group of tensions after another. Thus time is an immanent aspect and its embodiment is carried out with rhythmical marks, which constitute the space. Certainly, to support this opinion Rawson (1988: 200) also states that rhythmic marks are signals for audience to read surfaces; they create relations between elements of positive surfaces and ‘empty’ negative voids. To understand this, it is good to have closer look at elements in the score. For instance, the elements in green squares attached with green undulate lines not only suggest sound development, but also give an idea of time. In addition, repetitions of elements create rhythm in pictorial space, and on other level indicate that the same sounds are repeated in the music piece.


The main idea of this essay was to get an insight of the relations between musical aspects and artworks. The approach was to research visual mark making and how they correspond to music. This essay introduced some of the qualities of both art forms by searching for how they are connected and correlated with each other. To understand the fundamental aspects, it was vital to have a look at the territories and get an insight into how both are operating. It may be obvious that the connection is as simple as they both evoke feelings using human senses such as hearing and sight. However, as it mentioned earlier, feeling is an outcome of a complex and subtle language system both practises have. The communication factors differ a lot from each other, which make sense, as they are different art forms. Nevertheless, music and visual arts have interacted for centuries and artist have depicted musical aspects in their works in many ways.

Paul Klee’s work Alter Klang illustrates the outcome of the enquiry he had gone through while finally developing the colour block composition system. Klee used the musical polyphonic structure as a base for his working methods, which he extended and applied to other painting themes. Rich colour tones combined with square grid suggested that the strict music structure could be combined with expressiveness in painting. The un-figurative composition form proposed the method where the music and painting unite the purest way.

As the way of making, hearing and producing music developed in the first decades in 20th century. The impetus of new music developments changed the way of visualising composed music, as normal standardized notation could not meet the requirements of depicting pitches or sounds anymore. Visual music scores replaced partly the original music scores in the new music genres. Even the visual music scores are guidelines for understanding music the elements and shapes are more iconic and thus they share the language with visual arts.

Visual communication rules are more flexible than a normal notation system. When one is aware of the ways a visual communication operates, visual scores are a workable tool for the purpose of depicting and illustrating sounds as well as understanding the structures of musical pieces. Brown’s and Wehinger’s music scores showed how music can be depicted many ways and how pictorial space can work differently. Browns score revealed how simple lines work in order to create relations between each other and shape the whole pictorial space. On the other hand Wehinger’s listening score showed how shapes and colour create rhythm on surface, and how repeated lines can create the sense of time.


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