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#1206690 - 05/27/09 09:17 AM What is difficult about learning to play?  
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In the light of yet another thread where someone claims to make playing piano easy by removing the act of reading I am interested in your opinions.

We are forever hearing people blame their lack of progress on their inability to read music. There seems to be an assumption that if you can make the notation easy to follow then you would be able to play in no time at all.

What do you think about that?

If it were true then anyone who could read music well would be able to play any instrument they want wouldn't they?

I have been struggling with the guitar for ages now and getting nowhere. And yet I can follow the music with ease! It's the same with my wife's flute. I can't even get a sound out of it let alone tell you how to find any notes.

Is reading music really the problem?


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#1206707 - 05/27/09 09:36 AM Re: What is difficult about learning to play? [Re: Chris H.]  
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I don't believe so. I struggled for several years in middle school with the flute. I switched to saxophone (to sit next to a boy I liked, ha!) and just took off! Got good fast and moved to first chair all the way across the row from the cute boy frown lol
The flute just wasn't my thing.

It had nothing to do with reading the music.



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#1206714 - 05/27/09 09:41 AM Re: What is difficult about learning to play? [Re: Chris H.]  
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That is an excellent point, Chris. I don't think the problem is reading music. I used to have trouble reading music as a child, but I also had trouble reading words. I also didn't practice as much as I should have. I'm sure if I did it would not have been a problem, and as soon as I started practicing more, lo and behold, the reading was much easier. So it can be difficult, but not impossible. Any of my students who practice regularly are decent enough readers. I think the system of music notation as it is is great in its versatility, and it is elegant in its simplicity. If the note is higher on the page, then you play/sing a higher note. How much higher it goes determines how much higher to play/sing. I am always very quick to point this out to students so that they don't fall into the trap of thinking finger numbers for every note or trying to read the note names for every note. While both of those things are useful tools, you don't want to do that for every note or it will be too hard.

Perhaps those that strive to find a new way of notating sound never got this themselves, or were unable to explain this to their students and so they search for a "better" way. Thing is, if you speed up the reading process or skip over it, you cannot speed up the process by which the fingers gain flexibility, strength and independence, nor can you speed up the connections in the brain necessary for hand independence and hands together playing. All of which can happen while learning standard music notation. Piano is a hard instrument to play. I do not feel that the reading is the most difficult part of music.


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#1206717 - 05/27/09 09:43 AM Re: What is difficult about learning to play? [Re: Chris H.]  
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You still have to spend the time to train your mind and your hands to work together. You still have to learn technique. You still have to learn where the notes in the scale(s) you're using are on the fretboard or keyboard. You still must learn and know your instrument. You can't learn any of that from notes on a page.


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#1206734 - 05/27/09 10:16 AM Re: What is difficult about learning to play? [Re: pianonewb]  
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This is hard to put into words, on an internet forum, but I think that many people approach playing an instrument, with what is almost a fear of that instrument.

What I am trying to say, is that, I see people who sit at a piano, and feel almost overwhelmed by it. That they must treat it with something approaching reverence, and that something awful will happen, should they insult the instrument by playing a wrong note.

This may sound a little over the top, but I believe that feeling at ease with, and in control of, whatever instrument one chooses to learn, is a huge first step, in becoming proficient.

Some have a kind of (understandable) mental block, when it comes to reading notation.
It is a totally foreign language to them, which seems to have no logical meaning, and it is our job to help them make sense of what they see, and more importantly, of what they hear.

To hear what you see, and to see what you hear, are two of the most valuable skills, any musician can develop, IMHO


Rob
#1206737 - 05/27/09 10:23 AM Re: What is difficult about learning to play? [Re: Chris H.]  
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Originally Posted by Chris H.
In the light of yet another thread where someone claims to make playing piano easy by removing the act of reading I am interested in your opinions.


Have discovered that a lot of good musicians play by feel, shapes, and sound, rather than reading!


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#1206741 - 05/27/09 10:29 AM Re: What is difficult about learning to play? [Re: Chris H.]  
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Originally Posted by Chris H.


We are forever hearing people blame their lack of progress on their inability to read music. There seems to be an assumption that if you can make the notation easy to follow then you would be able to play in no time at all.

Is reading music really the problem?


I have not actually heard anybody blame notation for their difficulty. (only for somebody else's difficulty)

I myself have read music all of my life. I play several brass instruments, sightsing well in choirs, can follow orchestral scores at tempo. Did it help on piano? Slightly, perhaps, at the start. It certainly didn't make it easy.

At the same time, we should notice that a large number of the beginners who start piano don't acquire a useful degree of playing skill (though they may learn other things that benefit them greatly). The usual explanation is that they don't practice - that is the single most common gripe on this forum. But that may not be the whole story, anymore than notation is.

When I started lessons, my teacher had me read through a series of beginner methods until she found my level. The first couple exercises where symbols other than notes were used in the Alfred were confusing to me, far worse than notes on the staff.



gotta go practice
#1206746 - 05/27/09 10:39 AM Re: What is difficult about learning to play? [Re: Diane...]  
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Well, when you play the violin, for example, one of the biggest challenge is to play in tune (intonation). This is where the Suzuki method of hearing a piece a billion times actually helps the student to internalize the desired pitch and train their ears to listen for the correct pitch while playing, and making the necessary adjustments in regards to finger positions. The physical act of note-reading (eyes looking on the page) is a minor problem for violin players, unless you're taught by a horrible teacher who doesn't teach sight reading.

In school, I've worked with the worst of the worst students. All of my students eventually learned to read notes. It just might take them longer to learn (three weeks of daily instruction), but they eventually get it. They might not be proficient enough to sight sing simple tunes, but at the very least they can tell you which note is middle C, and so forth.

You can basically draw a parallel between learning to read notes with any other academic subject area. Some students will need more time to memorize the multiplication table. Some kids get it done in a month, some get it in two months, and there will always be kids who will refuse to memorize anything, in which case they will fail all of their math classes and drop out of high school.


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#1206747 - 05/27/09 10:41 AM Re: What is difficult about learning to play? [Re: Morodiene]  
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I am only a student who took up piano late in life. From earlier musical training I was already a fluent reader of music before I started piano and, while this certainly helped me getting started, piano playing is so difficult in so many areas that I just don't think music notation is the major barrier.

But I really wanted to comment on this statement:

Originally Posted by Morodiene
I think the system of music notation as it is is great in its versatility, and it is elegant in its simplicity.


I have been doing some recent research in the field called "musical informatics" which is the study of music and music representation with the tools and technologies of information science. I came across this brief comment from Donald Byrd at Indiana University who is one of the pioneers in bringing computerized tools to bear on creating and understanding musical notation:

"It's well-known in the knowledge-representation (artificial intelligence, etc.) community that choosing a representation for anything inevitably introduces bias. Given a representation, choosing a notation, i.e., a way to show the information graphically, inevitably introduces more bias, and music is no exception. Consider CMN (Conventional Music Notation) -- or, more precisely, "CWMN" (Conventional Western Music Notation). CMN is among the most successful notations ever devised, but it's enormously complex and subtle. What are its limits, and what are its biases? It's not always obvious: some bizarre-looking CMN poses no real problems for representation, while some rather ordinary looking CMN poses very difficult problems."

Byrd maintains an interesting web page documenting some unusual examples of conventional notation, many of them from quite ordinary literature.

In other writing Byrd has compared musical notation to mathematical notation in complexity and ambiguity. So I don't think it's fair to dismiss learning to read music as a trivial task. The system is very versatile and really indispensable to a serious musician, but the learning curve can be steep.


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#1206751 - 05/27/09 10:49 AM Re: What is difficult about learning to play? [Re: packa]  
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Originally Posted by packa
I am only a student who took up piano late in life. From earlier musical training I was already a fluent reader of music before I started piano and, while this certainly helped me getting started, piano playing is so difficult in so many areas that I just don't think music notation is the major barrier.

But I really wanted to comment on this statement:

Originally Posted by Morodiene
I think the system of music notation as it is is great in its versatility, and it is elegant in its simplicity.


I have been doing some recent research in the field called "musical informatics" which is the study of music and music representation with the tools and technologies of information science. I came across this brief comment from Donald Byrd at Indiana University who is one of the pioneers in bringing computerized tools to bear on creating and understanding musical notation:

"It's well-known in the knowledge-representation (artificial intelligence, etc.) community that choosing a representation for anything inevitably introduces bias. Given a representation, choosing a notation, i.e., a way to show the information graphically, inevitably introduces more bias, and music is no exception. Consider CMN (Conventional Music Notation) -- or, more precisely, "CWMN" (Conventional Western Music Notation). CMN is among the most successful notations ever devised, but it's enormously complex and subtle. What are its limits, and what are its biases? It's not always obvious: some bizarre-looking CMN poses no real problems for representation, while some rather ordinary looking CMN poses very difficult problems."

Byrd maintains an interesting web page documenting some unusual examples of conventional notation, many of them from quite ordinary literature.

In other writing Byrd has compared musical notation to mathematical notation in complexity and ambiguity. So I don't think it's fair to dismiss learning to read music as a trivial task. The system is very versatile and really indispensable to a serious musician, but the learning curve can be steep.


If you note, however, that the all the examples on this person's webpage (Byrd) are of late intermediate and advanced levels. We are talking about learning notation, so beginner stuff. Obviously the more advanced someone is at math, they have more advanced symbols (think of calculus). You wouldn't teach calculus to a beginner who didn't even know numbers yet, but calculus does use numbers and builds upon what has already been learned. So to go from ground zero to reading advanced music is yes, quite a learning curve. Going from ground zero to Mary Had A little Lamb is not so tough.

Last edited by Morodiene; 05/27/09 10:50 AM. Reason: typo

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#1206756 - 05/27/09 10:54 AM Re: What is difficult about learning to play? [Re: TimR]  
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Originally Posted by TimR

I have not actually heard anybody blame notation for their difficulty. (only for somebody else's difficulty)


Now I come to think about it.......

That's an excellent point Tim!

Although there are a lot of folk who complain about sight reading and believe that is what is holding them back in their playing.


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#1206765 - 05/27/09 11:00 AM Re: What is difficult about learning to play? [Re: Morodiene]  
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To answer the original question, I think the answer is No reading music is not the issue, it's more the mechanics of translating that musical notation into physical movement, striking the right key at the right time, keeping the tempo, etc. etc.

I can read treble clef and play clarinet just fine, but playing even just the treble clef/right hand part on piano is certainly not there yet, add to that the complexity of the simultaneous bass clef and left hand and I'm totally blown out of the water. It's a matter of practice, muscle training and developing the ability to play hands independently. The real difficulty is to then integrate all these pieces into one seamless ability to play and even sight-read at once.





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#1206770 - 05/27/09 11:05 AM Re: What is difficult about learning to play? [Re: packa]  
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Originally Posted by packa
[...]In other writing Byrd has compared musical notation to mathematical notation in complexity and ambiguity. So I don't think it's fair to dismiss learning to read music as a trivial task. The system is very versatile and really indispensable to a serious musician, but the learning curve can be steep.

They key element in the description in Byrd's examples, though, is "unusual"; they are hardly the norm. His statement that Western musical notation is "enormously complex" is nothing more than his opinion and reduces his argument to a tautological one.

"Enormously complex" compared to what? Even if music theory can be described as complex, music notation uses a relatively small and finite set of symbols in an organized, standardized fashion.

Steven

#1206793 - 05/27/09 11:53 AM Re: What is difficult about learning to play? [Re: sotto voce]  
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Originally Posted by sotto voce
His statement that Western musical notation is "enormously complex" is nothing more than his opinion and reduces his argument to a tautological one.

Donald Byrd (whose work I admire a lot) has degrees in both music composition and computer science and his doctoral dissertation concerned music notation by computer. It may be only his opinion, but it is an enormously informed opinion.


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#1206797 - 05/27/09 12:03 PM Re: What is difficult about learning to play? [Re: packa]  
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I'm sorry folks, gotta disagree. You can teach really difficult things by rote as long as your student has a half decent memory. Reading is the bugbear.


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#1206799 - 05/27/09 12:07 PM Re: What is difficult about learning to play? [Re: keyboardklutz]  
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But KBK, it's not the reading, that's easy, it's the translation of that into the performance. Unless you are including the performance, the mechanics of striking the notes as part of reading. They are different things.



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#1206811 - 05/27/09 12:23 PM Re: What is difficult about learning to play? [Re: packa]  
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Originally Posted by packa
Originally Posted by sotto voce
His statement that Western musical notation is "enormously complex" is nothing more than his opinion and reduces his argument to a tautological one.

Donald Byrd (whose work I admire a lot) has degrees in both music composition and computer science and his doctoral dissertation concerned music notation by computer. It may be only his opinion, but it is an enormously informed opinion.

But Byrd's credentials don't make his opinion an informed one (any more than Patty Carlson's trotting out of her own credentials and accomplishments gave her credibility in that other thread).

Western notation represents but a handful of specific elements: pitch, duration, dynamics and articulation. The parameters—and their ranges of values—are so circumscribed that describing it as "enormously complex" is absurd; building a case upon one's own conclusion by regarding it as fact is absurd.

Treating notation as though it were infinitely nuanced and insurmountably difficult to comprehend is one of the things that creates a big barrier of intimidation for learners. It just makes a vastly complicated and mysterious mountain out of a small, systematic molehill. But, after all, isn't that what opponents of traditional notation need to do?

Steven

#1206816 - 05/27/09 12:28 PM Re: What is difficult about learning to play? [Re: sotto voce]  
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Originally Posted by sotto voce
....

Treating notation as though it were infinitely nuanced and insurmountably difficult to comprehend is one of the things that creates a big barrier of intimidation for learners. It just makes a vastly complicated and mysterious mountain out of a small, systematic molehill. But, after all, isn't that what opponents of traditional notation need to do?

Steven


I've gotta agree, musical notation on the whole is not complex or difficult, it has a very finite set of attributes that once learned can be used in an almost infinite way, but the notation itself is not that complex.



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#1206887 - 05/27/09 01:58 PM Re: What is difficult about learning to play? [Re: kennychaffin]  
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Originally Posted by kennychaffin
But KBK, it's not the reading, that's easy, it's the translation of that into the performance. Unless you are including the performance, the mechanics of striking the notes as part of reading. They are different things.
All I know is because I can read music I can learn to play any instrument to grade 1 or 2 in a couple of weeks. Some of my kids take a year!


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#1206913 - 05/27/09 02:41 PM Re: What is difficult about learning to play? [Re: keyboardklutz]  
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kbk, that's interesting.

What I found with the guitar is that I too was able to get to a very basic level quite quickly (grade 1-2 or there abouts). But then I couldn't seem to get any further. At that basic level I would not say that I could actually 'play' the guitar. Also the progress with the basics had more to do with musicianship skills I already have than with the ability to read the music.

With someone who already plays an instrument well and can read music the only thing they need to master is the physical control of the new instrument. But that in itself is quite a challenge!

Anyone new to music and a particular instrument faces numerous challenges. They have to learn how to manipulate and control the instrument. They have to develop musicianship skills like sense of pulse and aural awareness. Then they have to learn to read music. IMO the last bit is the easy part.


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#1207211 - 05/28/09 12:28 AM Re: What is difficult about learning to play? [Re: Chris H.]  
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Everybody must get 'Pianists and Pedagogues' when it's reprinted. The interview with Andreas Schiff really resonated with me. When I started the violin last month (I'm now on viola) I looked exclusively at the sheet. My body found ways around the instrument and automatically played with some 'expert' posture points (when I then read Leopold's book, and then William Primrose I found what my body had discovered in there!). Andreas Shiff, in commenting on his small hands says it doesn't limit him. When playing 'big hand' music he simply plays the music (i.e. internal concept) - his body automatically finds the workarounds, he's oblivious.


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#1207229 - 05/28/09 01:54 AM Re: What is difficult about learning to play? [Re: keyboardklutz]  
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Hi Chris H,
Knowing that all the single-voice musical instruments (strings, brass and wind) ... difficult as they may be initially to master finding the notes ... are necessarily only contending with finding the NEXT SINGLE NOTE ... piano notation is far more difficult ... contending with a notation requiring instant comprehension of possibly 10 fingers going every which-way.

The guitar is the poor man’s path to voice accompaniment ... master a half dozen slick chord grips and you’re on your way to match The Beatles ... "It’s Been a Hard Day’s Night".

Perhaps the bleat should be confined to keyboard instruments.


#1207230 - 05/28/09 02:03 AM Re: What is difficult about learning to play? [Re: btb]  
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btb's right. You're only a good reader if you can tackle at least a string quartet at sight. Easy? I think not.


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#1207236 - 05/28/09 02:52 AM Re: What is difficult about learning to play? [Re: keyboardklutz]  
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Here’s John Cage’s attempt to capture the shape of music ... some might think that he was a case for the nut-house, but others like to see him as having pioneered new fields of sound ... at least he was thinking "out of the box" ... but why don’t more of us staid piano teachers try to get out of the hum-drum and take Cage’s two dimensional diagrams a stage further ... and perhaps discover an instantly readable keyboard notation?

PS This image was picked up of some previous thread on the Piano Forum.

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#1207239 - 05/28/09 03:06 AM Re: What is difficult about learning to play? [Re: btb]  
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Ah, btb, no wonder you like this Cage diagram - it's quite architectural - a draft of the Sydney Opera House, maybe?

smile

Cathy


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#1207275 - 05/28/09 05:55 AM Re: What is difficult about learning to play? [Re: jotur]  
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Originally Posted by jotur
Ah, btb, no wonder you like this Cage diagram - it's quite architectural - a draft of the Sydney Opera House, maybe?

smile

Cathy


smile That's kinda what I thought upon seeing it. smile


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#1207281 - 05/28/09 06:19 AM Re: What is difficult about learning to play? [Re: kennychaffin]  
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Interesting that you chaps see shape by looking at the "volume" lower diagram and link up with the wavelike shape of the Sydney Opera House ... but in the upper blocky diagram, IMHO Cage has blocked out the sequential overlapping sounds of his composition Chess Pieces written in 1944 (I think) ... with the narrower diagram picking up the changes in volume in direct relationship to the upper diagram above.

Of special note is the fact that shape INSTANTLY conveyed a recognizable thought ... another case of "a picture tells a thousand words".

#1207290 - 05/28/09 06:48 AM Re: What is difficult about learning to play? [Re: btb]  
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kennychaffin Offline
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kennychaffin  Offline
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BTB, I agree and did not actually mean to make light of it, I think it's a great idea approach, just not certain of how it might fit in with the "world of music notation."



Kenny A. Chaffin
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#1207336 - 05/28/09 08:27 AM Re: What is difficult about learning to play? [Re: kennychaffin]  
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R0B Offline
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R0B  Offline
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Australia
Here is a neat little program that can 'visualise' music.

I use the term 'music' loosely, as you will see, it is one of my own little ditties. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7Vq5JzfI09s&feature=channel_page


Rob
#1207344 - 05/28/09 08:42 AM Re: What is difficult about learning to play? [Re: R0B]  
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Morodiene Offline
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Morodiene  Offline
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Originally Posted by R0B
Here is a neat little program that can 'visualise' music.

I use the term 'music' loosely, as you will see, it is one of my own little ditties. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7Vq5JzfI09s&feature=channel_page


It's nice to look at while listening, but (as I am sure you were not implying) it cannot be precise enough to substitute for notation. I'm also sure you could use the same visualization and come up with a nice 12-tone piece.


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