• Sandra Howe

When is it OK to Break the Rules?


Notation needs rules, so we know exactly what sheet music is telling us. We must remember, however, that notation is not music. Music is free from rules. It can be created in any number of ways. Notation’s only function is to explain the sounds on paper and we, as musicians, need to interpret this. Getting stuck in the rules of notation as a musician is something we must avoid.


When I was a child I was learning a piece of music and although I could play it, I was struggling as it didn’t sound like music to me. It sounded strange. I had the rhythm right and the notes correct but I just didn’t ‘get it’. I will never forget when I heard it played by another student – I was in awe that this person had taken this piece and made it sound like the music it was supposed to be. They had seemed to read between the lines and understood something about the piece of music that I didn’t.

Music is an idea, an emotion, a communication, it has a character and a story – notation tries to explain this, and it does a pretty good job but there will always be gaps, in the same way that notation cannot really explain a swung rhythm, notation cannot explain everything, musicians fill those gaps. We can study the history, the context of a piece of music. We can also understand the genre and character. We can even use our imagination to create a new story for the piece that fits our understanding of the music.

Notation is not flawed. It is what it is, and it does its job well. But we must understand that we cannot blindly follow the rules of notation without joining the dots and understanding the picture as a whole.

Then we can decide what rules to follow and what rules to bend or break to enhance our performance.

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