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  • Thea Martin

Scoring in Text - Exploring Sound Making Through Language

Updated: Nov 8, 2021

By Thea Martin

Scores allow us to transfer ideas. They can be both a template or a starting point. In Western music education, when we refer to a score, we most often refer to Western, traditional music notation. In education, music literacy is tied to the ability to read traditional music notation, though we know that multiple other literacies and ways of communicating in music, (within Western music and beyond into musics globally), exist. Traditional music notation represents only a small fraction of the ways music can be communicated and shared.

Graphic scoring is an incredibly useful way to explore expansive sound worlds through visual ideas, shapes and colours, as well as to understand the works of the musicians who used such scores in their compositional practice. Another kind of score exists that holds incredible, somewhat uncharted pedagogical value.

Introducing - the text score.

Also called verbal notation, event scores, or instructional scores, these works developed out of the experimental music scene of the 1950s, particularly in America. Similar to graphic scores, text scores not only transfer ideas, but invite participants to ‘realise’ the ideas through increased elements of indeterminacy, calls for improvisation, collaboration and creativity.

Text scores use only words to instruct, describe, prompt or guide sound-making. They can be instructional and direct - like a cookbook full of instructions for creating specific sounds. Alternatively, they can be allusive and abstract, poetic even - opening up an increased breadth of potential sonic experience that notes on a stave cannot access. Though music notation has the benefit of being able to transcend language barriers, I argue that text notation is equally if not more accessible to young people as an additional component of their holistic arts education experience. As text scores do not often specify pitches or durations in the same way traditional notation does, these scores are adaptive to the technical skill and physical ability of the performers.

In the wonderfully titled text, HOW TO WRITE A TEXT ABOUT HOW TO WRITE A TEXT SCORE (AND WHY) by architect Lawrence Halprin, the potential of text notation for facilitating community engagement is highlighted:

“The point is, we all relate to everyday language. We don't all relate to musical notation. If we're interested in the social aspects of art and music, then it seems wise to use the most inclusive language on offer.”

I turn now to the work of an artistic hero of mine, Pauline Oliveros.

Pauline Oliveros was an American, queer, experimental composer and accordion player. Though she worked with many kinds of notations, her text score contributions have given us an incredibly inclusive path into music making for all – no musical experience required! Her work aimed to facilitate connectedness and togetherness, creating scores that often only needed the human body to be performed effectively - making use of vocalisations, deep listening, sound imagining and sound remembering. In her 2011 score The Worldwide Tuning Meditation, participants are invited to vocalise in a group, alternating between contributing their own pitch and listening for another that can be heard from someone else, and attempting to match it. Oliveros describes the work as “a metaphor for building community through a shared activity that has individual innovations”. I have used this score with primary school students, high school students, university students, and community members with no musical backgrounds - always with wonderful sonic and community outcomes. I believe this score is a wonderful example of the incredible potential text notation has for connecting to sound-making in a way that is flexible, invitational and deeply accessible.

Drawing on the work of Oliveros, but also other wonderful composers and artists such as Murray Schafer, Jennifer Walshe and James Tenney, I have developed a number of text scores for the students I work with. Each is flexible as there are no instruments specified and the skill level required is specific to each group who uses the score. Each is invitational, emphasising creative exploration and improvisation. I will briefly discuss one of my text score experiments, titled The Ginkgo’s of Hiroshima, originally written for and realised by the Glenunga International High School String Orchestra, though I have since used the piece with university students and primary school students.

The score can be found here.

The Ginkgo’s of Hiroshima aims to facilitate a guided, creative, musical response within a programmatic (narrative) structure. It aims to sonically depict the story of the survival of ginkgo trees in Hiroshima (called Hibakujoumoku) after the US military dropped an atomic bomb in 1945. The concepts of soundscapes, sound cells, and submerging/emerging sounds are explored. The text takes up just over a single A4 landscape page. It can be read to students, or given to them to read themselves in their own time. Through this piece I hoped to provide an avenue for young people to explore their sonic environment, and to explore heavier themes through empathetic art-making.

Like with any musical style or system, not every text score is appropriate for performing in a primary school or high school context. For myself as an educator, I have chosen to focus my teaching on scores with invitational language that is accessible to young people, that promote creative exploration and improvisation and that seek to dissolve the hierarchies of composer to performer to audience. Though this form of ‘scoring’ emerged from the experimental music scene, text scores continue to be used by a diverse array of composers and sound artists, both in music-specific and interdisciplinary works today.

Text scores allow young people to go inside musical ideas, to explore sounds for themselves, to listen using their entire bodies and to critically engage with their sonic environments.


Below is a list of text scores/scores with aspects of text that I have used in educational sound making settings. This is a non-exhaustive list – instead I hope for it to be a jumping off point for discovering artists who have worked with text to broaden our concept of what it means to make music and sound.

An Anthology of Text ScoresPauline Oliveros

Sonic MeditationsPauline Oliveros

(I’d specifically recommend The Worldwide Tuning Meditation, Ear Piece, Native, Your Voice and Scanning/Hearing.)

The Text Score Dataset 1.0 – Jennifer Walshe

Arc of Continuous Sounds – Richard Hayman

Eye Locks from A Series of 4 Sound Events – Daniel Goode

A Sound Education – 100 Exercises in Listening and Sound-Making – Murray Schafer



Hahn, T. (2018). ‘Sputtering Rituals: Remembering Pauline Oliveros as Improvisation-in-Action’, Critical Studies in Improvisation, vol. 12, no. 2.

Johnson, R 1981, Scores : an anthology of new music , Schirmer Books, New York.

Lely, J & Saunders, J (2012). 'Word events : perspectives on verbal notation', Continuum, London.

Oliveros, P. (2005) 'Deep Listening: A Composer’s Sound Practice', iUNIVERSE.

Oliveros, P. (2011). ‘Pauline Oliveros: The World Wide Tuning Meditation’, Leonardo Music Journal, vol. 21, pp. 85–85.

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