Graphic notation

Students will explore graphic scores and composers who have used them, through composition, performance and aural activities.


  • 4.4 demonstrates an understanding of musical concepts through exploring, experimenting, improvising, organising, arranging and composing.
  • 4.5 notates compositions using traditional and/or non-traditional notation.
  • 4.9 demonstrates musical literacy through the use of notation, terminology, and the reading and interpreting of scores used in the music selected for study.


5 - 6 lessons.


Students will use critical thinking skills to interpret graphic notation. Creativity and communication skills will be developed by notating a graphic score and performing a soundscape.


A graphic score involves using non-traditional music notation consisting of signs, symbols, words and sometimes specific notes to indicate what the performer is to play. Graphic notation was developed in the mid-20th century as a way for composers to more freely express their musical ideas and performers to more freely interpret them. Significant composers of this style were John Cage, George Crumb, Krzysztof Penderecki and Karlheinz Stockhausen.


All activities require students to demonstrate their learning and are all assessment for learning activities.

Teaching and learning activities

Introduce students to the concept of graphic notation by giving them the graphic notation handout (PDF 4.46 MB).

In pairs, students will:

  • discuss and explain how they interpreted the scores
  • perform the scores to their classmates
  • justify the reasons they performed how they did.

Score One

Image: Score one - shown as graphic notation

Score two

Image: Score two - shown as a graphic notation
  • watch and analyse the video Thunderstorm: a graphic notation by Alex Chorley, age 12 (00:01:11)
  • answer the following questions:
    • What elements of a storm are present?
    • What sounds/instruments have the composer used to represent these elements of the storm?
    • What do each of the symbols on the score mean?
    • How is duration depicted?
    • How is pitch depicted?
    • How are dynamics depicted?

Unless specified, the concepts of music present in a graphic score (particularly pitch and duration) are approximations, left to the interpretation of the performer. There are no set rules for graphic notation and there are any number of examples present. Three common ideas exist using any type of symbol:

  • length determines duration
Image: A long line is a long sound, short line is a short sound
  • height determines pitch
Image: High dots represent high pitches and low dots represent low pitches
  • size determines dynamics (volume)
Image: Size determines volume.

Some examples of graphic scores that have been produced as visual representations of famous composers? repertoire can be viewed on YouTube and are used as examples in the next activity.

Students will:

Handout a copy of the template below (this is on the second page of the Graphic notation handout). Completing the template, students will:

  • notate a graphic score for vocals and body percussion.
  • swap their compositions to see if they can understand and or perform each other's work.
Image: Graphic notation template

Students will:

  • research the graphic scores of composers
    • Krzysztof Penderecki
    • Karlheinz Stockhausen
  • describe how each composer expresses the musical concepts of duration, pitch and dynamics.

Expressive techniques manipulate the other concepts of music. For example:

  • crescendo (classed as an expressive technique) manipulates dynamics by gradually making the volume louder
  • staccato manipulates the duration of a note by making it sound short and crisp
  • vibrato manipulates the quality of a sound so that it becomes warmer and richer in tone colour
  • muting an instrument changes its tone colour from a clear sound to a more muffled sound.

Students will:

  • work in small groups to (sensibly) explore and experiment with expressive techniques on classroom or personal instruments
  • document the tone colours of the instruments used above
  • invent symbols to match each sound they discover
  • catalogue their findings and ideas in a table. See example below.
Instrument Expressive techniques used Resulting tone colour (adjectives) Graphic notation symbol
violin tapping a fingernail on the belly of the violin dry, ticking/tapping sound x

Students will compose a soundscape (a composition of sounds that depict a 'scene'), notate it as a graphic score and perform it for the class. In groups of 3-4, students will:

  • select a theme from the list below
    • thunderstorm
    • rainforest
    • shopping centre
    • motorway
    • schoolyard
    • construction site
  • create a table of different sounds they would hear, how these sounds could be produced (using only three to four instruments available) and how they could be notated
  • create a composition following the criteria below
    • approximately one minute long
    • written for three to four different parts (one instrument can make more than one type of sound) - labelled down the left side of the score. A copy of the soundscape score template (PDF 4.35 MB)can be located in the resource section.
    • vocal sounds (not lyrics) may be included
    • at least one instrument must be pitched
    • the score must be notated IN PENCIL
    • the concepts of pitch, duration, dynamics and texture must be evident
    • a legend and/or performance instructions explaining symbols (especially regarding expressive techniques) may be included or attached to the score
    • the composition needs to be named.

Students will:

  • use adjectives to describe tone colour
  • interpret length, height and size in a musical context
  • read graphic scores
  • catalogue sounds in a table.



Students could:

  • notate a graphic score in a creative format or design
  • notate and record a graphic score using technology.

Life skills


  • LS 6 a student experiments in representing and recording musical sounds.

Students could:

  • use graphic notation to represent musical sounds
  • organise musical experiments into a composition.


Formative feedback individual and group activities

Summative feedback the soundscape activity can be made into a formal assessment task.


Please note:

Syllabus outcomes and content descriptors from Music 7–10 Syllabus (2003) © NSW Education Standards Authority (NESA) for and on behalf of the Crown in right of the State of New South Wales, 2017.

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