May 31, 2013
The curving flourishes of music notation have always been something a mystery to me, although every day I, like many people, use other arcane symbols without thinking twice about it. The at (@) sign, the dollar sign ($) and the ampersand (&), for example, all function like ligatures or some sort of shorthand. They’ve been demystified by popular use in email, clues on “Wheel of Fortune,” and their inclusion on computer keyboards. But music notation is a semantic system that is entirely different from the written word; a non-spoken alphabet of pitch and rhythm. So, with apologies to the more musically inclined reader, I looked into the origin of the treble clef and the answer was quite simple. The treble clef, the top symbol you see in the photo above, is also known as the G-clef, which gives you the first clue to its origin.
So for my own edification, if nothing else, let’s start with the basics. A clef is a sign placed on a music staff that indicates what pitch is represented by each line and space on the staff. The history of Western musical notation describes an effort toward the development of a simple, symbolic representations of pitch and rhythm. It begins near the end of the 9th century when notation for the Plainsong of the Western Church, better known as Gregorian Chant, was first recorded with “neumes”. These were simple dashes or dots above lyrics that indicated a relative change in pitch. At the end of the 10th century, musical scribes increased the precision of his early notation by introducing a horizontal line to indicate a base pitch (see above image). The pitch of this line was indicated by a letter at its start – typically F or C and, as higher range songs become more common, G. Neumes were no longer relative only to one another, but to a standard. This was the beginning of the musical staff.
These initial letters evolved over time into the stylized representations that we know as clefs today. The treble clef is a standardized representation of the letter G, while the bass clef, also known as the F-clef, is a more dramatic unrecognizable evolution of the letter F. A possible addition to this evolution was suggested in a 1908 article in The Musical Times, which argued that the contemporary form of the treble clef is a result of 17th century notational technique in which multiple symbols were used indicate both pitch and vocal sound, with “G, Sol” being a common combination that was eventually shortened to G.S. and then “gradually corrupted by careless transcription” into the treble clef.
In a time before mechanical reproducibility, the standardization of signs was an unfamiliar concept. These notations were all written by hand the inconsistencies and idiosyncrasies of each scribe naturally resulted in some variability of representation, sometimes even on the same page. And, don’t forget, the handwriting was noticeably fancier than today’s script – think medieval font. I can imagine that the scribes tasked with copying these notational manuscripts made mistakes and additions, until eventually the copy (of the copy, of the copy…) bore little resemblance to the original.
Use of the C-clef, also known as the alto clef and tenor clef depending on its position, has declined over the 20th century to be replaced by the other two. Today, the alto clef is used primarily in viola music while the tenor is occasionally used for bassoon, trombone and cello. The F-clef is used for lower-brass notation as well as for the bass and, every kid who was forced to take piano lessons knows, the left hand of keyboard instruments. The instruments that use treble clef include the violin, woodwinds, higher brass instruments, and of course the right hand of keyboard instruments. Its wide use has led it becoming cartoon shorthand to graphically indicate musicality. It seems appropriate that its development was incidental to the preservation and proliferation of the music itself.
Harper College History of Western Music, eds, Hugh M. Miller and Dave Cockrell (1991); Harvard Dictionary of Music, ed. Willi Apel (1971); Karl Wilson Gehrkens, Music Terminology and Notation (1914); Frank Kidson, “The Evolution of Clef Signatures,” The Musical Times (July 1, 1908); The Schøyen Collection
November 2, 2012
Last fall, I went on a reporting road trip through the American South. Eating was not the main purpose of the trip, but the need to find food along the road between North Carolina, Georgia, Tennessee, and Louisiana provided a great secondary mission. As a guide, we relied on Garden & Gun magazine’s list of the 50 Best Southern Foods. I referenced it time and again during the trip, and the image that accompanied each page became like a visual symbol of the journey.
A few months later, that familiar picture reappeared while I was scanning some design blogs, and only then did it occur to me that the image was a hand-painted sign (or hand-chalked, in this case). The artist, Dana Tanamachi, had posted a 2-minute time-lapse video on the making of the piece. Despite having put little thought into the graphic back when I was looking at the content, I realized then that the authentic, folksy (you could say “Southern”) feel of the food guide resulted largely from the presence of the handmade sign. The magazine could have used computer graphics, could even have rendered something digitally to appear hand-drawn, but instead they chose the real thing, and it made the whole production that much more engaging and memorable.
Sign painting as an occupation and industry took a major hit with the advent of illustration software, giant printers, and vinyl cutting, but it’s making a comeback thanks to our cultural reinvestment in the value of manual work. Books like Shop Class as Soulcraft and Handmade Nation shone spotlights on the growing movement of makers taking handiwork back from hobby to livelihood. Now the author of Handmade Nation, Faythe Levine, has a new book (and documentary) that zeroes in on the world of professional sign painters. In collaboration with Sam Macon, Levine visited two dozen people who have made their mark on food trucks, shop windows, billboards, and multi-story buildings across the country. Sign Painters, published by Princeton Architectural Press, features the painters in their own words and incredibly bold images, describing how they came to this profession and how things have changed.
A common thread among the subjects of the book is that while what they are producing is art, most don’t call themselves artists. “The kind of sign painting that I embrace, that I make a living doing,” says Cincinnati-based Justin Green, “is a service. It’s an industry, and I want to keep it that way…when the unions held sway, ‘artist’ was a pejorative term. In all the old sign-painting books the sign painter was referred to as the ‘mechanic.’” Phil Vandervaart (painter of the Dusty’s Bar sign, below) echoes the sentiment: “It’s a sign, not fine art,” he says,”It’s meant to convey information and be attractive.” For Vandervaart, sign painting is a way of “adding to the urban cacophony” and impacting the cityscape. it’s a description that could almost as easily refer to graffiti, and indeed some of the painters came from a street art background, but the role of sign painting as marketing device is not lost on the people who aim to earn a living through this work. Keith Knecht, who was featured in the book at age 71 and passed away before its release, points to sign painters as the original brand identity developers for companies. “In 1840 there weren’t big advertising agencies on Madison Avenue designing logos and creating campaigns,” he says, “Sign painters designed those logos.”
Surprisingly, not all of the painters eschew computers, though they don’t choose to produce their work exclusively on the screen (and some do lament that computers have caused the deterioration of basic artistic skills, and a fervent need for speed and replication). Gary Martin, an Austin, Texas-based sign painter who has been making signs since the ’70s, enjoys the visibility the Internet enables, and finds fresh motivation through the younger generation of sign painters who are connecting and showing their work online. “I feel like I’ve been living on a desert island by myself for years and then all of a sudden a bunch of other young people show up to join me,” he says, “Now I can post my stuff online and get reactions from other sign painters.” One of those younger painters is San Francisco-based Jeff Canham (whose letters are featured at the top of the post). Canham has had a hybrid career, straddling the physical and digital, advertising and fine art. “I don’t know where you draw the line between one and the other,” he remarks, “Just about everything I do has some kind of combination of hand painted and digitally rendered…I wasn’t necessarily hell-bent on doing everything by hand. I was bored with the computer.”
Canham is among a handful of painters featured in the book who have passed at one time or another through the workshop of New Bohemia Signs in San Francisco. Frequent mentions of the place, as well as sign schools in Los Angeles, Denver, and elsewhere, make clear that sign painting is a trade that values mentorship, apprenticeship and lineage. Like all designers, sign painters look to their predecessors to guide them on technique and tradition, while picking and choosing from the modern tools available now. Sign Painters is a great source of inspiration about this often-overlooked industry, and a good reminder to pay a little extra attention while out in the city, on the highway, or wherever. Beautiful hand-painted signs are everywhere.