Percy’s tobacco-box contraption: an ingenious experiment for recording musical notation using repurposed materials

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This contraption, ostensibly a small wooden tobacco box, is actually an experiment in musical notation hand-made by Percy Grainger.  Mounted through the lid of the box is a small cotton reel, around which is wound a long strip of paper ruled with 5 musical stave lines to make a continuous blank ‘score’.  This strip of musical score is fed through a slit in the side of the box, then under a cotton “now-line” string nailed to the side of the box.

GM_Tobacco Box_Front_ClosedPresumably, the paper strip is to be pulled past the string at a steady speed, while the composer jots down musical pitches on the score paper in real-time, marking each as the paper passes the string.  In much the same way as a pianola roll records the action of piano keys as temporal events on a strip of paper, here the composer is able to do away with traditional temporal nomenclature, such as bar-lines and time signatures, instead arranging the pitch markings in a kind of graph.  For a musician with a keen ear like Grainger, this would be a much more effective system of notating the highly irregular rhythms of birdsong or the whimsical nuances of folk singers’ performances.

Grainger frequently tested the limitations of conventional notation when trying to capture such irregular rhythms, as is evident in his almost comical use of constantly changing time signatures in some of his scores, such as the 5th movement of the Lincolnshire Posy (where at times he abandons time signature designations entirely).  This contraption illustrates beautifully his frustration with established musical conventions, but also his determination and ingenuity in taking readily available materials and creatively transforming them into forward-thinking (if not entirely practical) solutions to such problems.

Tobacco-box notation experiment. Probably London, c.1900-1901′ (taken from cataloguing notes prepared by Ella Grainger)

Jon Drews (Exhibitions Officer) – Grainger Museum



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