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What Is a Dance Score?

Wanda Marie Thibodeaux
Wanda Marie Thibodeaux

A dance score is piece of written music, specifically written for dance performances. Alternately, the term "dance score" refers to notations showing sequences of movements dancers are supposed to use — that is, they are documents showing choreography. Although it is possible, it is rare for someone to dance without music, so the two types of scores are inevitably highly intertwined.

A major difference between musical dance scores and choreographic dance scores is who creates them. Composers, who are trained in aspects of composition such as harmony and orchestration, write musical dance scores. Their palette is the musical staff, clefs, notes and rests of varying durations, time signatures and other music notation elements such as crescendos, tempo indications and repeat signs.

Woman painting
Woman painting

By contrast, choreographers usually produce choreographic dance scores. They take at least one staff from the musical dance score and add symbols or other directions to it to dictate exactly what the dancer is supposed to do for every beat of the music. They must have an understanding of music to do this, but their primary experience and training is with dance and body movement. Often, those who create choreographic dance scores have danced professionally and thus are extremely familiar with how to execute specific dance techniques.

Another way of looking at dance scores is the difference in senses. The audience receives musical dance scores with their ears; the score is auditory in nature. The audience receives choreographic dance scores through their eyes as they watch the dancers; the score is visual.

Musical dance scores do not have any set form. Composers may write whatever music they feel is suited to the type of dance the choreographer plans to create. If the choreographer needs a specific dance, however, the composer may use the form of the dance as an outline for the composition. This was very common in the Baroque and Classical periods, where composers routinely wrote music for specific dances such as the gavotte, gigue, sarabande or waltz.

Several types of notation are in use for choreographic dance scores; of these, Labanotation and Benesh Movement Notation are the most common. Choreographers are often familiar with several different systems in much the same way musicians know different musical genres.

Choreographic dance scores play a key role in preserving dance technique. They show not only individual movements, but how one movement may flow naturally from one to the next. The scores are useful in dance analysis, as well as recreating dances with high levels of accuracy.

One commonality a choreographic dance score and musical dance score have is that they can take months to create. They sometimes are produced in much shorter periods based on the demands of the person commissioning the score, but because both composers and choreographers have to be meticulous in each type of score, the simple act of notating the ideas can be very time consuming. With the advancement of technology, however, both composers and choreographer can use computer programs for notation, greatly simplifying the task and allowing neater, faster and more accurate and readily-replicated scores.

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