Shane McKenna

updated 10.10.2013 by rrs


Selected media:

The following interview was conducted via an email questionnaire in mid-2013 by Ryan Ross Smith.

RRS: When did you start using animated notation in your work?

SMK: I began to develop a system of animated notation in 2008 as part of a Masters Thesis in Trinity college Dublin. The first piece called 'combination' used video footage of the moving parts of a combine harvester. The footage contained different visual rhythms which were followed by a jazz pianist to create the soundtrack for the piece. No other musical instructions were given to the performer, he was simple asked to follow the rhythms on screen. After this I began to create my own system of animated shapes and symbols which could communicate ideas of dynamics, pitch and duration as well and rhythm.

RRS: What was the first piece you created using animated notation?

SMK: The first full piece I created using animated notation involved an installation, used to gather vocal samples to be combined with a live performance. The installation also served as research into how a range of participants would interpret animated notation and how effective the notation was at communicating musical ideas. Each part of notation which I created was designed to be instantly playable. To make sure this was the case I spent a lot of time researching how people read and sight read conventional notation and adjusting the movement, duration and 'fade in fade out' of my notation.

March 2008:

Each participant was asked to enter a small recording booth which contained a screen and a microphone. Using their voice alone, they then interpreted a short animated score which contained a range of animated notation which had been designed to communicate ideas of pitch, dynamics, duration and timbre. These musical concepts were represented visually through visual parameters of screen position, size, visual duration and texture. Each of the 50 participants interpreted the score on their own without hearing the other versions. The results showed surprising similarities in interpretation, not only for socially learned sound/symbol associations, like sssss or ttttt, but also for more abstract shapes and even visual textures. The participants ranged from classical and jazz musicians to people with little or no musical training. No difference in interpretation was evident based on musical background.

The pieces of animated notation which I felt worked best at communicating musical ideas where then arranged into a longer score to be performed by a group of performers from different musical backgrounds, including people who wouldn't consider themselves musicians or even 'musical'. The ensemble included three electronic/noise improv. Musicians called 'John Mary Trilogy', two jazz singers, a classically trained trombone player, a clarinet, cello and vocal sounds provided by the audience members. The performance was in the informal setting of 'The Bernard Shaw' bar and venue in Dublin. The notation followed the same basic structure of the installation piece. First there were animated symbols which could be easily interpreted and understood like s, t and mmmm, with more abstract symbols slowly being introduced. The only performance instructions were for the audience members, who were asked to concentrate on different sections (top left, bottom right, etc.) of the screen for the white parts of the score, mainly s and t sounds. None of the performers had seen the score before the performance.

April 2008:

I used similar notation in another piece in a more controlled environment with a four piece ensemble with backing track created from the installation recordings:

June 2008:

RRS: What led you to start using animated notation? [This could be aesthetic/artistic concerns, technological experimentation, a bet and/or dare, etc.]

SMK: I began to use animated graphic notation to create musical performances that could invite participation and collaboration for people with different musical backgrounds. I found that using conventional notation limited me to working only with trained musicians, where most of my musicals peers in Dublin were not musically literate. I also began to view conventional notation as an exclusive and elitist way for people to make music, a private communication from the composer to the musicians for the benefit of the listener. Working with animated notation allowed for a more collaborative approach between composer and musician and also allowed the audience insight Into the performance. I was free to create scores that would encourage large musical performance with combinations of jazz musicians, noise musicians, techno producers, classical musicians and people who didn't consider themselves musical. At each of my performed the score was projected for the audience to see and when possible I would invite the audience to join in, or have them perform a short version of the score before the main piece was performed. My view is that the composer/performer/listener relationship in western music, which has been mainly driven by the use of conventional notation, has excluded people from the act of making music and created a division between 'musical' people and 'non-musical' people. My work with animated notation has been aimed at making music inclusive and accessible, where there is a level playing field and people can experience music making free from the conventions of audience/performer, musician/non-musician and even right or wrong.

RRS: Where there particular compositions/notational approaches/technologies/video games/etc. that exerted any influence over your [early and/or present] work?

SMK: When creating my first animated notation piece I looked at a lot of composers who had used graphic notation including John Cage, Earle Browne, Cornelius Cardew and R Murray Schafer. I was drawn to the more simple and intuitive forms of graphic notation which could be easily understood and interpreted. Many aspects of their design could be applied to animated notation in terms of visual parameters representing musical ideas. I was also inspired by their challenging the conventions of the day, as I was with the fluxist composers. In terms of animated video scores, they only one that I could find when I started researching was a score by Casey Farina, which used simple and clear back and white notation. There has been a huge growth in animated notation since then and there are always interesting new ideas coming from around the world.

RRS: How would you describe your current work with animated notation, and where do you see it going in the future?

SMK: My current work in animated notation focuses on education. I have found that the system of notation which I have developed since 2008, to have huge potential for teaching composition, performance and listening in the classroom. In 2010 a began to collaborate with a visual artist to create DabbledooMusic which is a free resource for primary school teachers, giving them a fully structured system of creative music education. The animated notation itself is based on my previous research and experience but it has become more clearly presented with four primary colours on a white background. Each one of the animated scores is designed to introduce children and teachers to a new musical concept, with lesson plans and performance ideas for them to try. The online resources are accompanied by a self-published children's workbook which allows them to create their own notation and performance instructions to accompany the online scores. The practicality of using animated notation in education is Immediately apparent when doing workshops in schools. The scores are hosted on a website which is easily accessible in most classrooms through interactive whiteboards, and any combination of instruments available can be used. The scores are clearly divided into four colours which makes them perfect for large groups of performers, and there are rhythmic backing tracks to some of the scores to help keep a sense of pulse. One of the most popular scores stars a giant octopus 'Igor the Great' who indicates rhythms to be performed by group by dropping different coloured pebbles. A complex four part percussion piece can be performed by the class using this score with Igor adding different counter rhythms in the backing track. Other scores like 'the clock' are more open to interpretation and encourage more creative input from the class. The clock is simple a way of structuring a large performance using any musical material, making it by versatile for teachers.

I am currently developing the animated scores at to be fully interactive, allowing users to change the visual content of each score and essentially create their own animated scores. In terms of teaching this will create more versatile resources which scan be used again and again. A combination of video and programmed animation and interaction will be key to the future of my work with animated notation.

RRS: What potential, if any, does animated notation have for future work IN GENERAL?

SMK: I see animated notation as key to the development of music education and accessible music making. I have seen the impact that it has had on teachers and children using my system of notation in Ireland and I believe it will play a key role in music education of the future. The increasing popularity of animated notation can be seen in the work of people like Aphex Twin and Bjork in particular who has used what I would call 'descriptive animated notation' to give people a visual insight into her music. I believe that the real impact of animated notation will be in its usefulness for making music accessible and engaging for people, and to bring them beyond the passive listening experience which is currently the most common way people in our society experience music.


"I am a music maker and music teacher based in Dublin, exploring the use of non-traditional notation, particularly animated notation, to create musical collaboration. Animated graphic notation consists of moving shapes and symbols which suggest musical ideas or gestures to be interpreted by a performer or performers. I have been working with this type of notation since 2008, through live performances, installations, workshops and presentations including the International Symposium of Electronic Arts in Istanbul. This way of working has allowed me to collaborate with a wide range of amateur and professional ensembles including The National Youth Orchestra of Ireland, The a.P.A.t.T Orchestra (liverpool) and Impulse (Texas U.S.A.) "[1]

1. "About,", accessed November 30, 2013,


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