Aren’t We Past the Pencil?

Imagine, for a moment, that you possess some kind of magical pencil (equipped, of course, with a magical eraser). Whenever you take this pencil to manuscript paper to write a note, you hear it—not a MIDI approximation, mind you, but the actual instrument, maybe even the specific axe of the player for whom you’re writing, playing the note. If you write slashes through the beam, you hear tremolo. If you write “flz.” above the notehead, you hear flutter-tongue. You write some sixteenth-tones with widening vibrato or arcane gestures on Lachenmann clefs: yes, you hear those too. Maybe with some tasteful reverb.

If you owned this pencil, there would be absolutely no reason for you to write music at the computer. Even if, like me and many other composers of my generation, you spent your formative years in front of a CRT screen, you’d be foolish to embrace the feeble auditioning capabilities of MIDI instead of the pencil. If all you have, however, is a No. 2 graphite from Office Depot and a G4 iBook, and you’re as comfortable with the iBook as older composers are with the pencil, why not compose with it? If working at the piano is unhelpful—if, for example, one’s music isn’t in twelve-tone E.T. or relies heavily on timbre to make its argument—the case for writing notes on a piece of paper becomes weaker yet. In fact, if I were to write my music the old-school way, some of the things I like most about it, things over which I can only obtain fine control through computer modeling, would probably evaporate.

There are, of course, caveats: A healthy skepticism of MIDI realizations is a must. I suppose that taking compositional shorts is made easier by the editing abilities of Finale or Sibelius; these are often pretty transparent in performance. But to suggest, as a composer with whom I had a major altercation about this issue did, that writing by hand imbues some kind of visceral connection with the sounding result that writing using computer can’t equal? That’s simply superstition. Composing directly into a notation program requires a set of creative safeguards, but if you’ve been working in this manner for your entire musical life, your vigilance is unlikely to waver.

So my position on this matter is clear. What I really want to know is whether this is a topic of active debate in the compositional community or just a pet issue for the Luddite fringe. What’s the story?

23 thoughts on “Aren’t We Past the Pencil?

  1. drysh

    I don’t know that there’s a debate at all, in terms of whether one is more valid than the other. Each composer’s process is unique to them, in so many facets. It’s almost as ludicrous as debating which paper or tape is better for parts.

    I alternate between pencil and Sibelius, usually writing sketches and drafts on a pad and then transferring them onto the computer. If it’s a lead sheet or a simple arrangement I’ll just do it all on the computer. For me, it really depends on the piece and what it demands and where it wants to go – in terms of the process and in terms of the music.

  2. stevetaylor

    Magic Pencil = Your Ears
    Great image of the magic pencil – but I do think that a vivid and well-trained sonic imagination can do just about as well. Having said that, I usually work mostly with my laptop perched on the piano’s music rack these days, and I’m always interested in new improvements in playback technology. Trying for the best of both worlds!

  3. davidcoll

    just like any technology, the most important thing is to understand how it changes our compositional choices, methods, habits.

    if you think about it, an eraser is a huge aspect of technology. Infinite opportunities to change all those notes!

    if you don’t really understand the nature of this magic pen- its strengths/weaknesses- then you might be missing out on some nice possibilities, either expected ones or unexpected ones..

  4. pgblu

    What about the hypothesis that the computer notation software encourages left-to-right and top-to-bottom thinking, while sitting in front of blank manuscript paper encourages starting in the middle and scribbling toward the margins — a nice metaphor for the formal process. Left-to-right was invented in order to make reading of music practical, but do we need to make it the obligatory modus operandi for writing as well?

    The convoluted spatialization of musical ideas that we find in e.g. Beethoven’s sketches, an apt protocol of his discovery process, would have been impossible or at least discouraged by the technology that you have today. And Cut, Copy, and Paste are NOT the same thing.

    I would never compose at the computer. It’s just for notating. Just like bay leaves are just for flavor. I’d never eat them. (Huh?)

  5. swellsort

    The comment before this raises a valid point. Notation software in a way makes you work front to back, instead of freeing up the ability to see in all directions as it were.

    Personally, I always start on paper, and from there get to Sibelius to check an idea’s validity. At some point, though, I find it useful to actually think in a left-to-right manner. It gives you an idea of the overall shape of your piece, instead of just imagining it. Nothing wrong with either way though. To me, it is a matter of personal preference.

  6. philmusic

    One of the problems that computer notation solved for me in a big way was my constant desire, after rethinking, to backtrack and add beats to earlier composed measures. With a pencil that sometimes required re-copying an entire page by hand. On the other hand I think that species counterpoint and harmony technique are better done by hand.

    I might cause some alarm if I point out that many composers, including me, learned their trade by hand copying and arranging the works of other composers. In that particular case I’m not so sure that the computer is as effective as a learning tool. I suppose it’s how the computer is used

  7. Frank J. Oteri

    What about the hypothesis that the computer notation software encourages left-to-right and top-to-bottom thinking, while sitting in front of blank manuscript paper encourages starting in the middle and scribbling toward the margins

    I’m afraid I have to disagree with this. Chalk it up to overfastidiousness, but back when I wrote things down instead of keying them in, I’d never think of starting in the middle of a piece and working my way around it which is something I frequently do now thanks to computer notation software.

    I admit I used a pen and several jars of liquid paper rather than a pencil. But once I was at the point of getting stuff on paper in music notation, I’d already worked a lot of stuff out: in my head, at the piano or various other instruments I’d happen to be composing for, and in various prenotational diagrams and drawings. (These are still things I do BTW to chart harmonic progressions and formal structures and thanks to advances in technology I can now do them on my PalmPilot rather than beer-stained napkins which I would frequently lose back in the days.) However, in my pre-computer past, once it got to the musical notational stage, I pretty much wrote it out linearly and was very reluctant to ever change anything. I wrote very neat musical calligraphy and each page took a couple of hours to write.

    Once I no longer had the temporal luxury to spend two hours working on each page of a score, thanks to computer notation software, I was able to compose again. Ironically, now I probably spend more than two hours on each page, sometimes weeks on a single measure now that I have the ability to change things so easily. And in the process I believe it has made me a better composer, or at least one more open to revision.

  8. pgblu

    I am not sure how we are disagreeing here. I wasn’t talking about starting in the middle of a piece, but rather putting some central idea about the piece in the middle of a page and writing related ideas below, above, and behind it as well as to its right, which is possible but ungainly with my notation software. I like to see different treatments of the same material kind of running into one another on the page.

  9. Kyle Gann

    Back when my vision was 20-20, I used to compose on oversize paper with 40 tiny staves to a page. That way, I could write, say, a ten-minute chamber piece on three pages, and have the entire piece always in front of me, always aware of where every idea was and how the pacing went. Now, when I compose in a hurry (and what other way is there?), I sometimes do it straight into Sibelius. I find myself looking at my music in four-measure chunks, just what will fit on the screen, and if I’m writing for more than 8 or 10 instruments, I can’t even see the whole damn page at once. It’s like painting a mural in a dark room with only a pen flashlight. It’s a hell of a way to compose.

    I harangue my students to learn to write with a pencil. Writing in Sibelius and getting instant audio feedback is good training for beginners, but if they rely on it forever, it becomes a crutch. The MIDI realizations are terribly misleading and unrealistic, and lead to all kinds of orchestration and tempo errors. First of all, if you’re writing for acoustic instruments, there is no substitute for interacting with an ensemble and learning, through concrete experience, what’s going to result from your notation in the performance, and then storing that info in your imagination for next time. If you have that experience, you can adjust in your inner ear for the MIDI distortions, but not until.

    Secondly, unless you print frequently, you’re constantly looking at your music in little screen-sized bits, and never develop a sense of the larger continuity. I think some of my students fail to extend their ideas to meaningful length because of the postcard effect of looking at the screen. I tell them they can go back to software composing once they’ve learned their craft, but that they’ll always be hampered if they never have the pencil-and-imagination experience. Call me old-fashioned.

    I have piano tuner friends who tell me that, if you know how to tune a piano the old-fashioned way, the electronic tuning devices are a godsend; but that if you learn relying on the electronic tuning device and never master the old-fashioned way, you’ll always do it wrong. For me, notation software is just like that.

  10. marknowakowski

    I can say that the times I was encouraged to “go back to pencil” were very helpful to me — it reinforced my “filter” in a way which made it more impervious to midi-falsehoods, and more able to be organic in my approach, even on a computer screen.

    I remember my early composition lessons with Steve Taylor (or now, with Margaret Brouwer), where scores seemed to run through their mind like a personal midi-playback. At best, I can only approximate such things, and with the continued improvement of the sounds and “approximations” of playback, even this is now becoming a useful tool for us. I’ve even found, in certain cases, for such “nicer sounds” to be aesthetically pleasing in a way which inspires further composition, and even helpful (if you know how to use it) with approximating orchestral and coloristic effects… at the very least, it IS very cool to have even a passable approximation at your beck and call…

    So, is this a crutch, or a reality of modern technology that must be embraced?


    side note:
    I would just like to put in a good word for those of us whose reliance on computer notation software has almost nothing to do with MIDI playback and almost everything to do with incurably hideous handwriting. I generally don’t use the MIDI much at all, but getting perfectly shaped noteheads every time… priceless.


    side note:
    I would just like to put in a good word for those of us whose reliance on computer notation software has almost nothing to do with MIDI playback and almost everything to do with incurably hideous handwriting. I generally don’t use the MIDI much at all, but getting perfectly shaped noteheads every time… priceless.

  13. sunrein

    I always work on paper and then finish at the computer. I’m pleased to use notation programs as engraving programs, but especially when you write in non-standard notation styles, these programs quickly become useless for playback. Often, if I’m trying to hear a complex structure, I’ll model it quickly on a sequencing program, which I think does a sufficient job of confirming an idea. I do think working at the computer from start to finish is a bad idea in the end and ultimately cripples the translation of aural concept to finished piece.

  14. dalgas

    I learned with pencil & paper. Using notation programs, I have the same gripe as Kyle, that there’s just too little of the “paper” in your sight at any moment. It’s locked into pages, and portions of pages. (My favorite composition paper was 12-stave 11″x16″; lots of space to see what had come and was coming.)

    But over the years, my own style took me more to the “virtual realization” route, not as a “provisional” picture of the piece but as it’s own valid entity. Hand in hand with that, I naturally gravitated to doing the initial composing in a sequencer, as opposed to a notation, program. In sequencers, this is done on a kind of digital “piano roll”. The beauty of that is there are no page-oriented limits; the whole piece is always in view from end to end. It’s also made things like opening up a big space in the middle of the piece to add new material, or rearranging everything from fragments to whole sections, absolutely easy. The “piano roll” can still be imported into a traditional notation program and worked up into a traditional score, if and when it’s ever necessary.

    I fully realize this approach isn’t for everyone. Still, in the sage words of my imaginary philosopher: “What works and is good, works and is good”.

    Steve Layton

  15. Frank J. Oteri

    Ironically, though people claim that computer music notation software has led to various stylistic proclivities, e.g. cut and paste = a more minimalist sensibility, I pretty much have written the same music both before and after giving up on the pens and jars of liquid paper. It has always involved a lot of repetition. And I was perfectly fine having to write the same figurations on a page over and over again: I liked the way they looked and I would work extra hard to create pages that were visually minimalistic as well.

    However, here’s something I find really ironic. About five years ago I was working on music performed by a string quartet that superimposed eighth note groupings of 2, 3, 4, and 6 in the four instruments against harmonic rhythms that went against these groupings going from 6 beats in the first measure to 5 to 4 and on down to 1 and then permutated in a way that would take too long and which is extraneous to explain here. To articulate this on the page I wanted to use a lot of crossbeaming. Anyway, you might think such an idea is very computer-ish, but not only was it not (I had the idea before I owned Sibelius software), it was difficult to notate with the software I then had (Pyware Music Writer couldn’t handle it nor could the version of Finale I had at the time). Ditto for a lot of the microtonal stuff. Sibelius easily handles equal tempered quartertones and I’ve found ways to jerryrig it to play sixthtones and to closely approximate other even equal subdivisions up to 64th tones. I’ve yet to figure out how to get it to notate and playback things like well-temperaments or just intonation scales aside from attaching it to my old Yamaha TX81Z. As for 19 and 31-tone equal temperaments, both of which I’d really like to explore some more, I’m completely at a loss without pen and paper which I really just don’t have time to pursue anymore. Funny, no one has even brought up part extraction here.

  16. Kyle Gann

    Well Frank, part extraction is the best invention since the pencil. I would never fail to input a pencil-composed piece into Sibelius and use that to extract the parts. I also harangue my students to buy Sibelius, and tell them it will pay for itself in a few months. The seniors used to spend the entire month of March laboriously copying parts for their orchestra pieces; now the process takes 10 minutes of pushing buttons.

    And by the way, I use Sibelius for closely-approximated just intonation playback, too – you can edit the pitch-bend MIDI commands for increments as close as 3 cents, though it’s kind of a pain in the butt. The Quicktime playback often yields unwanted quick glissandos, but will play back on a synthesizer nicely.

  17. JKG

    Writing with Sibelius…
    I use Sibelius 2 as a sequencer, and I’m willing to bet I write a hundred times faster with Sibelius than by hand (and it still takes a year to write a symphony). Those purists who believe writing with a computer program is selling out to technological ease need to remember – it was us composers traveling around for decades with paper scores and music briefs which brought about the publishing revolution to begin with – especially film composers, who were tired of doing mock-ups for dense film directors and producers. Fifty years from now, those composers will say our methods were horribly time-consuming and obtuse.

  18. maestro58

    There are 2 things no one has brought up yet in this discussion of pencil versus computer program:

    On the pro side: wrong notes. I was notorious for littering my pencil/pen drawn scores with wrong notes. Now with the computer software – MOTU Mosaic (I can’t bring myself to go to Sibelius or Finale. Does that make me a computer literate luddite?) – I hear the playback and add all those accidentals that I should have added in the first place.

    On the con side: harmony. I no longer use a piano to test out the chords, I have a very nice Roland XP-30 that gives me beautiful, close to real sounds of instrumentation. I’m afraid though I am missing something that may have been part of the sound that was me. Does anyone else have this worry?

    Bob McCauley

  19. jonrussell20

    Yes! Harmony is one of the primary reasons I have not switched over to composing at the computer. I like the natural harmonic resonances that the piano gives me which you simply cannot get on an electronic keyboard or on midi playback, no matter how good your midi sounds are. And this relates to another reason I resist playback, I feel a need to connect physically with what I’m working on, to really physically feel the music in my fingers and my body.
    But, I do use the computer for some things, especially to hear the pacing of a piece and to tweak some ornamental sorts of details. And I know people who write wonderful music solely at the computer (though it does seem to me that most composers I really admire do at least some of their work, even if just the preliminary part, using physical acoustic instruments). And obviously the piano has its own serious limitations as well – much harder to think in terms of layers, and a tendency to follow the fingers and write things that are “pianistic” in character. So different things can work for different people, the key I think is to be open to different approaches; the tools you use can I have a big impact on the sorts of ideas you come up with, and changing your tools may be a great way to inspire new and different ideas.

  20. Hindemith

    Like most here, I started writing music on paper, and quickly began using the computer. Later, however, I find the computer to be far too restrictive. I change non-standard time signatures sometimes every measure, which can be cumbersome even when simply transcribing music from paper to computer, not to mention having different time signatures in different parts, and as well, my tiny powerbook can show only about 6 measures at a time, far too few for my needs.

    If notating into the computer could be done on open staves, with no measures, I might start up again, until then, unmeasured paper wins.

  21. rama gottfried

    I spent quite a few years perfecting my Sibelius technique, but for notation of extended techniques you are very limited. (Finale might be easier with the shape making tool, but that would mean learning everything all over again!). At a certain point I realized that for the amount of time that I was putting in to input these things, and fine tuning the score and parts, I could have easily done it by hand. Which is what I’m back to now.

    The MIDI playback doesn’t really help with the types of sounds that I’m calling for, and like Kyle, I am using the old 40 stave big paper. More and more I am seeing the page as a visual representation of the sound with it’s own formal-image – which is also a very difficult idea to work with digitally (unless you lock the layout and really pull notes around (which is not fun in sibelius)).

    The one thing that I think computers are an incredible resource for however is: storage. Where am I going to keep these things! I had a copy machine eat one of my master pages the other day because I was careless enough to put the stack through for copying without thinking. I am considering saving up for a large format scanner so that I can save my hand written scores as .pdfs and have the same flexibility as the computer score.


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