How does using music notation software affect your music? Joseph Pehrson



Joseph Pehrson
Photo by Orlanda Brugnola

I started using the Score notation program for the IBM 10 years ago in 1992. Although some of my music was published at that time, the publisher did not engrave it but just used my ink copy. For that reason, it was very exciting for me to be able to create my own engraved compositions with computer software. My immediate instinct, after finally learning the software which, with Score, took a bit of time, was to engrave the majority of my pieces that I considered most significant. Naturally this increased legibility and aided performances: performers took the works more seriously, I took the works more seriously, and performers ended up actually seeing and playing the correct notes on the page!

The downside of this software was, of course, in more experimental works, such as a work for theremin that I wrote in 1997. For this kind of piece, the computer software was more of an impediment than an asset, and I found myself reverting to a nice felt-tipped pen that could make the kind of wavy lines that could best describe the pitches produced by the continuous pitch spectrum of the theremin.

Flash-forward to the present time. Well, Score isn’t what it used to be. Although the doyenne of the IBM 286 computer, the software never advanced into the Windows environment, incredibly enough, so eventually I was ripe for a change. Enter Sibelius, a software program that, I have on good authority, is more intuitive than Finale (which I haven’t tried) and which, importantly, could read all my old Score files. What’s more, I can now enter into the MIDI age of fully hearing what I’m composing as I go about the process. Score did have a MIDI implementation, but it was extremely primitive, and not even worth calling by that name.

I’m finding working with Sibelius now just wonderful. I can compose with a full-sized 88-key MIDI keyboard, earphones that won’t disturb the neighbors (actually a problem at one point), and can get a better sense of what I’m doing than my former method of singing, humming, and banging on the piano. And the best part is, right while I’m composing the music, the engraving has ALSO been done! Since that was always a significant time sink, this is a significant improvement! Generally speaking, I still do sketches as I’m working, but the actual piece is entered in directly on the computer in its fully engraved form.

Recently I’ve been immersed in the study of alternate tuning systems. I was, initially, concerned with how Sibelius would implement all this. Fortunately, it handles PostScript fonts with ease, so I can use microtonal accidentals for the scale that I currently prefer: 72-equal temperament (a “superset” of our regular 12-equal). The microtonal symbols, created by a colleague in a font-creation program, are easily imported into Sibelius as symbols, so I can easily add microtonal accidentals to my pitches.

Still, one might ask, how can you create music in Sibelius that plays back microtonal pitches? Fortunately, this is also a possibility on this incredibly flexible program. Although Sibelius supports “only” quartertones (enough for many composers, I know!) it is also possible to create pitch bends in the music which will play back the other pitches I am currently using, which include the 6th of a whole tone and the 12th of a whole tone. All I have to do is enter in a few numbers above each note on the staff, and voila, the pitch is bent appropriately, and my score is realized as intended! It took a little math to figure out just what to use here, but the expertise is not beyond the grasp of most composers (or even high school students!)

Software programs are now more than an engraving tool: they are an entire composing world, and make it possible for people to more easily hear their music, have it accurately performed, and save a lot of time in the process!