How does using music notation software affect your music? Robert Morris

Photo by David Morris

In the early 1960s, when I was an undergraduate composer at the Eastman School, there was really only one way to reproduce one’s scores, short of having them engraved in the process of publication. One copied music on transparent music paper (velum) in India ink and sent the masters to a blueprint house to be reproduced on an ozalid machine. Other options—reproduction via chemical copying machines or music typewriters—were infeasible, and xerography was in its infancy. (In fact, we had to wait until the early 1970s before Xerox machines were good enough to reproduce music.) So if one wanted to meet professional standards, to produce a fair copy of a sizeable piece took months of work.

In the 1970s, music publishers in the United States began to encounter severe financial problems and began to print most new music in the composer’s hand by photo offset (camera ready) methods. In a few cases, composers, such as George Crumb and Joseph Schwantner, had become so adept at music calligraphy that reproducing their beautiful hand-copied scores was not only appropriate, but even an important part of their creative work. And if a composer was working with new forms of music notation—in vogue in the 1960s and ’70s—camera ready methods were the only way to go. Still, the prices of published music were sky-rocketing; sometimes it became difficult to get performances of published work since performance organizations couldn’t afford the rental and publication fees. So there was motivation for composers to publish their own work at affordable prices. Among the first of these composer-owned and operated publishing houses was Donald Martino’s Dantalian Music. But since memory was limited and processor speeds were so low (except on very expensive mainframe computers), music copying software did not exactly burst onto the scene. (A pioneering mainframe computer program was written by Leland Smith, using a specified entry language to encode the music into the computer and a pen-plotter to write out the score; this was the precursor of SCORE, certainly among the most flexible and complex music copying programs ever available.)

So it was only in the late 1980s that music copying programs were introduced for use on modest home computers. Most of these programs failed to impress professional composers who continued to use ozalid methods or copy in pencil on paper and xerox the result; therefore, even today many composers of my generation have not moved over to use programs such as Finale or Sibelius, although they may employ copyists that do. The initial resistance of many professional and established composers to getting involved with computer music copying circa 1990 was much more than a matter of habit combined with an unfamiliarity with computer systems. Almost all of the music copying programs available at that time were too regimented and limited. Although such programs might have been useful for reproducing hymns and lead-sheets, they were literally or practically unable to meet the demands of concert music notation; many of them had major bugs, and those that worked didn’t even get close to professional engraving standards. The possibility of playing computer-copied scores electronically via MIDI did not impress either, for part of a composer’s training is to hear music internally by reading a score, and the sound of the raw MIDI information played by cheesy synthesizers was abominable. (Today it is possible to edit MIDI files and “perform” the music on sophisticated synthesizers with some degree of nuance so it can sound tolerable, if not at all true to the live sound; but this takes a lot of time.) Moreover, many novel musical conventions had arisen in new music, originating in the scores of composers such as Krzysztof Penderecki, Luciano Berio, Earle Brown, John Cage, and others, none of which seemed implemented by music copying programs of that time.

For these reasons I was not attracted to computer copying at first, even though I was quite familiar with computers and programming from my work in music theory and electronic and computer music. I wanted the process of music copying to be transparent and flexible, as it is with paper (with or without music staves) and pencil (and eraser!). I noticed also it took longer to produce an adequate computer-copied score than to use the ozalid or xerox methods. (Since then, this has dramatically changed.)

The program that changed my mind was NoteWriter written by Keith Hamel. This program was essentially a CAD with musical symbols, and there were very few preconceptions about what kind of music the user would be copying. It was like writing music on paper—one could put a symbol or line anywhere and in any configuration. This meant the program could produce any kind of score, including those in which musical time is not measured by traditional rhythmic symbols. Special symbols and layouts could be manufactured and placed in libraries as needed, text could flow freely within the score, and score layout could be configured in any way one imagined. In addition, it proved ideal and unmatched for quickly making musical examples for use in scholarly publications and in teaching.

Robert Morris, page 1 of “Dryad, Low and Gruff” from Playing Outside for improvisers, orchestra, chorus, gamelan (2001) (NoteWriter)

Despite my enthusiasm, NoteWriter had some limitations. It was platform specific; it demanded that the composer already have considerable professional knowledge in how to lay out a score and familiarity with all of the coordinative details known to engravers; it had no MIDI capability; the extraction of parts in proper transposition was not automatic (but cut and paste methods were direct). I found it was best used for chamber and solo music. (NoteWriter is still available, as is its descendent Notability, which does have MIDI capability.)

Robert Morris, page 1 of “Shadows Disagree” from Playing Outside for improvisers, orchestra, chorus, gamelan (2001) (NoteWriter)

The need for a program to help copy orchestral scores led me to Finale. My practice has been to copy the score into the program without dynamics and articulations. Because it implements MIDI, I can enter notes from a keyboard very quickly and efficiently using various macros. I then hire a copyist to enter the dynamics and articulations, to work out the format and page layout of the printed result, and to generate the parts. But my relationship with Finale has always been a negotiation; in the end the product has been better than adequate. I plan to get to know Sibelius to do the same tasks, since my students seem to have had good experiences with it and their scores are often well-made.

Robert Morris, page 6 of Tigers and Lilies for twelve saxophones (1979) (Finale)

For many projects, Nightingale has been the most efficient copying program I have used. It was designed using music engraving standards so when it automatically lays out the score, there is little more to do than simply print it out. Its limitations are only that it can hardly produce open scores with special symbols and layouts (although it can write a score in “piano roll” notation). But this isn’t exactly a problem, for I still use NoteWriter for such projects. I should say that such scores can be produced in Finale, but only with great difficulty by turning off the “normal” functions and using options that are tricky and counterintuitive.

Robert Morris, sample from page 9 of Wabi for piano solo (1996) (Nightingale)

I also use music copying programs to generate MIDI code for use in MAX and to specify exact pitches and timings for use in compositions using computer-generated sound. The look of these “scores” is of course unimportant. (Alexander Brinkman‘s Score11 program was useful for such functions in the 1980s.) I have not found copying programs to be helpful in composing—as many younger people do, writing their music at the computer screen—and only listen via MIDI to what I have copied to detect copying errors.

Thus my response and involvement in computer music copying has been driven by practical concerns. Because I have found myself involved in many different kinds of compositional projects, I have needed more than one music copying program. I have no problem with this, for perhaps it is too much to ask one program to do everything. And there is the well-understood tradeoff between tools that are subtle and flexible but difficult to learn and those that are simple and direct, easy to use, but limited, as in the difference between Microsoft Word and TeachText or WordPad. But I don’t think English word-processing models are really appropriate for music copying programs—just imagine the complications if one program had to be able to edit texts in all major written languages including Sanskrit, Russian, Chinese, and Arabic. But it would be nice if there were a “suite” of copying programs, which could transparently interact and communicate with each other.

I’ll end with a few other issues that concern me and some observations about music notation in general. If I have reified professionalism as an important criterion for the adequacy of music copying software, let me say that I am fully aware there are many standards of professionalism, depending on the nature and function of the music involved. Moreover, professionalism—what practitioners know and do—and musical notation are aspects of musical tradition which evolve, if but slowly, while resisting wholesale change. It is therefore important to consider musical notation in the context of musical practice and tradition, especially performance practice. We don’t read and play Baroque music in the same way that we read and play Romantic music, even though the syntax and symbology of music notation is (or has come to be) almost identical for these different musics. My point is that music notation is not merely objective—a set of symbols written according to certain rules—it is intersubjective among the members of musical community. Notation might best be considered as a hermeneutic, through and by which we interpret musical actions and sounds. Thus, notation is expressive and evolves as needs change and new situations arise. (Even its “look” has meaning within a music community—another reason why some composers have not been interested in using copying software; for them, standard notation is too generic and impersonal.)

This simple idea is complicated, however, because perhaps only in Western concert music is it believed that notation can capture and represent musical experience (as well as to describe music structure and prescribe musical action). This is why the score is considered the authority for musical identity. In other words, while in general musical notations code the perceived qualities (quales) of music as quantifiable symbols, in Western music the notation functions in reverse, to imply literally the musical quales that the symbols quantify. Thus, we can experience the sounding form of music we have never heard before by reading scores and hearing the music “in our heads,” and we can learn and study music from scores alone. But as I mentioned, this process depends on knowing the performance practices that go along with the notation, and that is part of the nexi of intersubjective relations in a musical community.

Even if we take a particular musical community as a given (as I did when I was talking about my own experiences with computer copying), the relation of musical quality to notational quantification is anything but simple.

First, emergent effects may or may not occur when certain symbols are put together in notation. Thus it takes years before composers can know or reliably estimate what “works” by writing music before they hear it live.

Second, music notation is both digital and analogue—that is, notation represents music by mapping symbols to musical entities and processes as well as representing musical shape with a matching visual shape. These two modes usually interact in many complicated ways. (Oddly enough, rhythm is notated completely digitally, by symbols whose visual spacing from left to right need bear no connection with the temporal intervals they specify.)

Third, musical notation is not only sonic but also cognitive. Many aspects of notation do not refer to sound—for instance, a quarter rest, a bar line, a repeat sign, a term such as “allegro non troppo.”

Fourth, music notation does not always code musical structure one-to-one—for instance, while the major scale has two sizes of intervals, it is notated by equal-sized moves on the staff. On the other hand, the equal-tempered chromatic scale is noted by unequal staff moves with sharps and flat signs (digitally) denoting changes of pitch.

None of these points (and others) should be considered defects; in fact sometimes they provide insight into musical matters, as in point four, which has led to some interesting research on the structure of musical scales and tonality.

To summarize: musical notation is complex and not detached from musical tradition or practice. Notation is intersubjective, not objective, and considering it only as a closed system of symbols does not help us understand what it is (for) and how to use it. Computer programs that help composers and arrangers produce musical scores ought to implement the standards and professionalism of a given musical community on one hand, and allow elbow room for change and evolution on the other. In this way, the computer implementation of musical notation can stimulate, rather than control or inhibit, the evolution of musical practice and expression.

Robert Morris, page 1 of “Dryad, Low and Gruff” from Playing Outside for improvisers, orchestra, chorus, gamelan (2001) (NoteWriter)

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  1. Pingback: Music Notation Software and DAW (digital Audio workstations) software and how they are both helping and hurting the music industry. « Studio 220

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