The New Calligraphy

One strange and defining characteristic of our compositional era is the relative uniformity of notating music: for all the variety in individual styles and approaches, the vast majority of notated music still takes advantage of the five-line staff, and I suspect that most of this music ends up being entered into one of two popular notation programs: Finale and Sibelius. While it’s certainly worth emphasizing the fact that a great many composers create works outside the traditions of notated music (and that others still engage in that noble practice of hand-calligraphy), it’s staggering to consider that perhaps 80 percent of all that passes for “new music” has been run through one of these two programs.

This flood of accessible software has had a democratizing influence, allowing almost any composer who wishes access to legible, professional-looking sheet music. On the other hand, that same professional-looking music is rarely up to true professional engraving standards. As a composer I find myself somewhat less concerned with the increasing marginalization of the engraver’s craft than I am heartened by the increased access that technology has provided to composers. Now most any individual can easily and quickly prepare parts for a performance or reading without the need to hire a copyist or learn professional-level calligraphy techniques through apprenticeship or schooling. It’s easy to see how this situation benefits amateurs, the un-tenured, and un-funded—those who most need a helping hand if their voices are to be heard.

More recently still, tablet devices such as Wacom tablets and the Apple iPad hold huge potential for musical application, from virtual turntables to stylus note-entry. We can assume that it’s only a matter of time until full-fledged notational software roughly comparable to Finale and Sibelius emerges, and since the touchpad interface is so utterly unlike using a monitor and mouse/trackball there’s no reason that future touchpad retoolings of Finale and Sibelius would necessarily have any edge on the competition.

Assuming that the iPad and its ilk will eventually offer some manner of removable storage and move away from “synching” as the sole mode of data transfer, such a device would be a near-ideal tool for digital note-entering. If the touchscreen can be made to differentiate between a straight line and a note head, it might become very easy to create an interface that digitizes and recodes our hand gestures into uniformly-shaped note heads and stems, perhaps grouping them as objects that could be move. While I would certainly welcome these advances in their own right, I’m even more excited by the competition and innovation such a platform might offer.

There is something unsatisfying about having so few notational software programs crowding out the market, especially when they need such constant hacking to do anything worthwhile. If the next advance in notation can combine our newly-acquired capacity for digital storage with an interface that exploits the tactile experience of actually composing rather than entering music, perhaps that would be one of the greatest advances for which a composer could hope?

18 thoughts on “The New Calligraphy

  1. colin holter

    Related anecdote: As I write this, I’m sitting in a computer lab full of high school-age composers, and 90% of their conversation has to do with Finale and Sibelius.

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  2. danvisconti

    one reels at the thought of what their bright young minds might accomplish without that 90% chunk of mental activity and conversation devoted to these notation programs! I winced a little even typing “Finale and Sibelius” into a NewMusicBox post without imagining a chorus of earnest undergrads to the tune of “hey, how do I get the 8va to go down to the next line??”

    clearly there’s a lot of work and shop-talk involved in mastering hand calligraphy as well, but with Finale and Sibelius being our generation’s version of manuscript and quill I’m surprised that computer notation isn’t always taught in some institutions…this might be what leads to the huge Finale bullshit sessions. Speedy entry isn’t nearly as self evident as a manuscript page and so there’s now another level of access required. The way this situation tends to shut out independent composers not enrolled in universities leads to a strange paradox: more people can produce legible music, but fewer can do it reliably competently or quickly.

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  3. Mischa Salkind-Pearl

    Finale and Sibelius [are] our generation’s version of manuscript and quill.

    This may be true, but I think there is an important difference between composers now and 30 years ago: Software allows us to make a draft that behaves as a final product. More than engraving standards getting pushed aside, (which frankly doesn’t bother me too much- that’s for the performers to mind….), it seems that compositional standards will have been transformed when we look back on our reliance on software. I write all my music by hand, and roughly half of my scores are hand-copied by myself. One reason for this is that when you look at amazing composers who’s hand you recognize- Cage, Feldman, Crumb….- you feel like you know something about the person. But I’m concerned that a draft entered into software (or, worse- composed at the computer), allows all the mistakes of a draft to attain a “finished” sheen. They can pass themselves off as complete. All of us are computer savvy; maybe schools should ignore the software under the assumption that we’ll figure it out pretty soon, and just require old-fashioned manuscript making, if only for the sake of the compositional process…..

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  4. stevetaylor

    Colin had a terrific post a couple-three years ago about a “magic pencil,” that could let you hear your music as you write it. Schoenberg would probably say that if you can’t hear it in your head, you have no business composing in the first place. And I’m sympathetic to that point of view – for me that’s the ultimate goal of dictation exercises, to be able to write what you hear, and hear what you write. To have the music really live inside your imagination, like the instruments are really there.

    Stravinsky on the other hand always composed at the piano, because he wanted to hear the vibrations of the strings, as a physical phenomenon – not an abstract act of mentation. I certainly hear more physicality – rhythm, timbre, especially – in Stravinsky’s music than I do Schoenberg’s.

    For me the worst thing about relying on midi playback in Sibelius (my tool of choice) or Finale is that you get the *illusion* of physical phenomenon: you hear sounds coming out of speakers or headphones, but you’re not hearing piano strings interfering with each other, you’re not feeling the pressure under your fingers. Even though you can hear it, it’s not a physical activity. And even worse, the sound is a caricature of (say) a clarinet, so inexperienced composers can be tricked (if they don’t know how a real clarinet works) into thinking that their music should sound good on a real instrument, because it sounds good on a computer.

    These playback problems can be improved by technological advancements in synthesis, sampling, and more RAM. But the physicality is still a big problem – Brian Eno says that computers don’t have enough Africa in them, they’re all fingertips and eyeballs. And that’s where devices like the iPad could really help. The reason I like Sibelius better than Finale is because it more closely approaches a pencil and paper. An iPad could come even closer, but with that magic possibility to hear what you write as you write it. But I would want a *giant* iPad!

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  5. Colin Holter

    Cage, Feldman, Crumb….

    Not 100% sure, but I believe that Crumb’s Peters scores from the 60s were engraved by Brian Ferneyhough, who was a copyist there at the time.

    I get where you’re coming from with the whole handwriting-says-something-about-you thing – but I also think that it’s possible to produce distinctive-looking scores at the computer. A long time ago I wrote here about making one’s own notation fonts; this is hugely time-consuming, but it’s a great “best of both worlds” solution. Doesn’t address the draft-looks-like-a-finished-piece problem, though!

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  6. paulhmuller

    Notation Software
    The real potential of computer notational software will be realized when all orchestras are equipped with digital music stands that can display the score. So much time is spent checking parts, getting everything put on the right stand and all the handling and care required to rent and use a score. What if you could just show up and your part was there in front of you, ready to play? Need it transposed into your horn’s key? Press a button. Forgot your folder? No problem…

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  7. RT

    Crumb scores?
    Hmm, both Crumb scores that happened to be close at hand (all Peters and from the 60s-70s) are prefaced with “Facsimile printing from the manuscript by the composer.”

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  8. maestro58

    Mistakes in scores
    One thing computer notation has done for me is eliminate pitch mistakes because of playback. If there is a wrong note, I hear it and fix it. On the negative side I often push against the software, trying to get it to do things that it doesn’t want to do…the solutions are called kludges.

    I’m about to hit the wall in a piccolo concerto I’m writing. I want the cadenza to vary tempi during playback against a rigid rim shot. Easy enough to create a vamp in paper and pencil. Hard to get it to work in Computerland.

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  9. philmusic

    exploits the tactile experience of actually composing rather than entering music, …”

    To me composition is about refection-straight from the fingers in real time is improvisation. For that reason, at least for me, there will always be a need to enter notes.

    When Aaron Kernis told me about Sibelius it solved my learning disability in a flash. It used to take me one day to notate one page of music say between 6-8 bars–that is to make the clean copy. Then I always made the noteheads too small. I had to make a sketch too and sometimes I could not read my own manuscript. Computers solved that problem. Now its true my sketch and my final copy are the same (well no) but the time I save means more music.

    That is liberating.

    Phil Fried Phil’s I also taught myself to make web pages page

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  10. tubatimberinger

    I was fortunate in my formal comp. studies to have teachers who were very ancient (many would say wise). To them, the music publishing software served one purpose and one only; publishing/printing of music. Although they were certainly savvy in Finale/Cakewalk/whatever they used, the notion of composing in front of a computer was repulsive to them.

    I would try to bring ‘rough draft’ scores to my lessons from time to time and the typical response would be “I don’t wanna see that _insert expletive_. Show me the music!” If I didn’t have any hand written music to show them, we would do something else. I am grateful for this for it indoctrinated me to separate the art from the mundane production (craft seems to sophisticated a term for speedy entry) of materials. I don’t have perfect pitch and I don’t play piano really at all. That didn’t matter to them. What mattered was the use of the imagination and the creative process

    Nowadays, sadly, it has been my observation that too many student composers are being allowed and even encouraged to write at the computer. Add to this the actual software companies who constantly spin their products as “composition tools” and it would seem to the average student composer coming up today that you’re just supposed to compose at the computer. It’s a dangerous path and I have yet to hear a piece of music that moves me which was composed in Fin/Sib.

    I do however agree that for performance, these programs have huge potential to revolutionize how music is rehearsed/performed/produced. I would like to see a lot more research towards these ends instead of more ways to automate the creative process.

    -Tim, one of the unwashed

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  11. colin holter

    It’s a dangerous path and I have yet to hear a piece of music that moves me which was composed in Fin/Sib.

    Really? This is a pretty bold statement. I mean, I’ve heard pieces composed in Microsoft Excel that really moved me!

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  12. colin holter

    Hmm, both Crumb scores that happened to be close at hand (all Peters and from the 60s-70s) are prefaced with “Facsimile printing from the manuscript by the composer.”

    Must be an urban legend, then!

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  13. Mischa Salkind-Pearl

    Colin- you make a good point about personalizing a computer generated score. I’m working right now on a font for my scores, in fact. And while I think there is a lot of good in handwritten scores, I also believe that composers can learn and accomplish a lot on the computer.

    Again, however, the problem seems to me to be the enabling impact it can have on the actual compositional process. I suspect that for some people notation software works out to be fancy packaging, but with little content, because so much time was spent on the appearance that the actual editing/revising process was pushed aside. I suspect this more of student composers, but nevertheless, I wonder how much it permeates our thinking…..

    Last thought: as great as it is to have a personal look, a score is not music- it is a set of instructions. You could argue that certain scores themselves are works of visual art, fine. But getting too wrapped up in the appearance can also strongly impact the performance of the piece, for better or worse.

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  14. davidwolfson

    Most of my music starts out in my head, moves to pencil and paper, and then gets moved into Finale at some point—either when it’s finished, when I’m stuck and want to keep working on the piece anyway, or when I want to hear something that’s not a piano playing back at me.

    Sometimes it goes in the other direction as well: I’ve printed out sketches made in Finale with blank staves included, and composed in pencil into them before putting the results back in Finale.

    The point of this is that notation software can be part of a compositional process, but doesn’t have to take over the whole thing. Some of the reason this works for me is that I spent a lot of years as a professional copyist, and Finale is second nature to me, and nearly as intuitive as pencil and paper—if I really had to think about it, I doubt I’d want to use it to compose at all.

    BTW, you can make your scores very individual even without changing the default music font by changing fonts/sizes for just a couple of elements: clefs and instructions, for example.

    David Wolfson

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  15. pgblu

    Ferneyhough as Crumb’s copyist is no urban legend (though I guess it may also be that). But he didn’t make fair copies of all the works by any means. Just a handful.

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  16. csahar

    I disagree with commentators who believe computer notation systems somehow make the music inferior. Rather it is misinformed use of computer notation which causes these problems. People writing in pencil and paper can (and have) done the same thing. We all struggle at first with indicating string bowing lengths, when is a sfz dim to p better than a fp, the correct notating of distribution of parts for keyboard instruments, etc – whether if our sketches have been entered by pencil and paper or computer notation software.

    The one advantage of computer notation is you get immediately an approximation of the harmony, melody and to a much lesser extent rhythm of what you write.

    As for the issue about mistaking a final version for a draft, well no matter whether a composer writes with paper and pencil, computer notation software or bongos, you need to hear the piece performed for the instrument you write (and even the e performer). And how often do you find yourself revising a piece after the first reading or first performance? Pretty often.
    I will grant one problem with computer notation programs – failure to realize it is presently at best an approximation. But even though the ideal is to notate what we hear in our heads, how often do we think it is one thing and upon study of scores and working with the performer we find it is another thing that will achieve our goal far better.

    One thing I do find interesting for computer notation – one could write for the midi playback and become quite conversant, may I say a master of such a genre?

    In sum, let’s not mistake the life long process of improving how we communicate to the outside world what we hear or “feel” with the means used. I mean such a confusion can lead one to postulate the only way to assure you write great music is to use quill and pen and then engrave it in copper plates for posterity as was done by JS Bach.

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  17. MarkNGrant

    final word on Ferneyhough and Crumb
    I ran this Ferneyhough/Crumb question by my friend Don C. Gillespie, who worked as an editor at Peters for decades and knows Crumb well. Don replied in a July 24 email (this is a direct quote): “Ferneyhough never worked for Peters and did not copy Crumb’s scores.”

    Reply

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