Fonts, Glorious Fonts!

Black Bend example

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Musical scores contain all kinds of information, most of it explicit: I want this played softly; I want the duration of the note exactly this long; I want the music to slow down beginning four measures prior to the fermata. But notated scores also convey plenty of implicit meaning: rehearsal letters suggest formal divisions (whether they are intended to or not); and the fonts used for each written instruction convey a great deal of information as well.

The tradition of using italicized text for expressive directions, and plain or bold text for technical instructions such as pizzicato or fingering guides helps associate each category—expressive and technical—with a particular visual style, thus making it that much easier to interpret the instruction while sight reading. Composers who create handwritten scores would do well to consider analogous ways to differentiate between these categories of markings. Likewise, the practice of using plain or bold text for section tempo markings and italics for progressive tempo changes subtly aids in codifying the interplay of motion and stability, traveling and arriving, that the above distinctions make possible.

In vocal music, the International Phonetic Alphabet (or IPA) provides a universal language for writing down most any vocal sound, be it English, Russian, or some stream of nonsense concluded by a croaking vocal fry. The alphabet contains new and unique characters and while time-consuming to absorb, it’s an indispensable tool for composers who wish to explore the timbral potential of the human voice. In a recent composition for choir, I struggled for days with an idea that moved from nonsense to an intelligible text; the solution turned out to be using very different fonts for the English text and IPA syllables. It’s amazing how a seemingly subtle visual cue can often turn a hopeless situation completely around.

It’s pretty geeky to write, think, or read about fonts. But if you’re composing notated music, trust me, paying attention to fonts won’t make you any more of a geek than you already are—and you’ll likely reap some great benefits as a result. Many composers have taken to making their own fonts for harmonic analysis, tablature, or aesthetic enrichment; they’re true “font-huggers” and a real boon to the rest of us when they share their creations. We might not all have the savvy to make our own fonts, but understanding how to use one’s available fonts in order to reinforce concepts and structural details in the music can go a long way to ensure that these items are successfully communicated.

3 thoughts on “Fonts, Glorious Fonts!

  1. mclaren

    Great article. If you’re a composer working at the edge of known music, designing your own fonts is nowadays pretty much a must. No current computer notation program, be it Finale or Sibelius or the more exotic ones, has a full selection of microtonal accidentals. So if you’re doing microtonal music, you have to create your own font. Fortunately that’s easy with tools like Fontographer or the like.

    Or how about Henry Cowell’s different-shaped note-heads to indicate various tuplets from triplets all the way up to 13-tuplets? Once again, if you want to use that kind of notation, you have to design your own font.

    And then there are the combined graphic scores which add various types of graphic notation to conventional notation. Once again, chances are excellent that if you’ve worked up a set of exotic signs to indicate unfamiliar performance techniques (like, say, bowing the violin with a piece of tinfoil placed behind one of the strings), you’re going to have to design your own font to include these kinds of additional graphics.

    Reply
  2. Elle

    To follow the commenter who advocates designing one’s own fonts and notation – I would urge one to be cautious of “re-inventing the wheel” too much. As a performer of vocal music, I love to see well-utilized IPA, especially when paired with a legend in which the composer explains in better detail what he/she wants (using English words, indicating an emotional impetus for a desired sound effect, etc.)

    When approaching a new piece, it can be slightly irritating to face X composer’s rendition of say, micro-tonal accidentals (not to mention new tuplet shapes), after having learned composer Y and Z’s versions.

    Perhaps some performers enjoy learning a new symbolic language for every new piece – but I would advocate for some codification, when a technique (such as microtones) has become fairly common.

    Also – with IPA, one runs into problems when the symbol used isn’t the one the composer -actually- meant. For instance, the schwa [ə] that denotes an unstressed “uhh” sound, and [ð], the symbol for the “th” sound in “the” can look similar, especially when rendered in a tiny font. Also, when the sound-symbol falls outside the realm of English/German/Romance language sounds, many singers will be unfamiliar. Certainly, we’re capable of looking it up…just know that we’re not fluent in the thousands of symbols in the phonetic alphabet! Again, an explanatory legend is VERY helpful.

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  3. Music Store

    I guess it would be only geeky to those who don’t understand it nor appreciate it. There is really an art to it and for those who can create masterful pieces of music, they are exceptionally good at it.

    Reply

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