In today’s post, I will explore how the use of notation software can affect the composition process, in ways we may not realize, both positive and negative. The first seven points below list many of the unambiguously-positive aspects of using notation software, and the remaining points concern some of the potential challenges that can arise from its use, some of which we may be unaware of.
If any readers can think of pros and cons not listed below, please let me know via the "comments" area, and I'll add them to the list if merited.
|Music Notation Software|
Cons (or commentary on pros)
|1. Can produce polished, publication-ready scores.||1. This is indeed true. However, it takes
considerable skill, and the knowledge of all the minutiae of notation conventions, to produce publication-ready scores,
whether one uses notation software or not.
Because a score produced with notation software generally looks far better than a hand-copied score (although some highly-skilled hand-copyists can also produce beautiful scores), we may be seduced into thinking our score is as good as it needs to be, when in fact it may need a lot more detailed work to reach a point of being truly publication ready.
|2. Scores look better than hand-copied scores.||2. This is generally true. I doubt that many students are trained in the
art of hand-copying music any more (I was, which reflects the period in which I was trained (cretaceous)) – but it
isn’t always true; a sloppy computer-notated score looks far worse than a beautiful and meticulous hand-copied score.
Again, this is more a product of the user's limitations than of the software, however.
|3. Pitches and accidentals are notated clearly and correctly.
||3. No disadvantages! Here are some of the reasons this is such a valuable advantage for notation software:
• Sometimes, in hand-copied scores, pitches are less than 100% clear because they are notated in such as way as to "spill" into the territory of an adjacent pitch.
• Notation software also notates 2nds correctly. Sometimes, in a hand-copied score, students attempt to vertically align notes that are a second apart, which looks very messy.
• Notation software also aligns accidentals correctly (again, students sometimes try to fit them on top of each other, causing collisions and all manner of visual mayhem).
|4. Other score information, such as text and articulations, is clear (hand-written text can be somewhat challenging to read if a composer has poor calligraphy skills).||4. This again is generally true, unless the composer uses a font or font-size that is difficult to read.|
|5. You can remove or add bars without recopying entire pages.
• It is also easier to change/add/remove notes and any other score information (such as dynamics, slurs, articulations, text, etc.
• Software also lets you do A/B comparisons, listening to a version with bars added, and then comparing with a version with those bars removed.
|5. This is a huge advantage of notation software; having to
recopy an entire page by hand in order to add or subtract a few bars is
such a hassle that it can become a disincentive to make such changes.
Anything that gets in the way of making even small improvements in your
compositions is a significant problem.
•And yes, the possibility of doing numerous A/B listening comparisons is a tremendous advantage in using notation software.
|6. Parts can be generated automatically.
• This is a huge advantage in using notation software.
|6. Generating parts can still involve some work, however, because you may need to adjust the layout, number of bars per system, fix any new collisions that may have shown up, plan page turns, do any necessary last-minute edits (you sometimes notice problems in parts that you didn't notice in the score), etc. But there's no question that generating parts is a much faster process with notation software.|
|7. Transpose, Invert, Retrograde, and other commands, as well as plug-ins.
• Did you know that Finale has commands for melodic inversion, and retrograde? These (particularly inversion) can be useful when considering possibilities of how to grow/extend/transform a melodic idea.
• There are also third-party plugins available, such as Patterson Plug-Ins for Finale, which are designed to speed up and generally improve workflow.
|7. Composers can obviously do these things without a computer, but the computer does them much faster. Plus, having these options so readily available makes it easier to try them in order to see if they can be used in your composition.|
|8. Dynamics look as they should, and are usually well positioned.||8. Notation software does indeed produce dynamics that are beautiful.
• They are not always well positioned however; in Finale, you have probably found many cases where a dynamic collides with something else, such as an accidental, note, or slur, which requires the user to re-position the dynamic, or the other objects with which it collides; I'm not sure this happens as frequently in hand copied scores.
• One potential issue to be aware of is that in some software programmes, a dynamic intended for one instrument (e.g., below the flute staff) in an orchestral score can show up in an adjacent instrument's part (e.g., above the clarinet) when parts are generated. When positioning a dynamic, Finale uses a temporary dashed line to indicate the note to which the dynamic is attached, which reduces the likelihood of misplaced dynamics.
• There are potential playback issues in the use of dynamics, described in section 9.
|9. You can hear what you write as you write it, performed at the
indicated tempo, or at a slower tempo if you prefer, which allows you to
listen repeatedly, carefully, and critically.
• You can also hear and evaluate any indicated tempo changes (including rit. and accel.), and dynamic levels (including cresc. and dim.).
• You can also listen to the composition, or a section thereof, repeatedly, tweaking it until it sounds as good as you can make it, no matter what time of day you play it, and no matter what your mood is.
|9. Being able to hear an approximation of what you write in real time is a huge benefit of notation software.
• There are, however, significant issues or limitations in relying too heavily on MIDI playback as a realistic indicator of what your music will sound like; these include:
|10. Copy and Paste.
• Musical material, from the smallest ideas to entire sections, is often repeated, either immediately or brought back later; the Copy & Paste functions let you do this with great ease.
|10. Again, a very useful tool. I recommend exercising some restraint in its use, however.
• One of the most wonderful attributes of great classical compositions is that ideas are often altered in some way when repeating or recapitulating them. This provides both the comfort of familiarity, since we recognize the ideas, but also an element of surprise, if we recognize that some aspects have been changed.
• You can make such modifications when repeating ideas in notation programmes, of course, but, at least in student work, it seems as though the ease with which the paste command can be executed often leads to not making modifications.
• My advice to students is to explore modification possibilities when re-using (pasting) an earlier idea into a later section.
|11. Other limitations and challenges.||11. Using different metres in different staves simultaneously, and having bar lines that don't necessarily line up with each other (vertically).|
|12. Other limitations and challenges.||12. Using a time grid at the top of your score (e.g., a grid in 5 second increments), with no bar lines.
• You can hide bar lines, of course, and create a graphic to represent the time grid, but this involves more work than it would if done by hand.
|13. Other limitations and challenges.||13. Graphic notation can be difficult or even impossible.
• Again, you can create graphics on a computer, but it takes some skill to do this well, and doing it by hand is often faster.
|14. Other limitations and challenges.||14. Oversize metres in orchestral scores (e.g., a large 4/4 that spans the height of the entire woodwind section) are either impossible or very tricky. Oversize metres are generally much appreciated by conductors, because they can be easily read at a glance. When my orchestral music has been played, I often get the score back with oversize metre changes written in by the conductor.|
|15. Other limitations and challenges.||15. Unless you invest in an expensive sample library that includes extended
techniques in all instrument families, your MIDI playback will probably
not be able to reproduce such sounds. This is not necessarily an
impediment to using extended techniques, but I suspect they would be
used more if we could hear a reasonably-accurate reproduction of
these techniques during playback of our scores.
These performance techniques include: col legno, col legno battute, sul pont., sul tasto, different mute types for brass instruments, hand-stopped notes (for horn), play with bells in the air, multiphonics, flutter-tongue, harmonics, harmonic gliss. ("seagull effect") for strings (particularly for cello), senza vibrato, scraping sound created by heavy bow pressure and slow bow speed, a myriad of sounds available by slapping, scraping, muting, picking (with a guitar pick) strings inside of a piano, prepared piano sounds, etc.
Have I missed any significant advantages or disadvantages in my list? Are there times when you feel the notation software is pushing you to notate an idea in the way that it wants, as opposed to the way that you want? Please let me know in the comments section below, and thanks for reading!