Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Music Notation Software – Pros and Cons for Composers

There are several music notation programmes available for computers and tablets, but the brands that I suspect most composers use are Finale and Sibelius. Another excellent notation product is Notability Pro (for Mac only), which some composers I know swear is the best product out there, and is now free.

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:
  • Unwittingly writing parts that are either extremely difficult or even unplayable, because the computer plays them without any problem whatsoever (!). A computer plays unidiomatic lines flawlessly, while a performer might struggle in attempting to play them, or even refuse to play the piece. The computer can lull the user into thinking that the line is perfectly idiomatic, when in fact it is extremely difficult or even impossible. I am not sure how much different this would be in a hand-copied score, but in producing a hand-copied score, a composer usually spends hours playing each line, usually on a piano, which might flag any such issue;
  • Balance problems: The balance in a MIDI ensemble is often not very realistic; 
  • Further to  balance problems, sometimes, in an attempt to bring out a line that is insufficiently prominent, we may temporarily give it an extreme dynamic boost, such as marking it fff instead of f, so we can hear it better in the MIDI playback, but then forget to change the dynamic to its correct value (fff back to f) before giving the parts to the performers, resulting in performers blasting the heck out of that line in the first rehearsal, when all we intended was for it to be more prominent than the lines around it. Or sometimes, an inexperienced composer may use an extreme dynamic boost (e.g., f to fff) intentionally, thinking it necessary to bring out the line to the desired level, perhaps not realizing that if a line is marked  f, while the other instruments are marked mf, the performers and/or conductor will make sure that the f line is heard more prominently than the others.
  • It is also possible that the previous example (extreme dynamic boost) might be the result of poor orchestration; if a musical line is insufficiently prominent in MIDI playback, perhaps it needs to be reinforced in some way (e.g., octave doublings, or the addition of other instruments to that line), or perhaps the material around it is too busy and needs to be thinned out in some way.
  • Unrealistic representation of the nuanced colour and dynamic changes in different registers of an instrument or voice; 
  • MIDI playback is only as good as the quality of the samples  in your computer's sound-bank. 
  • Glissandi, heard through MIDI playback, usually elicits a chuckle from class members, presumably because it often sounds so unrealistic or even ridiculous.
  • The computer will play any glissando, even impossible ones, which may entice composers into writing impossible glissandi. We need to be aware of the possible glissandi for different instruments; always show your work to a performer of that instrument to be sure.
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!


Flutiano said...

This is a very comprehensive blog post! It's hard to know exactly what to say in response to it.

I think one disadvantage that is missing is if you are using the software program for the entire process and composing in the program, the line between draft and final copy is blurred. Either you get used to seeing errors/typos/etcetera and forget to change them in the end, or you can get distracted from working on the composition itself by concerns about the appearance.

Another disadvantage I've found with composing into Finale is the need for precision. This is related to number three on this list, which states that there are no disadvantages. I would agree that there are no disadvantages for the final product, but sometimes I like to write outlines or contours in the earlier stages of composition. The automatic alignment of notes and rests can also make it more challenging to put in a pick-up without knowing what else is going to be in that bar, or to indicate rhythms without pitch association when the pitches have not been decided yet (I sometimes come up with a rhythmic idea before setting notes to it, and if I'm writing on manuscript paper I will write those in small print above the staff. It's also really easy to scrawl down ideas onto paper, whereas you need to know your way around your program very well to get ideas down quickly (I'm thinking about words in the margins, as well as notes, rhythms, contours, etc.).

Robert Humber said...

I learned how to compose on Finale. It was with me from the very start (in 2007) and I loved that it allowed me to play back the music to make sure everything sounded right. I really had no idea how to read music or notate it, but Finale allowed me to rely on my ears and create music through a trial and error process. I think that this remains true to an extent, in that I don't think I could write without it. For me, notation software is not a bonus or limitation, but a necessity. You no longer need to be a piano virtuoso to write extremely interesting music. (No, I know Berlioz didn't play piano well, but I can't say I love his music either)

To address a couple points: copy and paste is definitely a dangerous tool. I've heard (and written) many a piece that sounds like a whole lot of copy-and-pasted ideas. But I think that it is possibly just a step to... becoming a better composer and not using it as much. One of the most important steps to making it to the "next level" as a composer is the ability to think critically and to know HOW to think critically in a way that will improve your work. I would like to think that at a certain point, any serious composer begins to notice when we have heard something 10 too many times and adjust the music. I guess what I'm saying is that copy-and-paste is a dangerous weapon in the hands of a new composer but with proper conditioning it should become a non-issue.

New composers raised on notation software also sometimes need a shift in the way they think about composing. When I began, I was essentially writing music FOR the program, the MIDI, the bleep-bloops. When I wrote an oboe part, I wasn't envisioning an oboist playing it. I was envisioning Finale honking it out. It's a vague distinction to make, but when you are thinking about how it will sound on the program, your music is very prone to becoming disconnected with real emotion and human expression, "boxed in" in a sense. I have heard student pieces that I couldn't stop thinking "this was written for MIDI." Things like lyrical phrases, *especially* subtle gestures, extended techniques, certain timbres and dissonances all sound TOTALLY wrong in Finale, and as a result, we avoid them completely. This leads to "MIDI music," music that lacks emotion and subtlety. The answer to this dilemma is to ALWAYS WRITE FOR THE PERFORMERS. employ quiet gestures in your orchestrations even if the MIDI makes it sound like crap. Make your whole string section take off in a flurry of glissandi, even if it sounds like a choir of sad cats... don't be discouraged, think about how cool it will sound with real people! I swear that this is a real thing affecting the quality of our work!

I am quite jealous of composers able to beautifully handcraft their music, and the main #1 reason is that they can do things that we can't really unless we are amazing at Finale and have hours and hours to do some very tedious work. A Lutoslawski score is almost impossible to replicate. R. Murray Schafer's calligraphy is a piece of art on its own (and often more interesting than the music itself). Sofia Gubaidulina, Schnittke and countless others often use squiggly lines and strange symbols and illustrations to show what they want in the best possible way they can. This stuff is SO hard to do effectively in Finale and takes a lot of time, and new music is full of these gestures that are tough to notate without thinking outside the box. In the future I hope that Finale (or another software) makes it as easy as writing it down on a piece of paper.

By the way, I agree totally with Flutiano's comment about the line being blurred between the draft and final copy. It is very easy to miss typos and errors.

Alison Petten said...

I think that one of the biggest advantages of composition software is that it allows someone who may not know how to play an instrument, or really have any musical knowledge at all, to compose for any instrument that they may wish. This really opens up the compositional world to a whole new demographic of people who may not have been exposed to music in this way without composition software.

This also presents a world of problems; a person with no knowledge of how to play an instrument likely will not know it's limitations very well and therefore would not be able to write something that it playable without further education. Also, making composing so accessible may not necessarily be a bad thing, but it may make educated composers feel as if their education is worth less when completely uneducated people start to compose music (although the divide between an educated and amateur composition will always be clear, in my opinion)

Stephen Eckert said...

I begun experimenting with composition for the piano in high school and at the time was trying to write on manuscript paper. As convenient as finale and other composition software is in the regards you mentioned above, I did find composing certain aspects specific to piano music much easier on manuscript.

One aspect I found easier was the layering of voices on manuscript. Switching between layers and positioning rest between layers 1, 2 and 3 very cumbersome in finale whereas when writing on manuscript I felt much more organized.

Another aspect of finale I felt was more cumbersome than manuscript was the positioning of figures within measures. One can change the position of notes with the beat chart however i find this process fairly slow compared to positioning notes/beams on manuscript.

A third aspect of notational software I find difficult with respects to piano music is the notation of unmetred, cadenza-like passages which is common in romantic and 20th century piano music. This is music where the note heads are smaller but the staff remains the same size but underlying pulse is changed. An example of this would be in Rachmaninoff's Prelude op.32 no.10 in b minor, bar 39.

Despite these difficulties when writing for the piano I do find that overall convenience of being able to hear what I've written immediately and the speed of which I can compose much outweighs the difficulties.

Jack Etchegary said...

For me, there is generally a large disconnect between composing on paper and composing with notation software. When I find myself getting fed up with my work, I often revert to writing ideas out on paper and playing them on the piano. I feel like I am not very well versed in how to effectively use Finale; a hindrance of not being able to complete the Orchestration courses this year. I usually take a long time to input my ideas into the software, mainly because I am not trained in how to use the various shortcuts or speedy entry tools, nor do I have any sort of midi keyboard by which to input things more easily. However, everything you have mentioned in your post is definitely true. The programs themselves give a brand new breadth of creativity to those who may not be able to compose naturally on paper. These softwares are so detailed and accessible that just about anyone could develop an understanding of notation and composition just by using the software for an extended period of time. While I myself am always encountering challenges with using notation software, it definitely cuts out a lot of the tedious intricacies of writing music by hand and for that reason can be seen as a blessing to composers.

Benjamin Taylor said...

I really like the list that has been provided. It shows that notation software is getting really good and becoming more involved in today's music. Score writing has never been easier but unfortunately like stated above in the blog, it can have its pros and cons. There are two big red flags I feel that are bad about notation software.

1. Repeating/copying

I am absolutely horribly guilty for this. When working on a line, we tend to get bored or tired of writing the same notes over and over so we highlight what we want and Copy and Paste. Even though this is a saver on time and our brains, it does come with faults. If we constantly copy and paste we don't get tired or bored and won't try something new. This then can create very bland, boring parts.

2. Sitting by a piano and writing it out physically

Even though you can have your laptop beside you and click away after playing or creating a line on piano, it does not beat actually writing down a passage. A lot of beginner composition students fail to sit in front of a piano and try to work a line out and see where it'll take them. They hope MIDI will play it back and hope for the best. There is, however a fix for this on the Microsoft Surface. There is a notation software where you can write out your music and it changed it into a digital form once you finish. So it's nice that some people have flagged this as important too.

MIDI (as we all know) has been always a subject of controversy. Like Clark said, it's dependent if you have a really good VST or you have an orchestra at your finger tips. I recently bought a VST for Sibelius called Note Performer. It has a wide range of general sounds like violin, saxophone, flute, etc. but it also has a great amount of extended technique sounds like percussion rain stick, bartok pizz., col legno, etc. I felt with the general MIDI or Sibelius loaded sounds, the less notated they are the better they sound. Slurs are over slurred, articulations such as accents or tenuto markings are very bland and over exaggerated to the point of embarrassment when shown. However, with Note Performer, the more you notate the score the better.

What surprises mean the most about MIDI is the amount of different kinds there are. Some that come pre-loaded into Finale or Sibelius sound quite realistic. Some sound very echo-y and some sound absolutely horrible. There is such a wide range of them.

Pallas A said...

Over the course of the semester, my distrust of Finale has grown significantly. It is so easy to change up the original musical idea during its conception using Finale by means of transposition, inversion, cut/paste, et cetera. When the Finale would play through the passage, I would question whether or not I was controlling the input, or whether I was letting Finale inadvertently shape my ideas. It sounds a bit absurd, but I felt the need to change up a passage if I did not immediately like it (because it could be done with a few clicks), and eventually the mutated idea would deviate further from what I wanted. I now come up with all of my main compositional ideas at the piano with manuscript paper. If needed, during the compositional process, I have my laptop on the edge of my upright piano. I play though my passages using my rudimentary keyboard skills before hearing the playback. This process will probably be disadvantageous in the long run if the music composed is of a larger scale or if what I write exceeds my piano abilities. But for now, this method gives me some kind of autonomy over the realization of my ideas. The use of piano and paper has prevented me from being able to easily modify an idea, and consequently, it has forced me to mull over a passage and really think about it before I perform any drastic changes on it.

Erika Penney said...

This was a great list of pros and cons. As this was my first semester really using my music software for compositions, I had many moments of frustration with Finale Print Music, but also some good moments. I sometimes find it more useful to write parts of my compositions on staff paper due to it being a bit faster while sitting next to a piano, but in saying that I found it great to be able to very easily notate any notes and accidentals on Printmusic. I strongly agree with how great and easy it is to be able to copy and paste because if not there would of been a time I could of possibly lost a whole composition! One con with Printmusic was it was difficult to align everything to the best it could be, as it did not have the option like Finale does. Another thing i did not like about Printmusic was that you could not hide any time signatures. This was difficult because there were assignments where we needed to hide the time signature, which I was unable to do unless I used someone else's version of Finale. One last thing i always found a bit frustrating was playback. I found this difficult at times because even with dynamic changes i could barely hear some of the instruments and their parts which was frustrating while trying to conclude a project.

I am anxious to try Notability Pro now especially where it is free!

Anonymous said...

I think Finale and other notation programs are definitely the best way to produce scores, and they make it a lot easier to organize things like time signatures and keys than writing on paper. That said, I frequently find myself getting frustrated with Finale for various reasons. I think it limits composers in a lot of ways, and the main problem for me is that you can never completely remove a time signature. You can hide the time signature, but it will always follow a strict beat pattern of some sort no matter what. The best solution to this that I could find was just to use a lot of fermatas, but this is not ideal. I also find the midi playback is sometimes misleading, I often end up deleting whole passages because the midi instruments make them sound bad, when they would probably sound a lot better played on real instruments. I heard one of my pieces performed last year and I was shocked to hear how much better it sounded on a real instrument.
When I took an electronic music course last term, I found that I liked using Logic much better than Finale. I think using a midi keyboard and actually playing all the parts gave me a lot of ideas, and I did not feel like the program limited me at all. I liked using synthesizers a lot, as well, but Logic also has midi instruments like Finale, so I think it is a good way to write, in the future I may try using a similar program to sound out the music and then transcribe it into Finale afterwards. I don't know if there is a way to use a midi keyboard with Finale, but that would also make it easier to use, so I will have to look into that as well.

Kristin Wills said...

Sorry, that anonymous comment was from me.

Peter Cho said...

My biggest problem with Notation Softward is actually the playback aspect of it. To be honest, I am sort of scared of it. It is almost too convenient. The MIDI playback is almost always awful and I get in the habit of constantly playing the file to hear what it sounds like until it completely overwrites what I was originally imagining. I think the playback is the worst part because it is dangerously seductive in the way that it tricks you into thinking a your piece sounds a certain way when in real like it doesn't (or wouldn't) sound that way. However, it is too useful of a tool to not use. Out of curiosity, is there a specific way in which you use the MIDI playback, Dr. Ross? Do you consciously limit the amount of times you listen to a piece on MIDI? Or do you feel you have enough experience that you know what a real rendition of your piece will sound like that the MIDI doesn't bother you much? For me this is the problem. I am not entirely sure what a real performance of the piece will sound like (especially if I am writing for an instrument I am not too familiar with) and the MIDI essentially controls what I think it will sound like.

Josh McCarthy said...

Notation software is one of the best things that has happened to music in a long time, technologically. It is so helpful in so many ways in terms of copy and pasting, transposing (oh god yes transposing), and cleanliness. It has a lot of ups, but as I've recently discovered it has many downs as well. For example, I have just finished my final orchestra piece, and I had an idea initially of having a fast and active middle section with a lot of percussion, like film music, but when I went to add in the tenor drums and toms, the MIDI playback was absolutely abysmal... I could barely even hear what was happening in the percussion section, so I ended up sacrificing my main want for heavy percussion to just writing for bass drum, and snare to add the texture I wanted... all because I didn't have the proper playback on MIDI. I feel as though this has to do with me not dishing out money (even more money, mind you) to have better samples for my instruments. Either way I love notation software, and I know I wouldn't have the patience to hand write scores, so hats of to you Clark, but it can also be pretty frustrating sometimes. Especially when you transpose a part and it gives you notes with four flats...

Samir Abadir said...

I started to compose regularly 5 years ago by using Musescore , I began doing for piano and then for orchestra , I am an auto learning person and I did progress through these years although I feel sometimes unsatisfied because of that some parts the sound is not as I wished to be or and It's sometimes is not realistic

Samir Abadir said...