Pencil Pusher

Pencil Pusher

Music notation is an art form unto itself. Like graphic design, it serves multiple muses, but its raison d’être is to efficiently communicate ideas. Last week, the formidable Colin Holter asked if computer notation software is a moot issue considering society’s ever-increasing acceptance of everything digital, but judging from the posted responses, we composers like our pencils just as much as our laptops. As a pencil-wielding non-Luddite myself, here’s my take on the issue: While crystal clear in a utilitarian sense, computer engraved scores, for the most part, are just soulless clones devoid of any personality.

Although I’ve used Finale in the past, I choose to notate everything by hand. I think it gives my scores a unique character. Call me superstitious, but with all my handmade idiosyncracies left intact, I really believe that my imperfect stokes—maybe a hairline off in placement versus pro-grade engraving—does affect a musician’s interpretive sensibilities. At the very least, I know that I can better engage and inspire performers by creating highly visual scores on good ol’ manuscript paper. And after the original is made, go ahead and digitize—scan it, make a JPEG, photocopy, whatever—my penmanship stays intact.

The art of letter writing is anachronistic by today’s standards and diacriticals arranged in certain patterns in an email have replaced the heart-dotted “i” that once adorned juvenile love notes. But there’s no denying that handwriting says something about the author’s personality. People are going to continue to study graphology, even if it eventually becomes only a forensic or archeological study. As technology progresses ever further into our lives, we might soon be asking each other: What font do you use for your signature?

I’m not saying that great art can’t be created using bytes and pixels. But even in the fickle art world, it seems media art is less concerned with its own technology and convenience, and artists keep picking up paintbrushes. Just imagine if Luigi Nono had sat down at a Macintosh 512Ke to create his Post-prae-ludium per Donau. Would he have delivered a dot-matrix masterpiece? Perhaps. However, in the grand scheme of things, I much prefer that his chaotic scribbles coalesce into a beautifully cryptic and colorful score, suitable for framing.

NewMusicBox provides a space for those engaged with new music to communicate their experiences and ideas in their own words. Articles and commentary posted here reflect the viewpoints of their individual authors; their appearance on NewMusicBox does not imply endorsement by New Music USA.

19 thoughts on “Pencil Pusher

  1. david toub

    I used to do everything by hand, and even got it to the point where it was legible. In the 70’s I had an electric eraser (de rigeur at the time), special paper for reproduction (made by some company called Aztec, as I recall) and brought in my manuscripts for printing at some place just across from Studio 54.

    But the ability to use software to do all of this was like my holy grail, and when I learned of Finale, that’s ultimately what got me into computers. And while there are some things that are easier and even faster to do by hand, overall it is just better with software. I can play things back (which helps with finding mistakes), back it up, output it to PDF (which is trivial under OS X), etc. After all is said and done, I can’t understand how people wrote music before the advent of notation software.

  2. coreydargel

    Molly, Randy, Colin, Belinda, Frank, and all other NMBx bloggers:

    We want to see what your handwriting looks like! Thanks to the magic of technology, you can now generate a font that represents your unique script. Your personalized fonts can be used in your posts and available for download so that everyone’s web browser can display them.

    This will establish a more personal connection between you and your readers. It will represent your individual characters and enhance the personality of every post you make in this forum.

    Most computer fonts are unremarkable enough to stifle a blogger’s ability to truly connect with his or her audience. We must move beyond the pixellated impotence of Arial, Verdana, Times New Roman, etc., and develop signatures to match our individual personalities!

  3. Colin Holter

    I made a font of my manuscript this summer, actually, but I don’t usually use it for finished scores because I haven’t been able to tweak some of the spacing issues to my satisfaction. It’s tremendously fun, though, and I highly recommend it if you’re single, live in the Midwest, and have plenty of free time. I’ll post a link to a sample at some point.

    Having worked in Finale for about eight years now, I feel like I can exert control over just about every parameter of how my notation looks, from spacing to line widths to fonts to pretty much whatever. I agree wholeheartedly that out-of-the-box Finale scores tend to look pretty bad (worse than Sibelius, in my opinion), but a customized approach can yield pretty decent results, I think. Does anybody know if Jason Eckardt uses Finale? I think his scores look really nice.

  4. philmusic

    I always thought that engraved music was the mark of the professional.
    Most publishers use engraving. On the other hand bad computer scores are very very bad.

  5. ottodafaye

    “While crystal clear in a utilitarian sense, computer engraved scores, for the most part, are just soulless clones devoid of any personality.”

    In my opinion that’s simply wrong, and here’s two reasons why.

    1) No computer generated score is crystal clear until a good copyist makes it so. I don’t care what software you use. It doesn’t copy the music for you to any reasonable standard.

    Assuming that the score does look “crystal clear”…

    2) Every copyist has a style. Unless conforming rigorously to a very specific style sheet, say for a particular publishing house, left to their own, every copyist’s judgement, taste, and personal style will appear in their work. In a nano-second you will see significant differences in the same music copied by me and David Ocker, both using Sibelius. And we both think our way is better.

    I would add that I think a pencil is a wonderful composer’s tool that has no place on a copyist’s desk. If you insist on doing final copy with a pencil, for god’s sake, at least learn to shade your dynamic markings.

    Arthur Jarvinen

  6. swellsort

    Hand writing? What note is that?
    For me personally, my music handwriting can only be read by myself. It looks atrocious, and I do it all the time. Thus, I use Sibelius for a finished product. But if your handwriting is good enough, I think it could be a major advantage, in that you don’t have to conform to whatever it is your software understands. Ever seen scores by Mark Applebaum anyone? He does them all by hand and they look truly amazing and professional. And his music is always interesting and innovative. I feel this is partly because there are no limits for him, there are no boundaries. When you use your own hand, it is more personal. For me, though, I have to use notation software so that others can actually read it!!

  7. JKG

    Handwritten scores…
    I love handwritten scores, and my own have been gorgeous in the past. I have, however, forsaken that poetic aspect of my craft to focus more upon the sound of my work, particularly now that I use Sibelius for my finished products. For me, the issue is one of speed – I just plain write a hundred times quicker on computer than I do by hand. Then again, I am married, do not live in the Midwest, and have postively no time to spare for much of anything.

  8. tubatimberinger

    I use notation software for the speed,flexibility and above all accuracy.

    Lets say an orchestra goes to play an obscure work by Haydn or Beethoven or any of the other typical favorite composers that get programmed. Even if the parts are a mess and the score is a mess, it’s still playable because music from those eras are constructed of standard chords, scales and tonalities that the average player has memorized as part of their daily warm up. They don’t even have to read every note.

    Even if the performance is kinda shabby because of this non-clarity, the audience will still get it becuase they are also trained to hear those standardized sounds.

    In the music of today (with the exception of MOST improvised works) accuracy of performance is of the utmost importance (at least if you ask a conductor/performer that’s what they will say). Any so called “imperfect stokes—maybe a hairline off in placement ” can cause a rehearsal or worse yet a performance to come to a grinding halt.

    If a new work isn’t performed accurately, it not only is unlikely to be accepted by the audience in that concert, but will probably never be played again.

    Even in my most graphically intensive scores, I still go back and use some computer graphics program (usually Illustrator) to draw the score digitally.

    When your talking new music, in most cases, clarity is everything. If your hand-written score is more telling than what Finale, or Sibelius or whatever can create, than by all means go pen and paper. But I think this is a rare occurance.

  9. danielgilliam

    Thanks for the nice post Randy. This is an issue I’ve been dealing with recently. I’ve about had it with computer notation programs. As convenient as they are for extracting parts almost flawlessly, the pain it takes to get there may not be worth it.

    Perhaps someone with time and two identical ensembles on their hands could conduct an experiment: Give the same music, one engraved by hand to one ensemble, the other through computer to the other ensemble, and record the performance. Talk with both ensembles after the fact, eliciting feedback on how rehearsals went. Decide which performance was more successful.

  10. JKG

    In shock (Dan Gilliiam)…
    Wow, I have to ask – Dan, exactly which notation program are you using? I use Sibelius 2, and I get literally everything I need notation-wise. Granted, I’ve had to invent terms like “audio-score” as opposed to “written-score,” and a few other adjustments, but short of facing the prospect of writing in ultra-twentieth century aleatory idioms, everything I need is there. Are you using Finale? I hear it’s quite a pain, except for those who have lots of time to spend hiding behind an office door. I find Sibelius to be completely intuitive and appropriate for my own writing style, despite my feeling a bit crestfallen for the “old days” when everything I did took forever and was in gorgeous hand.

  11. danielgilliam

    Well, I use Sib 2 also…I’m not putting down Sibelius or Finale, for that matter. Really, I need a new computer, and that’s the biggest issue (and a screen that’s like 25″x25″). There is nothing wrong with Sib or Fin, it’s more of a personal frustration with having to spend time “engraving.” If I were crazy rich I would hire a copyist – as I’m sure most of us would. The bottom line: I don’t like engraving.

  12. JKG

    totally understandable. I have a background in printing, so I guess it’s easy for me. I would not, in my case, bother ever having a copyist handle my work – not worth the money any more, even if I were filthy rich. In fact, if I were that rich, I’d “hire” a publisher to take care of matters and the copying of score and parts would be HIS problem.

  13. maestro58

    Since I started having to think about the pencil versus computer arguement due to posts on new music box, it has made me realize one drastic problem. When I compose on the computer, I usually write within the limits of the computer sound device. For example, I don’t take advantage of special string sounds like flautando, sul tasto, or sul ponticello. I have been composing on computer so long, that I have forgotten these special colors are available.

    If I had the time, maybe I would compose on paper and then “engrave” the score via computer. One thing is for sure, I am grateful for these posted exchanges for reminding me about part of my job as a composer is to think in instrumental color, not just electronic sound.

  14. kacattac

    Even though I have always used the computer for just about everything, I’ve always been extremely paranoid about turning anything over to a copyist. Like the rest of you, I can’t afford it anyway, but I’m not sure I would take advantage even if I could. It certainly helps to have someone else take a look (i.e. kind of be your editor for purely technical matters), but as has been pointed out, a certain amount of personality (albeit muted in comparison) still comes across in well-done computer generated scores.

  15. danielgilliam

    I guess when the time comes that I have the luxury of deciding between a copyist and a computer, I can make a more informed argument…until then it’s me and the ol’ Dell from ’98…bring it on…

  16. Frank J. Oteri

    Wow, I’ve got a 1998 Dell, too. Guess that makes us both dinosaurs. Although,
    was there ever a time in history when someone was considered old fashioned for using tools that aren’t even a decade old?


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