A Hypothetical Notational Alternative

A Hypothetical Notational Alternative

With the future of Sibelius in question, I’ve been thinking about my issues with the notation software that’s currently available. While I know there are a variety of existing options out there, I’ve been having more fun imagining hypothetical alternatives.

One thing that most modern notation software has in common is what I might call a “maximalist” approach. That is, to accommodate the wide variety of styles and strategies for writing music, the program must have a variety of functions to deal with each. Roughly speaking, each musical feature has its own function, and any new feature has to either be mapped to an old category or made into a new category. An artifact of this approach is that as features accumulate, so does the proliferation of buttons, menus, tabs, submenus, plugins, and so on, with some functionality eventually hiding in obscure and counterintuitive places. For example, according to my intuition, page numbers and bar numbers should be related, but in Sibelius 6, changing one requires going to the “House Style” menu and selecting “Engraving Rules,” while changing the other requires going to the “Create” menu and selecting “Other.” (Guess which is which!)

This is not to single out Sibelius, because all of the notation software that I’ve ever used ends up twisting itself into these shapes at some point. (Disclaimer: I still haven’t tried Sibelius 7, but I’m not terribly optimistic about its Microsoft-Office-circa-2005 design paradigm.) This is because the software has taken on the role of thinking about music in order to do some things for you, in order to be a compositional aid. I’d like to propose an alternative role for notation software. I want the software to get out of the way of my musical imagination as much as possible. Let’s call this the “minimalist” approach for now.

To illustrate what I mean, let’s talk about the differences between a blank sheet of manuscript paper and a blank page in typical notation software. To be fair, the manuscript paper isn’t totally blank; it’s got some lines on it. But other than that and maybe some other base physical attributes like size and spacing, it carries no musical preconceptions. Meanwhile, the blank page on the computer screen already carries with it a bevy of assumptions, including instruments, clefs, time and key signatures, and so on. It’s not even remotely blank; it’s already a composition filled with bars of rests. (Insert 4’33” joke here.)

Personally I find the time signature to be the most offensive of these restrictions, and detest the contortions required to write a piece of music with shifting time signatures, or even a single bar of music with no time signature. When writing on manuscript paper, I simply put down a barline when I feel like it, when it’s needed. When I’m using notation software, barlines always seem to be in the way.

This is only the most egregious example I can think of, and I’m sure most composers have their own personal notational nemeses to shake their fists at. But I can at least imagine a piece of software that does away with most, if not all, of these preconceptions, in which musical objects could simply be placed consecutively, one in front of the other, regardless of musical function.[1] Of course it’s a little more complicated than I’m making it out to be; it would need to be very clever about sensible placement and interaction of those objects, for one thing. I also don’t think it would effectively replace traditional notation software—the benefits of easy part extraction alone would be hard to leave behind. But as an alternative, a tool existing alongside other tools, it could be extremely useful, not just for composers but for teachers as well. “Maximalist” notation software encourages a trial-and-error approach to composition, often deceiving the student with the temptation and ease of its playback function. “Minimalist” notation software would carry no such baggage, encouraging the student to sonically imagine the piece and thoroughly learn the role and conventions of each musical object.

If there’s any hidden benefit to Avid’s short-sighted decision to jettison the Sibelius development team, it’s that it is causing people to think about these kinds of alternatives for musical notation. If I’m being optimistic, I’d like to see a future where, instead of having one or two giants, we have a variety of smaller, leaner programs for musical notation, each designed for different purposes and preferences. In the end, this may be healthier for musical variety and creativity.


1. Han-Earl Park tells me that, back in the day, there used to be a Mac OS 9 program that worked this way called NoteWriter), but it hasn’t been maintained since 2007 and doesn’t run on newer Macs.

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8 thoughts on “A Hypothetical Notational Alternative

  1. Ratzo B Harris

    I think when Avid absorbed and then jettisoned the tech-support team of Digidesign (Pro Tools) the writing was on the wall. Why would a company that wants to obliterate the small-mid size recording studio want to be involved in printing music? More to the point, Avid is about movies, a medium where music is subservient to the spectacle.

  2. Audrey Wetterwald

    Thanks a lot for these thoughts which are totally fitting what we are trying to do at scorio. Our philosophy is to allow everybody to write music free of charge for the basic functions and from any kind of computer that has an internet connection.

    This should amongst others help music students and teachers or even choirs to share their work. Have a look at this pretty good wikipedia list of score writers. There are three of us offering a online solution.

  3. Ted King-Smith

    Perhaps notation software should turn more towards a DAW format? The program would come with at least the essentials, and then the user would be able to download plugins as they desire. I.e. layouts, fonts, graphic notation, etc. Then we as composers can design and share plugins to meet our needs, freeing us from the constraints of the software.


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