Engraving Ephemera

Engraving Ephemera

Today’s column will be, I admit, a bit light—with orchestral, wind band, and choral readings, as well as chamber reading deadlines imminent, life has gotten a tad bit hectic here in the verdant confines of Interlochen Summer Arts Camp. That being said, the topics of engraving and notation software that I’ve touched on over the past few weeks did not seem to want to go to bed this week, so I thought I’d give an update on each one:

• On the Sibelius front, while Martin Kloiber, the vice-president of product and solutions at AVID Technologies, sent out an open letter to the Sibelius community, an online petition and call-to-arms was created earlier this week.

• Last week’s column on engraving touched off a lively debate both in the comments thread of the column itself as well as on Facebook. I’ve included some of the more extensive portions of the discussion that occurred on my own Facebook profile below, but feel free to peruse the entire conversation—and, of course, add your two cents if you feel so inclined.


Armando Bayolo: As both a composer AND performer of new music, I have to say, I HATE, HATE, HATE hand written scores. Not because of their inherent ugliness or uselessness or anything like that, but, mostly, because it is much easier to distribute performance materials to musicians when you have the parts available electronically (which does not, obviously, preclude them being “engraved”).

That said, I think it depends on the legibility level. If we get scores and parts that look beautiful but are handwritten, we tend to be impressed at Great Noise Ensemble. But, for the most part, we’ve gotten used to getting computer-generated materials and thus have come to expect them.

As a composer, there’s no way I’m going back to writing out scores by hand THEN copying them on the computer if I can help it.


Tom Albert: I’ve often heard instrumental teachers tell students, “If you can’t sing it, you can’t play it.” I feel the same way about notation: if you can’t write it correctly by hand, you can’t do so with a computer.

I have taught a course in music notation at Shenandoah Conservatory for over 30 years; it started as a pen-and-ink class, incorporated use of computer engraving software (Finale), and is now an all-engraving class. While I regret, to an extent, giving up the handwritten part, I think the modern world for composers requires a sophisticated understanding of computer-generated music engraving.

As a grad student in the early ’70s, I made a lot of money hand copying music for colleagues and faculty. I was pretty good—but I hated every minute of it. Being a lefty (who writes “hook” style), I had to lay out each page so I could ink from lower right to upper left, lest I drag my hand through wet ink. Then, of course, there was the soul-numbing reality that, once a big score was finished, one had to go back and start all over again with the parts. No, I do not miss those days.

Having a computer-generated score certainly does not guarantee a well-written one, just a legible one. A computer, after all, is just a willing idiot: it will do exactly what you tell it to do, and only what you tell it to do. It’s also a fallacy to think that you save time by using a computer—well, you do save time when it comes to creating the parts, but the editing and layout adjustments ultimate[ly] make the job take nearly as long as when I did everything by hand. Sometimes it takes longer, if it’s non-standard notation that has to be tweaked a lot.


Sean Doyle: It doesn’t come as a surprise that there are MORE than a few folks who, like me, hold handwritten manuscript in high regard. The consensus seems to be that the prevalence of computer engraving is motivated by a business mindset, rather than a creative one (in other words, the facility of making score/parts vs. the actual look of the score/parts themselves). It has come to be expected because of its availability and ease of use, not because of the aesthetic of the end result (thank goodness!).

The bottom line, as far as I’m concerned, is that writing music by hand is an essential skill for all musicians and has proven to be an indispensable practice for learning to read, hear, and think musically. The act of writing music out by hand actually does improve the ear and cultivates the musical imagination of the scribe. Notation software does so much of the thinking for many of the basic conventions of music notation: key signatures, stem direction, filling in measures with missing rhythmic values, these are but a few examples. Handy timesavers, no doubt, but they take away the responsibility of thinking musically—a responsibility that is instilled perhaps a bit deeper when it’s just you, the pencil, and the paper. This is especially true in the case of younger musicians who are new to notation programs and willing to “go with the flow” of the defaults and factory preferences. Yeah, they saved a few hours on parts for their brass quintet—but at what cost?

In my experience, this is not hyperbole—in the *very few* years I have enjoyed the privilege of teaching music theory and ear training at the college level, I have seen a noticeable increase in the number of students who come to university with an admirable proficiency on their instrument and WITHOUT the ability to notate a B major key signature, to say nothing of stems, flags and rests. These students become quickly frustrated because they can hear, but cannot write WHAT they hear. I can’t help but see this and become somewhat suspicious of the facility in notation programs—it may be of great aid/use to an old pro who knows the ins-and-outs of hand-engraving but now has the joy of using the ‘mass copy’ function, but what of somebody who is at the outset of their musical journey? And (probably a question for another day) how does this inform/effect their creativity?


David Fetherolf: This is my profession. Our library has 150 years worth of music in it and about 120 years worth is all done by hand, and that’s what we send out for rental. In the mid-80s we started using computer but usually only to generate parts, so many of our sets from that era have the composer’s hand-written full score and computer-generated parts. Some of the hand-written parts belong in museums and some aren’t so great but are readable. Also, we now have the technology to scan parts, clean them up, and correct page turns and such (Shostakovich symphonies, anyone?). Anybody who’s worked in an orchestral library is used to working by hand and used to seeing horribly created materials both hand done and computer generated (especially for Pops concerts).

While getting my masters I put in a syllabus for a course to teach notation and the Dean asked me what program I would use. I told him “pencil and paper.” He thought it was pointless; I disagree entirely.

Composers have never known as much about notation as they like to believe and the new crop are learning very bad habits from having no instruction at all except how to learn some computer program or other. Our very few composers who do *not* write manuscript by hand give us computer generated manuscripts which we treat exactly the same as hand written—as manuscripts. We edit them and send them out to be engraved from scratch. Composing music is an entirely different discipline than engraving/editing music and the two should not be conflated. Frankly, the computer-generated manuscripts we receive generally have several times *more* errors than the hand written ones. There is such a thing as the “hand-brain” connection (is this also why so many young people can’t write a decent sentence in standard English?).

If kids are sending PDF’s of their intellectual property to all and sundry they’re in for a very rude awakening; one may as well forgo copyright entirely as send PDF’s (and/or MIDI files).


Judah Adashi: I’d venture that virtually no one under 50 (myself very much included) knows how to actually engrave material by hand, if only because of the lost art of measure/beat spacing, etc. I’m not sure how important it is to know everything about that at this point, though I agree 100% that one needs to know the basic grammar, and not to learn from the often dubious software defaults on stem direction, etc. I believe Oberlin requires the submission of a handwritten score or two, though certainly many students compose them on the computer and then hand-copy (an amusing inversion of the process!).

Composing with the computer as a primary tool (a separate topic) also changes the process considerably. It shouldn’t be dismissed outright as “cheating,” and has value when it comes to pacing, for example, though it can absolutely compromise the development of one’s inner ear with respect to timbre, harmony, and much more. And as John Harbison once pointed out to me, for better and worse, orchestrational choices have become much more provisional, now that one doesn’t have to lay out the manuscript in advance (this passage is now locked in for English horn and viola, end of story; no mass copy-and-paste to double one of them).

I do think that for most performers and composers, computer engraving is a good idea for the final product, facilitating electronic mailing, editing, etc. And indeed, it is a necessary skill in the field today. Unless one is a 21st-century Crumb or Schwantner and/or has particular needs that software can’t meet (quite rare these days), it seems excessive to hold out altogether, like being unwilling to use word processing. For my part, I do most of my thinking and writing with pencil and paper, then switch over to the computer. I’d say I split the time 50/50 or 60/40 at this point, though the balance has shifted now and again. I’ve written out entire pieces by hand and then copied/edited them on the computer, and also written primarily on the computer (that was almost exclusively when I was just starting out; I don’t see myself ever returning to that, but one never knows).


Lukas Ligeti: What is often ignored in these discussions is the influence of notation on composition. Obviously new notations have been developed in history to accommodate new musical styles, gestures, and needs, but this is actually a feedback loop as these new notations then come around to help generate new musical ideas. Some musicologists, including Ruth Katz in Israel, have done interesting research on this. Certain things are very hard to do with Sibelius and even Finale (which I guess is the more flexible one for unusual notation? I don’t know, have never used [F]inale myself), and I wonder if this is now pushing composers to write in a more conventional way than had they only been writing by hand. Personally, I’ve written a ton by hand, never used any particular instruments and pens and rulers or whatever, just a 0.5mm 2B pencil/lead, and have never had any complaints from musicians.

These days, I try to use Sibelius especially if there are transposing parts or I anticipate editing the piece later, to save time with those things. But I miss a sense of intimacy that I feel with handwritten scores. That’s why [I] usually handwrite and then copy to computer, to cover all bases so to say. But to me personally, engraving is the least interesting use of technology in composition; all others to me are more important…it is ridiculous to me that composers shouldn’t use sequencers, etc.—what painter would pride him/herself in painting blindfolded?

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.

7 thoughts on “Engraving Ephemera

  1. Kieren MacMillan

    In my experience as a composer, arranger, and music director, I’ve found three levels of time-sensitivity: “lots of time” (such as when composing a large-scale work), “need it tomorrow” (composing on demand, or under deadline pressure), and “need it now” (in the pit or studio).

    When I have lots of time, I vastly prefer composing at a piano with pencil/pen and paper, subsequently transferring my “little black dots” into an engraving application. This gives me the best of both worlds: the application doesn’t limit my creativity or act as a crutch for my notation skills while I’m composing, but I can use its tools (e.g., cut and paste, transpose, etc.) to flesh out any shorthand I used in my short score.

    When speed is of the essence, I prefer composing directly into an engraving application, so that the score and parts are already done when the composition phase is over.

    In a studio or pit, one almost never has the “luxury” of using an application — that’s when I’m glad I have “beautiful manuscript” (or so I’ve often been told), and can quickly crank out parts, changes, scores, etc.

    Having used all of the major engraving programs in my lifetime (five years with NoteWriter; over a decade with Finale; three years with Igor Engraver; several with Sibelius; etc.), I can say without qualification that Lilypond is the best application on the market, at least for my needs: It outputs scores which are closest to the best traditional plate engraving; entering “the data” into Lilypond is faster (due mostly to the vastly reduced “tweaking” time necessary); editing can be done anywhere (even on an iPad or in a browser); the engraving feature set far exceeds that of Finale or Sibelius, especially in terms of “nontraditional” notation; and best of all it’s free.

    Ultimately, I think it’s best for all musicians — not just composers — to know how to write music by hand. And I’m glad we have computer applications, to take advantage of their inherent strengths. The problem arises when we try to use one tool (i.e., hand-engraving or computer-engraving) to solve all of our challenges as composers.

  2. Kieren MacMillan

    To David Fetherolf:

    I agree completely with your statement that “Composing music is an entirely different discipline than engraving/editing music and the two should not be conflated.” Personally, I deeply enjoy both those aspects of the process.

    However, even if (for argument’s sake) it is true that “the computer-generated manuscripts [you] receive generally have several times *more* errors than the hand written ones” — an anecdotal statement which could only be verified through a broad and scientifically sound survey/study — your implication that these failings can be attributed in whole (or even in greater part) to computer engraving applications is fallacious.

  3. Phil Fried

    — your implication that these failings can be attributed in whole (or even in greater part) to computer engraving applications is fallacious.

    I believe you misread the comment here.
    I thought Mr. Fetherolf’s point was that composers who were unfamiliar with hand copy, who have worked only with computers made more engraving errors. This seems reasonable.

  4. mclaren

    Sad to see that so many composers work directly at the computer creating their music using programs like Finale/Sibelius. This means that you’re automatically handcuffed, with a vast number of musical possibilites shut down. Both Finale and Sibelius abound with forbidden durations the programs will not let you enter and forbidden pitches the programs will not let you notate.

    One of the most important issues with musical notation is that it changes over time. Just take a look at a 16th-century six-line staff and you’ll see that, let alone medieval neumes. Notation changes over time because musical performance practices and compositional practices change over time — and that happens in a continuous feedback loop.

    Performers get challenged by composers and respond by upping the ante. Then performers challenge composers by developing new extended techniques, and composers up their game as well. Passages in Beethoven’s symphonies were considered nearly unperformable when originally written; today this is standard repertory. Nicholas Slonimsky declared Conlon Nancarrow’s player piano pieces “unperformable by humans” a few decades ago — now Nancarrow’s Canon X is a showpiece for Juilliard students.

    When composers handcuff themselves with computer programs designed to prevent anything imaginative or out of the ordinary, like Finale or Sibelius, they break this feedback loop and put contemporary music on the path to stagnation.

    1. PWT

      While I agree with the general proposition that any program will have limitations or do some tasks more easily or with more difficulty than other programs or by hand, what, precisely are these “forbidden durations the programs will not let you enter and forbidden pitches the programs will not let you notate”? Both programs named will allow any multiple of a least midi note value to be notated and as any part of any tuplet, including “displaced” tuplets, and each will allow any pitch bend to a reasonable number of divisions of a semitone (in Finale, with midi, 4096 parts per semitone, with GPO, 682 parts per semitone), and allow these to be notated as cent deviations, or with any accidental sign I choose, and on a staff with as many or as few lines as possible.

  5. Reinaldo Moya

    When it comes to these issues of computer notation vs. handwritten notation, I think that as with most things the proof is in the pudding, so to speak. As a composer who does not produce handwritten scores, I don’t think that my ability to compose and hear my music internally is lessened by not having the experience of writing my own music by hand. I often compose at the computer and I try to use the playback function as yet another tool to check my work, alongside my ear, my instincts, and my training. So, ultimately the worth of a piece of music should be judged by the music itself not by the method of engraving or composing that led to it. I wouldn’t judge a novel by whether an author wrote it by hand, on a typewriter, and iPad, or any other word processing tool; I would judge it by whether the novel is good. I think that many people like to use this engraved vs. handwritten scores discussion as yet another opportunity to draw distinctions about us vs. them. I happen to think that we composers have already enough things that divide us. Let’s accept that composers will figure out a way to best notate the sounds they hear in their head, and that that result might come in the shape of either a computer generated score, or a handwritten score. However, like it has been said in this discussion before, if you’re under fifty and still in the “emerging composer” category, your scores will probably need to be engraved, and beautifully so, in order to get the best performances that you can get.


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