Fonts, Glorious Fonts!
It’s pretty geeky to write, think, or read about fonts. But if you’re composing notated music, trust me, paying attention to fonts won’t make you any more of a geek than you already are—and you’ll likely reap some great benefits as a result.
Musical scores contain all kinds of information, most of it explicit: I want this played softly; I want the duration of the note exactly this long; I want the music to slow down beginning four measures prior to the fermata. But notated scores also convey plenty of implicit meaning: rehearsal letters suggest formal divisions (whether they are intended to or not); and the fonts used for each written instruction convey a great deal of information as well.
The tradition of using italicized text for expressive directions, and plain or bold text for technical instructions such as pizzicato or fingering guides helps associate each category—expressive and technical—with a particular visual style, thus making it that much easier to interpret the instruction while sight reading. Composers who create handwritten scores would do well to consider analogous ways to differentiate between these categories of markings. Likewise, the practice of using plain or bold text for section tempo markings and italics for progressive tempo changes subtly aids in codifying the interplay of motion and stability, traveling and arriving, that the above distinctions make possible.
In vocal music, the International Phonetic Alphabet (or IPA) provides a universal language for writing down most any vocal sound, be it English, Russian, or some stream of nonsense concluded by a croaking vocal fry. The alphabet contains new and unique characters and while time-consuming to absorb, it’s an indispensable tool for composers who wish to explore the timbral potential of the human voice. In a recent composition for choir, I struggled for days with an idea that moved from nonsense to an intelligible text; the solution turned out to be using very different fonts for the English text and IPA syllables. It’s amazing how a seemingly subtle visual cue can often turn a hopeless situation completely around.
It’s pretty geeky to write, think, or read about fonts. But if you’re composing notated music, trust me, paying attention to fonts won’t make you any more of a geek than you already are—and you’ll likely reap some great benefits as a result. Many composers have taken to making their own fonts for harmonic analysis, tablature, or aesthetic enrichment; they’re true “font-huggers” and a real boon to the rest of us when they share their creations. We might not all have the savvy to make our own fonts, but understanding how to use one’s available fonts in order to reinforce concepts and structural details in the music can go a long way to ensure that these items are successfully communicated.