Sharpen Your Quills!

Sharpen Your Quills!

As notation software has become as ubiquitous within the composer community as Photoshop has become with professional photographers, it will come as no surprise that the threat of one of these major applications being discontinued is of great concern to many professional composers.

Written By

Rob Deemer

In Jesse Ann Owen’s seminal book Composers at Work: The Craft of Musical Composition 1450-1600, she describes the physical equipment that composers from that period used as they sketched and made initial drafts of their music:

The main instrument for writing during this time period was the quill pen, the point of which had to be cut according to the kind of letters or shapes desired. The graphite pencil that is the ancestor of the pencil in use today was developed during the second half of the sixteenth century, following the discovery of a source of graphite in England, and it came in to common use only after 1600. Other kinds of pencils, made from lead or other metal, left quite fine and faint lines, not appropriate for musical composition. All of the extant manuscripts used for composing were written with pen and ink.

The use of ink meant that erasure was difficult. There were only four ways to correct a mistake: write over it, cross it out, smudge it before the ink dried, or scrape the ink from the surface with a small knife…The choice of method was determined by the stage of work and the requirements for neatness.

When the creation of music is discussed or analyzed, it is rare (other than in Owen’s book, albeit briefly) for the physical tools with which the artist transfers their ideas from mind to page to enter the conversation. Similarly, as commonplace as corporate mergers, acquisitions, and divestitures have become within our modern economic landscape, one would not expect such issues to have a direct and potentially negative impact on the output of creative artists such as composers.

Yet these two seemingly unrelated topics were suddenly brought sharply into focus this week with the news that AVID, the parent company of the popular Sibelius notation software, would be closing down Sibelius’s main British-based development office as part of a major streamlining move to cut costs. First widely publicized by Norman Lebrecht on his Slipped Disc blog and augmented by NewMusicBox’s own investigative team, this move and the possibility of AVID discontinuing the Sibelius product altogether has had a chilling effect throughout a portion of the new music community.

For the uninitiated, the ability to create affordable, publisher-quality engraved music notation on a personal computer came into existence with the advent of Finale in 1989 in the United States and the emergence of Sibelius in the UK in 1993. Ever since Sibelius became available on the Windows and Macintosh platforms in 1998, the healthy rivalry between Finale and Sibelius has forced each to continually hone their functionality and ultimately improved both software applications.

The practical result of these improvements has been the raised expectations on composers to produce professional-level engraved scores and parts; conductors, instrumentalists, and singers today will usually turn a piece down altogether if it is hand-written by anyone but the best calligraphers. In addition to the performer’s expectations, these software applications have given composers various tools with which they can hear their music through playback, quickly extract parts from a full score, and allow for an immense amount of control over the presentation of their music.

As notation software has become as ubiquitous within the composer community as Photoshop has become with professional photographers, it will come as no surprise that the threat of one of these major applications being discontinued is of great concern to many professional composers. To this end, I sent out a brief list of three questions to about fifty well-respected composers in the US and UK to get a sense of how this topic might affect their creative output. Considering the fact that they were only given two days to respond, the fact that I was able to get twenty responses was great and the results are very much across the board.

To all of these composers, I asked the following questions:

1. Which do you use—Finale or Sibelius?
2. In what ways do you use the software before, during, or after the creative process?
3. What would the ramifications to your own current process be if, for some reason, your notation software become discontinued?

Attitudes on this topic ranged from indifference to horror; depending on how each composer used their software in their creative process, the effect of a discontinuance seemed to be anywhere from a minor annoyance to a DEFCON 1 level upheaval. Out of the twenty composers who responded to my questions, seven use Finale, twelve use Sibelius, and one uses both. Below are some of the responses I received.

Chen Yi (Finale)

I use Finale to copy finished scores or to work directly on computer when I arrange my own works for different instrumentation…It will be terribly inconvenient if I can’t open the existing files to make corrections later. I still remember how much time I had to spend in making corrections on my older works in the past.

Clint Needham (Sibelius)

I use the program at all stages of the creative process…ideas usually arise from the piano or from the aether and are quickly plugged into the computer and manipulated.  There is also a fair amount of keyboard time, but because my piano chops are limited, the program really allows me to explore a variety of pitch and rhythmic manipulations to my ideas.  I think this is the case for a number of non-pianist composers.

The beauty of any notation program is the command the composer has on the creation of their own score and parts that are performance ready.  This works for composers at any stage—student to professional.   This also allows us to make changes quickly to the score and parts.  The main ramification for me would be the time and exhausting experience of learning a new notation program.

Jennifer Higdon (Finale)

I do a combination for composing…I do pencil on paper and computer.  Ultimately, it all ends up on the computer in Finale.  And because I run my own publishing house, it means everything is in Finale, and we just print directly from the files (daily orders means everyday use of the program).

This is too scary to think about.  I currently have PDF backups of every work (all the scores and parts…it amounts to thousands of pages), but this would mean that I couldn’t make any changes in the pieces themselves, even when I find mistakes (just last week a performer alerted me to a missing accidental in a string quartet that’s almost ten years old).  The ramifications would be huge.

Steven Stucky (Sibelius)

Only for engraving, usually not as part of the compositional process. For all but the smallest chamber or choral pieces, I write a pencil score that goes to a copyist for input. He uses Finale.

Little or no effect on my composing, since I don’t use the software as part of my compositional process. The occasional exceptions are brief passages of dense textures built up by canonic imitation, in which cut-and-paste in Sibelius can be a more effective way to model the result than simply working it out on paper.

Jason Eckardt (Finale)

The software gives me a degree of control in the production of the final score and parts that I cannot achieve in any other satisfactory way. Since music notation is an inexact translation of abstract imaginary events into a set of instructions, I want to be able to articulate those instructions in the most precise and personal way possible.

While composing, I sketch out a very rough first draft of ideas on paper and then refine them in Finale, adding dynamics, articulations, performance instructions, refining rhythms and pitch formations, and so on. This gives me another filter for my raw ideas and allows me to further objectify my creative impulses so that I may analyze them more effectively. When I am finished with the piece, all of the input is in the file, and the final production is then a question of editing, yet another filter for self-critique.

I find software playback to be annoying at best, but it is useful for getting a sense of the large-scale design and pacing in a way that, for me, is more difficult when reading through the score. I suspect that this is because I am able to further remove myself from the viewpoint of the composer (aware of all of the processes, techniques, designs, and possible inadequacies that exist within the composition) and engage with the piece purely as a listener.

I suppose I would have to learn the new software that would replace what I am currently using. I wouldn’t look forward to that, considering I’ve more or less figured out how to manipulate Finale exactly as I desire.

Paola Prestini (Sibelius)

I use Sibelius after my first draft of writing in order to refine ideas and add elements such as backing tracks or electronics. Sibelius interfaces smoothly with my self-made and preexisting sound banks in Logic and because the electronic angle of my composition is still based on intuitive discovery, this part of my process is crucial for my electroacoustic works.

I’d be majorly slowed down if this aspect of my process was thwarted by change. I’d of course learn the next tool, but it would be an unwanted choice.

Ken Ueno (Finale)

I often work in chunks.  I compose a section, then notate it.  This way, I don’t end up doing the thing I most detest (copying) all together in the end, I get some relief from the concentration of composing by doing some mindless busy work (whilst listening to tunes), and I get to edit the recently composed section.

It would be a real pain, but maybe it will foster some grassroots projects for a platform more natively supportive of new music and its graphical challenges.

Carson Cooman (Sibelius, engraver uses SCORE)

[I use Sibelius] after [the creative process]…Sibelius 7 was such a horrific update, that I intended to keep using Sibelius 6 as long as I can still get it to run. So, in that sense I already had felt they’d lost their way, and I was going to stick with the older/better version. There is still a community of professional copyists who use SCORE (which, as a DOS program, must be run in emulation on any modern systems), so it may someday become an analogous situation for continuing to run old versions of Sibelius.

Alexandra Gardner (Finale)

I use it extensively during (writing directly to computer and for playback) and after (extracting parts, editing, revising, etc.)…

[Ramifications?] DEVASTATION. I hope no one has to deal with an issue like that. Ever.

David T. Little (Sibelius)

I compose almost entirely in the computer these days, using the traditional pencil and paper only to sketch beforehand, work out details during, or analyze afterward. For many of my acoustic works, the creative process lives largely within this particular software environment.

Well, in a way I’m already behind the times, since I haven’t upgraded to Sibelius 7. (Nor do I plan to.) Sibelius 6 feels very comfortable to me, and I plan to keep using it until I just can’t anymore.  I guess at that point, I will have to figure out something new.

Annie Gosfield (Finale)

I use notation software after the creative process. It’s just a matter of inputting data after a piece is finished, or after a piece is revised.

I’ve used Finale for so long it’s become automatic and intuitive. It would be terrible to have to start at zero with a new application. Over the years I have considered changing to Sibelius, but I’ve always found Finale to be more flexible, so the last thing I wanted was to add the chore of learning a new notation application.

Gabriel Kahane (Sibelius)

Depending on the scale of the piece, I will integrate Sibelius at various stages. For non-orchestral works, my strong preference is to input into Sibelius after having a full draft, though it seems that becomes less and less the way things actually work out. I’d be loathe to say that Sibelius is part of my “creative” process, but I certainly depend on it for ease of part-making, etc….

It would be a major bummer if Sibelius were discontinued, though I imagine I’d just use my outdated software forever…

Jason Robert Brown (Finale)

I really just use it as a transcription and copying tool—sometimes I’ll use it to proof piano parts by doing playback, but not much…If it got discontinued, I presume I’d finally learn how to use Sibelius, reluctantly.

Tarik O’Regan (Sibelius)

In one way, I use it in a similar fashion to the way I use Microsoft Word, that is silently! But—different to the way one might use a word processor—I tend not to compose “at the computer.” Rather, I use Sibelius as a transcription tool for ideas that have already been largely worked-out elsewhere. Also, as I work with a publisher, my Sibelius files are never in final form when they leave my computer.

To the creative process, strangely, not too much, I think. However, I imagine the ramification for the print production process would be quite significant. Most importantly, I might be able to start listening to Sibelius symphonies again without thinking AVID is trying to sell me something…

Kristin Kuster (Sibelius)

I use notation software at the end of my writing process. I write by hand first, then notate in Sibelius. Every now and again, if a deadline is fast approaching, I input large completed sections into Sibelius as I go; yet I prefer to get the whole piece down by hand before hitting the computer.

I used for Finale for 16 years. After finishing large pieces in Finale, I had a reverb of aching “mousearm” because getting the whole piece down took so long—too much menu drop-downing and mouse dragging. My brain and body don’t want to go back to cumbersome Finale, it’s simply not as smooth as Sibelius.

It is worth noting that a discontinuation of Sibelius would have a broad-reaching, massive impact on music education programs across the country. I estimate nearly ninety percent of our student composers at the University of Michigan use Sibelius as their primary notation software, and many faculty across the UM School of Music, Theatre, and Dance use Sibelius as a teaching tool for a wide variety of purposes.

Kurt Rohde (Sibelius)

It is a very helpful tool for teaching good notation skills, and for quick playback realizations. I have done projects with students whereby we have a single Sibelius file of a piece that everyone is working one simultaneously. We pass the file around and make changes/additions and save multiple versions, allowing us to go back and look at the process that lead us to the final composition.

As far as it being helpful for my own process, I am more a sit down and play and write on paper and listen composer. I will rarely use the playback or plugins. That said, it has been helpful for providing MIDI files for pieces that involve dance, movement, theater, so that preliminary workshops and rehearsals can help with the assembly of a piece that otherwise would require the availability of (at the very least) a piano and pianist at the whim of my collaborators. This format makes it possible to do collaborative projects that involve other peoples’ schedules and separation by large distances.

What is very funny about this announcement is that I just got a new MacBook Pro, and realized I needed to get updated Sibelius software. I contacted them asking if I could upgrade to Sibelius 6 (I have not been impressed with version 7), and got a note back the day the announcement came out that I could not do that; I could only go directly to Sibelius 7 (“but this one goes to 11…”).

Oscar Bettison (Sibelius)

I used to write on paper, then transfer everything over to Sibelius, but now it’s more complicated. In the last few years I’ve found myself with a new writing process that involves me going between paper and Sibelius, especially when working with notes. I try to produce as much material as possible, much more than I’ll ever need, and that’s faster to do in the program than on paper.

[Discontinuation?] In a word, disastrous. I write very slowly, and some of that is ameliorated by the software. I can do the bookends of the process (the sketching stage and the parts stage) so much faster with it. Plus the fact that, when working with performers, I can write something, make a .pdf and a midi file, email them both and find out in a matter of hours if what I’ve done works for them or not. If Sibelius was discontinued, it would be like stepping back into the Dark Ages for me.

Alex Shapiro (Sibelius)

I’ve used Sibelius since about 2000, when I was dubbed one of their “ambassadors,” turning others on to the ease and quality of the program. I went straight from hand-copying to Sibelius, without having previously used any other notation software. Thus, were Sibelius to head six feet under to meet its namesake, I’d no doubt have to learn Finale since publishing my works is a significant part of my business.

My creative process—as well as that of my business—is greatly expanded by the use of a notation program. The manner by which I compose a particular piece is dictated by the needs of that project.

If I’m composing an acoustic piece for which it would be helpful to give the performing ensemble a very listenable mock-up to assist their rehearsal process, then I compose in Digital Performer manipulating high-end samples, record a performance version, then quantize the heck out of a copy and save it as a Standard MIDI File, and export it into Sibelius where I then make it look like real music on the page. This is a very streamlined process that accomplishes several tasks at once between the two programs.

If I’m composing an electroacoustic work, the process is the same as above, and since I create the accompanying audio tracks in Digital Performer, the added bonus is that I export not only the MIDI file but the mixed audio file into Sibelius, which syncs them both and allows me to notate a solid road map of the non-instrumental sounds in the score.

If I’m composing a work like my flute quartet, Bioplasm, employing a lot of unusual instrumental techniques that would be nearly impossible to demo, then I input the music directly into Sibelius using only a typing keyboard, since I’m only concerned with the score and parts and how they will communicate my musical intentions.

In all cases, since I’m publishing my music and not only selling it directly, but getting it to distributors around the world, a notation program is the only way to accomplish this. It’s a piece of software that is directly responsible for a notable amount of my income long after the music has been composed.

Kevin Puts (Sibelius)

Once my basic ideas are generated by improvising on the keyboard, I use the program during the entire process of composing. I use paper to scrawl down ideas much of the time, but spend no time whatsoever making those ideas legible or coherent on paper. I use Sibelius’s playback feature often as a means of getting a general sense of pacing and “feel,” though I do not rely on this feature to “check orchestration” or any other aspect of composition.

I would be very disappointed if Sibelius became discontinued. Simply on a visual level, I think music notation extremely beautiful. I love the look of beautifully engraved scores, and without boring you with details, I will say I have very idiosyncratic preferences when it comes to the look of a score. Even before I began using Sibelius in 1999, I was writing my scores meticulously by hand, using templates, stencils, sheets of transfer letters which were rubbed onto the page to create professional-looking text, sometimes typing out blocks of texts and cutting and pasting them onto the page, rulers, pens of different thicknesses, etc. I wanted to emulate the look of hand-written scores by Joseph Schwantner and Christopher Rouse (my teachers at Eastman), George Crumb (an almost unreachable standard). I had made a feeble attempt several years before this to use the program Score, which, to my eye, produces the most elegant scores of any program, but the learning curve was simply too steep for me, and it seemed to me Score really amounted to an engraving program rather than a user-friendly composing tool.

Many colleagues of mine at Eastman and then my first students (at UT Austin) were often using Finale, but—with the very rare exception where the composer was an absolute expert/computer genius with the program and could adjust the defaults to his/her liking—to me the results were completely unsatisfying and looked exactly like that which they were: student works. So it wasn’t until Joe Schwantner brought in Sibelius at Eastman in 1998 or 1999 and gave a demo to the composers that I was sold. Everything looked immediately beautiful and “right” to me: the shape of the noteheads, the slurs (much like those in Score), the ties (ditto), the spacing, the articulations, even the default text settings. I loved the way you could, with the mouse, manipulate the page as if it were sitting on a desk in front of you. I loved that parts could be generated almost effortlessly, and today this feature is improved to the point it seems ludicrous to pay someone thousands of dollars to extract a set of orchestral parts when it can be done in two or three afternoons while watching AMC and Comedy Central.

In short, I LOVE Sibelius and I absolutely and positively rely on it. I am fortunate to work with Bill Holab, who is my publishing agent. Bill works with the Sibelius writers to refine the program each time a new version comes out, so he always knows the answer when I get stuck or something goes wrong, which is almost never.