Tag: digital engraving

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?

Adventures in Engraving

It was great to see earlier this week that Dan Visconti is as much of a font geek as I am. If nothing else, it’s always a relief to know that you’re not the only one who puts that much time and attention towards what you do. Music engraving in general tends to bring out such geekery, partially because of the nature of those who practice it, but also because of the power and freedom it provides. Dan’s musings, combined with the continuing drama of upheaval and uncertainty within both of the major notation software companies (Avid’s Sibelius and MakeMusic’s Finale), remind me both of how important it is for composers to have access to these tools, as well as of my own 20-year adventure with music engraving.

It was 19 or 20 years ago this summer (my memory is beginning to rust around the edges) that I was first introduced to digital music engraving. I had been asked by Art Montzka, the conductor of my hometown community orchestra, to write something for the ensemble—technically my first composition after having written many arrangements for big band—and he suggested that I enter the music into this new software he was learning, “Finale 3.1”. I was already used to the cramped fingers and long nights that went along with writing scores and parts out by hand, but the idea of being able to see my music printed in a professional manner was enough to pull me into this new world. I was curious and dubious at the same time, but once I saw the first pages printed out (in all of its Petrucci font goodness), I was hooked.

Of course, this first try at it was, shall we say, a bit time-consuming. Not only was I still learning the ropes of how the software worked, but I also wasn’t even using the software in the right way. Assuming that this was a wonderful way to create parts, I was writing the score out by hand and entering each part into a separate part file (Flute 1, mvt. 1, Flute 1, mvt. 2, etc.). This made sense to my pencil-to-paper mindset at the time and it wasn’t until later when I discovered the concept of creating a score file and extracting the parts from that one file; needless to say, this was a welcome discovery.

Over the next few years I became fluent (so I thought) at the engraving tool to the point that when I began my doctoral studies in 2001, I was pretty cocky about my notation skills. One day, as I was working on something (probably an art song), the computer lab proctor looked over my shoulder and began to school me on how clunky my notation was. At first, I ignored him—he was a recent DMA grad from the trumpet studio and I was a composer, of course, so what could I learn from him? Plenty, it turned out. Tim was a professional engraver when he wasn’t playing trumpet gigs, and after allowing me ample opportunity to demonstrate my cluelessness, he would look over my scores and give me loads of feedback as to the subtle details that I was missing. Over time, I discovered how to create and massage my own scores and templates with third-party fonts and newly found knowledge about music notation and engraving to the point that I was moonlighting as a professional engraver myself.

Now that I’m in the position of teaching others about good notation practices and engraving techniques, I’ve also become acutely aware of the necessity of learning these tools at an early age. There are still those who feel that handwritten manuscript is a viable option today, but they are mistaken; performers and conductors have become acclimated to engraved scores and parts over the past twenty years and you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who will put up with anything other than clear, engraved performance materials. As Dan’s exquisite notation example demonstrates, it is now completely within any composer’s grasp to control the look and feel of their music to the nth degree and as more of us become fluent in truly professional engraving techniques, the more attention we can give towards the actual content of the music itself.