A chisel (courtesy John Loo on Flickr)

How music notation software impacts musicians

Daniel Spreadbury

I was asked to answer the question, “Does music notation software have a considerable impact on musicians?” on Quora. Here’s my answer. (If you want to follow me on Quora, here I am.)

I’m certain that music notation software has had an impact on musicians in many fields, both on the creation side with composers, arrangers and publishers, and on the consumption side, with performers. This impact is both positive and negative, of course, just as with any other tool.

At its best, music notation software should be as invisible to its user as a chisel is to a sculptor: it should provide no impediment to the expression of the creator’s intentions. However, I don’t believe any of the currently available music notation programs have achieved this level of power: they are either too complex, too slow, or not flexible enough to express the complexity of every creator’s intention.

So if the tools are currently imperfect, what impact does this have? For composers, particularly inexperienced composers, it is all too easy to rely on the playback they hear through their computers’ speakers, and to believe that the ease with which instruments can play and balance each other at extremes of register will translate to the real world. It’s all too easy to use the copy and paste features to quickly bash out lots of notes without giving them due consideration.

For the performer, he may be faced with music that has been inconsiderately laid out, with poorly-chosen page turns, too large or too small a staff size, and so on. There is also the risk that where the default behaviour of a particular program is not ideal, if it is blindly printed over and over again, it can become accepted by performers (and indeed publishers) as correct, and conventions that make music subtly but definably easier to read and perform from are gradually lost.

But each of these impacts can be ameliorated by the user taking responsibility for what the software does, and not simply accepting blindly the default results given by the software. Like any tool, music notation software takes time to learn its strengths and weaknesses, where you can trust its defaults, and where you cannot.

Furthermore, I do not agree with Harrison, who has already answered this question, that composers should always and without exception work in pencil first and then transfer to the computer once the work is finished. You would no more ask a novelist or screenwriter to write his magnum opus using pencil and paper before putting finger to keyboard in Word or Final Draft than you should a composer or arranger.

Using notation software speeds up the process of getting music performed and published. It allows people whose creative expression would otherwise remain private and personal to realise their ambitions of having their music performed. It allows students to learn the complex language of music notation more quickly and efficiently.

Ultimately, music notation software is a tool. Even in an imperfect state, it should be held no more responsible for the quality of the final product than the sculptor’s chisel, the artist’s brush, or even the novelist’s word processor.

25 thoughts on “How music notation software impacts musicians

  1. k9gardner

    I’m very glad to read your response here, Daniel. Had I only seen Harrison’s, I would have emerged rather more bereft. I grew up a clarinet player; you know, all the fingers collectively used to make one note. I wanted to try to write music, and bought a piano; you know, each finger doing its own note, with maybe 6 or 8 or more of them at once. It’s a very different way of getting your brain/body to work. I thought I’d be able to pick it up well enough to do some composition via traditional notation. Bang it out on the keyboard as badly as I do, sound it out, make it work, get it on paper.

    That proved utterly daunting to me. Depressingly so. Perhaps what Harrison is saying is that I should have left well enough alone! But I didn’t. I bought a midi keyboard, and have used various pieces of software to get done what I’ve needed to get done. I’m not prolific; I’m not advanced. But I’ve made some music that speaks to me, and others have felt it speak to them as well.

    I think that in these days of electronic tools advancing at such a staggering rate, there is so much that can be done that could not be done by other means. I don’t believe it’s just quantity over quality. I believe it’s providing the opportunity for people of a different mind to really accomplish something that they otherwise would not be able to accomplish.

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  2. Robert Puff

    What you say in paragraphs 4 & 5 is particularly true. Technology has changed the way people compose, not only in pop music (using programs like FL Studio and Traktor) but also writing for orchestra as you point out.

    Unfortunately, notation software has also lowered the bar for what the average musician / composer perceives as “published music”, not because it doesn’t offer the capabilities to produce excellent quality notation, but because whatever the program spits out automatically is relied on 100%.

    Because of the “semi-automation” available in these programs, more than a few people who use notation software don’t ever learn how to change the distance between staves, or even respace the music. Once in awhile, the automated result is a multi page part with only 3 or 4 systems on a page…

    But this problem isn’t necessarily limited to the amateur or hobbyist level. Film and television soundtracks are a good example. As budgets dip lower while deadlines become increasingly urgent, professional music copyists with years of experience making music notation clear and easy to sightread with and without notation software are left out of the loop due to budget constraints. Orchestrators, composers and composer interns / assistants are left with no option but to spit out whatever the notation software program automatically provides and put that music on the stands to meet the deadline and budget.

    A colleague of mine working in Hollywood has pointed out this famous quote to me from time to time which is right on the money: “Good, Fast and Cheap – pick any two”.

    ~robert

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  3. Peter McAleer

    Daniel is right.

    Any young or new composers reading this, don’t let ANYONE tell you the best way to write YOUR music. Only you know that. If you want pencil and paper first, fine, do it. If you write straight onto electronic staves, and that works for you, no-one has the right, or is in anyway competent, to tell you that’s wrong. Just do it. It’s your head, your brain, your ears, your life. If you play into a sequencer and improvise, then fix it down as a written piece, that’s great. Do it, Do it again and again until you’re the best. If it’s better to copy and paste than write it out again, do it. Don’t listen to lawgivers, they know nothing. Listen to yourself instead.

    Do I feel striongly about this? You bet.

    For me, I find inputting straight into my software much quicker and more accurate than anything I could do using pencil. No-one’s going to tell me otherwise.

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  4. Tom Kecskemeti

    Maybe we can see more notation programs take advantage of pen/stylus/finger input now that we have Windows 8 in particular. To me the bottleneck in terms if speed, has been mouse entry. Using a stylus for note and articulation entry etc. would also appeal to those with a more traditional background.

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  5. Derek Bourgeois

    I still use pencil and manuscript paper and use a MIDI keyboard to bash out ideas before committing them to a sketch which then gets transferred to a dressed up computerized score.

    However the main reason I do this is so that in years to come if I want to revisit the finished product for revision or arrangement, I can see what my first thoughts actually were rather than rely on what had been an apparent finished product in its electronic format. In this way I can see the wood from the elaborately decorated trees.

    I have no ideological objection to people writing straight from the software if that’s the way they prefer to work, but it has an air of impermanence about it which i find terrifying.

    Also, and this to me is very important, my pencilled, physical sketch can withstand the total obsolescence of all electronically saved files. O.K. it might get burnt to a cinder in case of fire, but I have piles of files stored on a whole range of electronic media that I can no longer read, and these only go back about 23 years! Not only do i have these on 5 1/4 inch floppies, 3 1/2 inch floppies, zip disks, Bernoulli drive etc. but the programs that created them are either obsolete, or dying as well.

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  6. Jeff

    I, on the other hand, agree with Harrison Boyle. I use a pencil and paper for my first sketches on principle. But of course I am old school and didn’t grow up with technology to help me in my composition. Musical composition has always been about working around limitations. No notation will ever cover the infinite possibilities of sound no matter whether written by hand or maschine. A genius will provide great music within the framework of his materials no matter whether high- or low-tech. But having said that, I have gotten used to integrating both into my work. I do recommend the pencil/paper method to get the right-brain creativity going. When the ideas start coming I have to write quickly because the head works faster than the hand. And way too fast for the computer. But I am aware of lots of wonderful music being written using only (or mostly) computer programs. So I try not to judge. As they say: “the proof is in the pudding”. I would be very curious to see what the future brings.

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  7. petawilliams

    As Daniel said at the start of this interesting article, the impact of music notation is both positive and negative.

    While I can certainly see the negative side, as a ‘community’ (read ‘amateur’) composer and musician, music notation has changed my creative life. But as a trained musician and composer (albeit limited to somewhat naive composing at university) I try always to be aware of the good aspects of my training and not just use the bangs and whistles of the notation software that I am so enjoying using just for the sake of it. Yes, I might check my parallel octaves and fifths, and that helps me to really think of my arranging, but I might also choose to ignore that so-called rule because of the musical effect I am seeking. Or, I am grateful for that particular prompt to arrange the partsso that that have a much better musical line or flow.

    I most often sketch something by hand on my score pad first, but sometimes improvising into my notation software generates musical ideas that I can then develop. Copy and paste is great for copying the harmonic progressions when I want to check what the voices above are doing, and then I can go back to make a more interesting part. So, for me, music notation is a fantastic tool, and as long as I remember that it is a tool that aids my creativity rather than controlling it, or being an end in itself, then it is a fantastic aid to my passion to create music with a heart that does resonate with others, in the microcosm of my world.

    Peta Williams

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  8. David H. Bailey

    I think Daniel sums up the situation very nicely in his final sentence. The tools are not to be blamed nor to be praised for the final work. No matter what tools are used, it is the human who is controlling them that is responsible for the final output, both the actual creative content as well as the presentation.
    And we humans need to be able to find the best tools available for whatever situation we are in, including notation software. Thus many of us have more than one notation program installed on our computers and are able to use the one that will work the best for any given situation.

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  9. Stephen Ferre

    Yes, the tool should be invisible. Unfortunately, there isn’t a computer notation tool yet developed that is. I write a lot on non-standard music, including quarter tones and aleatorics. Yes, you can notate them on (some of) the programs, but they don’t play them back adequately. Composers who want hear their music back immediately can’t. When they can’t, they aren’t liable to experiment, and may just stop using advanced techniques altogether. I tell all my students to write what they want in pencil, and then adapt that to the software. Yes, that is the long way around, but it engenders unfettered creativity.

    Yes, composers who write film scores or non-challenging music can compose directly into the software, but any serious art-music composer must think outside its very restricting box. Daniel, you contradict yourself there. You say current software isn’t flexible enough to do such things easily, but then you say that by not creating from within the software, you aren’t using the best tools available.

    What should you do if the best tool available isn’t right for the job?

    You wouldn’t ask a novelist to create their work in movable type. In essence, that is what current music software does, Sibelius probably being the worst offender of the best three, as it is the least flexible. At the moment, the best tool available for composing modern music (that must be notated) is still the pencil.

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    1. Daniel Spreadbury Post author

      I disagree that I contradict myself. The current tools are generally either too slow, too difficult to use or too inflexible, all of which contribute to their lack of invisibility in use, but in general it is possible to achieve the desired result with any of them, given enough time and effort.

      (I know you have personally always considered Sibelius inflexible, but I think you would be astonished at some of the work that has been done in Sibelius by top publishers, particularly Faber, who have some extremely talented, dedicated and resourceful engravers and editors working for them.)

      My point is that your choice of tool should not dictate the end result, since even with the currently available tools, practically any end result is possible.

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      1. Stephen Ferre

        I realize that we aren’t here to discuss Sibelius, but I have used Sibelius pretty much since it switched to Windows. I know what it can and cannot do. Yes, it can be coaxed to do many things, but there are several things that it does incorrectly, and you either have to spend many hours to manually correct them, or capitulate and allow it to do things contrary to the way the publisher asks for it. In many cases Finale has an easier solution, and Score will put anything anywhere, so it isn’t a problem. Sibelius is too “smart” for its own good.

        My point, however, was not that you can’t do “amazing things” with Sibelius, but that some things are so difficult to do that it inhibits the creative process, so it is better to work on paper first. Sibelius, for one thing, never had an integrated drawing module – something that I’ve been asking for since day 1. Altering symbols is a very roundabout and unintuitive procedure, and special shapes – just don’t go there. I’d hate to have to notate Penderecki’s Threnody in Sibelius, where in Finale or Score, there wouldn’t be much of a problem. Multiple time signatures? Scary. (Still scary in Finale.) Birtwistle requires multiple meters as well as multiple tempi.

        I find that my music is completely different when I compose directly in Sibelius or Finale.

        I would hope that the new Steinberg product will be at least as flexible as Finale, and allow the composer enough freedom to get away from the pencil. Pandora’s box is sitting there waiting to be opened. Open it.

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      2. Laurier Bernier

        Bonjours M Daniel

        For your information we are not all (wiz) like the guy who are working for M. Faber. Please keep the one who you are working on for steinberg simple as possible. I compose in cubase 7 and I try all the (notation) solution on the market and to tell you the truth they are all of them good in some point but weak on other. To have a good one you have to have them put all together. I try Sibelius, Finale, Notion, MuseScore, and the best to use it it is just for the notation not for them to play the score.

        Laurier B

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  10. Michael H.

    I am sure that our tools do indeed influence what we write, but I don’t see why the tools of pencil and paper are immune. Certain structures are still easier to write or edit than others.

    Composers seem to revel in the notion that travelling to unusual locations, listening to different sounds, or working with different instruments to hand will all affect their output. I hope to see the day we all understand how different notation tools affect the final composition – and composers embrace this fact, and intentionally work in multiple tools to broaden their output.

    However, I fully agree that notation software is having terrifying effects at the sight reading / testing stage. If I give handwritten parts to an orchestra, they will critique it whether invited or not. If I spend 10 minutes at a MIDI keyboard and then print the result, it looks slick, precise and intimidating. I’ve seen quite competent semi-professional quartets insist that some terrible disharmony must be their fault, when a quick look at the score reveals blatant (and embarrassing) errors.

    Having committed such errors, I’m always on my guard when I see someone else’s score with Times New Roman title, precise laser printed notes, and careless line and page breaking. It usually means it was notated by a beginner like me. As for my own work, I’ve sometimes considered using the Sibelius “InkPen” typefaces just to see if they gain more honest feedback.

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  11. James G Fish

    I prefer to use music software to pencil manuscript. My manuscript is as legible as my handwriting which is, at best, scrawl. But that being said, I think there is something to say for learning pencil manuscript first, even if you rarely use it. For serious music students, college and conservatory,it’s an important part of their education, especially if they are going to teach. Certainly it’s a skill that would benefit you if you find yourself, for whatever reason, without a computer.

    P.S. Please keep us up to date on the progress on the new Steinberg notation software program you are working on. I and every composer I know who uses Sibelius will switch as soon as it’s available.

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  12. Peter Roos

    Great post Daniel – as usual you are right on the mark. Tools alone do not convert a mediocre composer into Mozart, but at the same time it is wonderful to have these great tools at our hands. For me Sibelius is really a godsend for, while I have a classical music training at the conservatory of music, I never really learned to compose using pencil and paper – back in the days and perhaps still the emphasis is on performance, not improvisation or writing original music – and am still catching up. I am always aware that there is a difference between playback and how a live orchestra might sound but being able to produce something that can at least fool some people into thinking it is live, is quite powerful. For those who look down on film and TV composers, bear in mind that the time pressures can be extreme and you’re dealing with a lot more than just the music in itself. It is almost a miracle that some people are still able to create wonderful orchestral scores in the best traditions. John Williams comes to mind obviously (yes and he still uses pencil and paper but his orchestrators may not) but there are others as well. Sibelius is a wonderful tool and I have great expectations of the new Steinberg program.

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  13. Claude

    I personally hate Sibelius! Because it’s my number 1 software of use. I use it almost every day of my life, sometimes over 12 hours continuously and it’s responsible for 90% of my income. I have yet to encounter anything it can’t do (using version 6) and I use it ALL: graphics, quarter-tones, contemporary techniques, jazz techniques, etc.

    What I hate about it is that everything, besides “romantic-era” notation is incredibly slow!

    -Writing unusual chord symbols is a pain

    -Adding keyswitches messy (sorry I don’t believe in using the same keyswitch for every articulation e.g. a staccato can be played by a stacc or a port or a short sus depending on the music)

    -CC changes, pitch bends (to achieve quarter-tone)? Don’t even get me started!

    -And by far what I hate the most is the idiotic playback device system. Honestly, am I expected to learn programming just to tell Sibelius when I want an instrument change or in which channel I want a certain instrument transmitted? I should be free to select it via the mixer and then a simple hidden text in the staff if I want it to change e.g. ~MD4,5 (Midi port 4, channel 5)

    It is impossible to keep the creative flow when you have these types of speed bumps, so yes! Pencil and paper. Once the composition is finished you can fiddle about with the computer.

    PS: I dream of the day when I’ll be able to open a little CC window below a bar.

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  14. Henry Howey

    I use FINALE and own SIBELIUS and MUSESCORE.

    My work is principally as an editor and arranger. FINALE serves my purposes very well, especially as it tends to work like a musician thinks, pitch before rhythm.

    Also, its connection to VST instruments via GARRITAN is helpful in hearing tiny errors made in transcribing scores that have errors.

    Check out my project website at:

    http://www.shsu.edu/~org_neh/

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    1. Matthew Hindson

      Henry, in the most recent version of Sibelius (version 7) you can at last enter pitch before rhythm.

      Sibelius has plenty of frustrations and poor Daniel had to deal with so much of this when I transferred from Finale to Sibelius. There are certainly better ways to do things in Finale (e.g. parts are quicker with less layout pain, playback is generally better, non-standard things seem easier and more immediately possible). But Sibelius has tremendous strengths, too.

      I am looking forward to seeing what Steinberg comes up with. There is room for another competitor.

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  15. Dimitris

    I can speak from experience,
    there is an extreme difference in the music of composers who write by pen first and music of “computer notation” composers.
    The biggest one, I find, is in the way that the notate timbre, usually with much more imagination to the first category, and in the control they have on dynamics and articulation.
    Pencil is faster, and the computer interface slows very much the creative process.. If I need to write for a violin a minim that has an sffpp in the first quaver and after have a cresc. to ff to the end of the note and in the same time with a gradual change from sul tasto to sul pont., how many tools do I have to change in a notation program for something that I can write with pencil in less than 3 seconds…
    The rule unfortunately is that young composers when writing on computer they adjust their aesthetics to the interface and not the opposite.
    The result is that they write what they heard already and not search for the more personal -creative side of their musical personality. This ends many time into acceptable, well made but very uninteresting music.
    It would have been great having a tool that could write with a pen and have it transformed on the spot to computer notation.

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  16. György

    To compose filmscore I use Cubase 6.5 , but if i have to perform with a real orchestra, I tranfert the files to Notion, who is my favourite notation software.

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  17. Belo

    Would have to compose directly with cubase, as currently composed as the finale, like Sibelius or Notion 4. It is truly depressing compose hairlines, a breakthrough for cubase without doubt.

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  18. Peter Alexander

    My views as a writer and publisher are different. While there have been no formal studies to confirm, observations with myself and those I teach show that a major component of learning music and building up musical memories is through eye/hand coordination, e.g., writing music down. The ability to write and review is an important component of composition, whether it’s a song or a concert work. There IS something about sitting at a real piano with a pad, pen or pencil, to work out your ideas, and later the full breadth of them without being dependent upon electricity, recalling which version of the program you originally wrote it in and will it import into the new version, hard drive crashes, brown outs, et al.

    When I get to teach orchestration, I don’t let my students do their score reductions in any notation program. I used to, but then I found that a majority of their time was being spent learning the program so they could do the reductions (and later MIDI mockups) rather than actually doing score analysis and reduction and building critical thinking skills.

    As to how music notation impacts musicians, clarity and elegance of layouts are enticements to perform and speak to the competency of the one composing the music.

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