Monday, April 29, 2013

Music Software

I don't think I have written much about this before, but I have been using music software for about twenty years now. It has made an enormous change in how I approach composition--mostly, but not all, to the good.

There are a couple of basic kinds of music software. One is used most in popular music and the other in classical. The sequencer is a kind of software that can record, edit and play back music. The data can be entered via a MIDI keyboard (standing for Music Instrument Digital Interface) or other MIDI instrument. You can use a sequencer to create things like drum tracks or other synthesized instruments and with a modern Digital Audio Workstation, you can create synthesized tracks and record tracks of conventional instruments alongside them. A DAW is what is often used nowadays to create whole soundtracks for television shows or motion pictures.

That is about all I can say about sequencers because I confess that I have never used one though now that I am working on an iMac, I may fool around with GarageBand, Apple's proprietary digital audio workstation to see how it works.

What I have used for the last twenty years is music software categorized as scorewriter software. Though there is more and more overlap between this kind of software and sequencers, they have a different emphasis. Scorewriter software uses conventional music notation which is only one option with a sequencer. Typically you can input notes into a scorewriter program either with a computer keyboard or mouse or with a MIDI keyboard.

There are two wonderful things about scorewriter, or as I prefer to call it, music notation software: first of all, after you have entered a score it is up to the standards of a professional engraved publication. Yes, it's true, way back in prehistoric times, that is, before the 1980s, musical scores were physically scratched on copper plates in order to be printed, though this was being quickly replaced by professional copyists who worked with ink on paper which was then photographically reproduced. Music software changed all that. My first book, a technical manual for guitarists, was full of musical scores and examples, all created by me in a program called Encore that is now largely fallen out of use. I would create a score then turn it into a graphic version and insert it into the book. I actually used three different programs: Encore for the music, Word for the text, and Pagemaker for the layout. I did all this on a Mac Plus with a 9 1/2 inch black and white screen, four megabytes of RAM and a 20 megabyte external hard drive (as the Mac Plus did not actually have an internal hard drive)! Scrolling was an amazingly slow process!! I am writing this post on an iMac with 8 gigabytes of RAM and a 1 terabyte hard drive!

Oh, I also used some graphic software for little things like drawings of fingernails and a little graphic of a guitar, but I don't remember what program I used. Here is a page from that book:

Click to enlarge

Pretty good for being created on a Mac Plus! I also did another book of Bach transcriptions, but that was on a newer Mac. Encore was a useful program, easy to use and it came with symbols for the strings of the guitar, which was handy. It also had an unfortunate propensity to crash whenever certain symbols, such as the arpeggio sign, were used. Oh, and by 'crash' I mean crash the whole computer, not just the program.

In 1997 I bought my first version of Finale, a very full-featured professional notation program. It had the amazing ability to play back whatever score you put into the computer. I have upgraded a couple of times since then as the program improved and became a little more user-friendly, that is to say, intuitive. Early versions of Finale had a very steep learning curve and doing the simplest things were often very complicated. I have just been writing a piece for orchestra on Finale. Here is the first page:

Click to enlarge

What you are seeing is a very clean, professional score, with all the little markings needed for a performance. Once you understand the program it is very easy to input. What is really amazing is that Finale understands the notation as sound, not just as visual symbols. In other words, where it says trumpet or flute or cello, Finale will play back those lines with the synthesized sound of the correct instrument. It even does the loud and soft dynamics and things like staccato or accented notes. What it doesn't do is rubato, but you can't have everything. When Finale plays back this piece of orchestral music, it sounds quite good, considering.

Music software like this takes away the need to play compositions through on the keyboard, which is very good news for me as I always resisted learning the piano because it made my hands feel bad. The only downside with these programs is that you can't sketch in them. You have to write everything in precise notation. Sometimes you just want to sketch out some hazy ideas, only clarifying them later. Can't do that with music software. So for that, you have to go back to pencil on paper...

Let's end with an overture for orchestra. Here is The Hebrides (Fingal's Cave) Overture by Felix Mendelssohn:


Nathan Shirley said...

The piano made your hands feel bad! Ha, I think that is one reason I resisted learning the guitar!

Over the past 10 years I've been slowly learning all the main instruments, if only to write better for them. And so I'm kicking myself for not learning guitar as a kid.

As for notation, I hate to think where I would be without Sibelius, copying out all those instrumental parts by hand!?

Bryan Townsend said...

Out of respect for the piano, I should clarify. I love the piano and the music written for it (not to mention the harpsichord), but when my mother sent me to piano lessons when I was eleven years old, I just didn't develop any kind of interest. A few years later, it was the guitar that got me playing. The relationship between me and the guitar felt more expressive, more human.

Then, in first year university, when I was again, sent to piano lessons, it just didn't feel right. One of the problems was the fingernails on the right hand, but it was more than that. My left hand feels fine on the piano keyboard, but my right hand feels terrible. It feels like my tendons are crunching together or something. When I got to McGill and again ran into the piano requirement, I went directly to the chair of the performance department and told him I just couldn't play the piano and why. Since I was the best guitarist in the whole school he said, no problem, we will just waive the requirement in your case. One of the many things I liked about McGill is that they didn't sweat the small stuff.

The guitar is an extremely difficult instrument to write for. I say that as someone who has played the guitar for forty-seven years!

But I hear you about learning something about the main instruments in order to write for them.

cnb said...

This is a very intereting post, Bryan. I've never used music notation software, but I've often wondered how it is done. I've heard of Sibelius, but never of the software you say you use.

Have you ever heard of anyone using LaTeX to typeset music notation? I once came across a LaTeX package for notating Gregorian chant, and I imagine something similar must exist for "regular" notation. But LaTeX would not be smart enough to play the music back to you.

What about notating a George Crumb score?

Bryan Townsend said...

Hi CNB and welcome to the Music Salon. Thanks so much for the link. I have a special interest in notation and a program that will do Gregorian chant is just so cool!

The two big commercial notation programs are Finale and Sibelius. Sibelius was bought by another company and apparently they are not going to continue to update the program, so I don't know what that means for the future. I have used Finale for quite a while and it gets better and better. I'm just about to buy the current version and I'm hoping it will not have a couple of limitations the one I have been using has.

George Crumb? Heh! The thing about conventional notation is that it is both a set of instructions (like tablature) AND a symbolic representation of the sound. It is that symbolic representation that Finale understands. But this is also why you can't do Gregorian chant or George Crumb. Neither follow the conventional rules about the notation of rhythm for example.

In order to notate a piece for guitar that was inspired by chant, I had to resort to some odd notation. I used whole notes for everything and ended up with time signatures like 5/1 and 15/1.

Also, the older versions of Finale tended to have nervous breakdowns if you tried to input some Chopin scores. His lengthy fioratura in grace notes were just too much!

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Anonymous said...

Hello Bryan, from a fellow Canadian living in BC near the Alberta border. I am writing on the chance that you may have an answer to a question about Score Writer. I've been googling for a while now, and finally came across your blog comments. We had Score Writer 2 on our old PC and have a substantial amount of music in that digital format. We have an iMac now running OS X El Capitain 10.11.3. We do not have a CD reader and would like to upgrade to Score Writer 5 with a digital download. I cannot find anywhere that will tell me if my Score Writer 2 documents will be compatible with Score Writer 5. The other option would be to spend CDN$100 for a CD attachment to the Mac and try to install Score Writer 2, but I can't find anything that says whether my iMac will support this version. Thank you for reading this. I am very happy to have run across your blog!! Valerie Harris, Cranbrook, BC CANADA

Bryan Townsend said...

Hi Valerie,

Score Writer seems to be a music notation program from a company called GenieSoft. I am not familiar with it and have never used it. You need to contact their service department to get these answers. In general, it is a real problem that there are different companies that all produce scores in formats that are mutually illegible. Not to mention a newer program will often not open documents in an older version. Not sure there is an answer to this until they develop something like the RTF format for text documents but for music files.

I think the best option overall is to choose one of the big names and stick to them.