Friday, August 10, 2012

How it looks, how it sounds

The popular musician Beck has just released his new album. Not as a cd, nor as downloadable files. As sheet music. (To be published in cooperation with McSweeney's.)  Yep, interpretable sheet music. Notated music is the new vanguard.


Composer Richard Winslow's law:  if you want to repeat some music precisely, you ought to transmit it orally, while if you want to guarantee that the music will change over time, you should write it down.


The recent news of a shakeup at the owner of notation program Sibelius and a possible buy-out of the company which produces Finale has caused some anxiety over the future of both programs.  (If one of the companies goes under, for example, how will owners of the software be able to register their programs when moving to new computers?)  It has also caused some useful meditation over the nature of musical notation in general and engraving in particular.  What are the advantages and disadvantages of music notated by hand or engraved?  What do we really want in a notation program?  Should a program try to accommodate as many different repertoires as possible, or should it be specialized?  Should a program try to do both notation and sequencing well, or should its emphasis be on notational graphics alone?  Have the open source alternatives matured enough to bring the era of commercial engraving programs to a close?

I'm something of a broken record on this, but my opinion remains that having a diversity of notation options is a very good thing for music (and don't let any music professor tell you otherwise!), being able to notate by hand is a useful and often beautiful skill (in my experience, the best computer-based engravers have excellent manuscript skills), the free and open source alternatives (Lilly Pond and MuseScore in particularly) have improved very much, and we still need a good graphics-only program to supplement programs in which playback and a fairly rigid notational structure trump graphic freedom.  (Let me also add that learning to notate music well, whether by hand or with machine assistance, is something that is best done through a combination of self-instruction and feedback from real musicians and benefits tremendously from a musician's own experience playing from notation. It does not require a semester-long college course.) 


Some people are seriously picayune about notation, I'm only somewhat so. But there are a few basics I find important: avoid collisions of items on the page; try to have few and, when then, good page turns in a movement; be critical of the default formatting settings in your software; try for a layout that uses space optimally (neither crowded nor too widely scattered); and try to make your scores look as if the music in them is important to you, give them a distinctive look, your own house style.  Have a distinctive layout or print on exquisite paper, bind your scores with silver thread, add illustrations, or create/choose fonts that fit your musical aesthetic.  The potential effect of a font on your scores reception or performance is, granted, a subtle one, but real and meaningful musical differences are usually subtle, and an additional visual charge can only help emphasize these differences.   Errol Morris (the best blogger of 'em all) recently wrote:  we may be at the mercy of fonts in ways that we are only dimly beginning to recognize. An effect — subtle, almost indiscernible, but irrefutably there. 

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