I only started to use notation software about seven years ago. Since then, I usually compose out the piece by hand, copy it into the computer, and do edits directly onto the computer score. My last three pieces, all fast and with a lot of notes, have witnessed me reducing the amount I write out by hand and going straight to the computer with material. That said, well over half of my current project has been written out by hand, and the sketching process was all done by hand.

A friend of mine recently expressed surprise learning I still composed by hand. He said he didn’t, and that composing on the computer has influenced his work. Electronic music software aside, I’m not sure how a notation program actually can influence the musical content of a composition. Sure notation software makes certain things easier. But how exactly does using a computer change one’s musical style?

And, please: I hope answers don’t consist in “cutting and pasting” and “mass mover tool.” Surely the urge to repeat chunks of music is not encouraged by computer short cuts. Furthermore, many complex rhythms are easier to write out by hand; does notation software discourage rhythmic complexity?

43 Responses to “The Influence of Notation Software on Composition”
  1. Combs says:

    Interesting.. Seems like so many composers with huge “credentials” write by hand still. Tells me either the colleges aren’t with the times or the composers are trying to be crafty, envisioning Mozart or Beethoven while they pen out their works.

    I think software is needed to catch up to the mind. If one once to write a piece of art, copy it after the fact. Just MO.

  2. Combs says:

    Sorry once = wants: Oh the English language and its quirks!

  3. Combs says:

    That especially goes for you Nico Muhly!!! I don’t care how contemporary you sound, writing your notes HAHA. Same to you Deerhoof. Its just PUNK ROCK!!!

  4. david toub says:

    I am not sure there have been any significant effects on my composition since going from pencil/paper to Finale 3.2.1 (and now F2009) many moons ago. I was writing repetitive structures before Finale, and have been writing them afterwards. It makes my work flow better in some aspects, and worse in others. I write mostly through improvisation, and always have done so, but now can compose directly into Finale or a sequencer (of sorts) like Reason, rather than work with manuscript paper for drafts. Better for the environment, I think.

    There are some things I could do before with pencil that I can’t do at all in Finale, or else can only do with some effort and time. But that’s a notational issue, not a compositional one.

    What did make a small but real difference was when my wife got me a synthesizer 16 years ago that also contained an onboard sequencer. It enabled me to test some polyphonic ideas I otherwise might not have gone with. But notation software having an effect on my composition? I’m not sure how it could.

  5. david toub says:

    Forgot to address the rhythmic complexity question. Yes, it’s easier to do by hand, but notation software also allows you to hear it played back, which I suppose does help. But I don’t know that music is any more or less “complex” with regard to rhythms with notation software than it was before. Shapey wrote some really gnarly rhythms I still don’t understand, and the same goes for Feldman. Neither ever used notation software. Software doesn’t discourage rhythmic complexity, AFAIK. At least not for me. When I want to write some complex rhythms, Finale can do it, and I’m sure that other notation package can do it just as well. BTW, both Finale and Sibelius have their advantages and limitations. Neither is perfect, and lately both have been borrowing from one another, much like Apple and Microsloth.

  6. Combs says:

    “But notation software having an effect on my composition? ” -david

    The question is better suited to ask the question of sequencing since that is a notation device as well. And yes it helps quite a few aspects if used properly. Try transposing a phrase by a seventh and copy and overlaying the phrase at a 32nd or 16th over just for the hell of it. There are countless tools within sequenzing which is simply just a way to make it easier than writing it down.

    The question David brings up about whether its harder, rhythmic-wise. I suppose so, but after getting used to the software it ends up just as easy.

  7. Rob Deemer says:

    I’ve used Finale for over 15 years now and feel that it very well can affect one’s compositional output for the better or worse, depending on how careful you are. It’s really easy to use the cut-and-paste to slap something together, but that’s just adding efficiency to lameness.

    I find the playback function (usually with just piano sounds on all the instrument so the ear doesn’t get used to bad MIDI timbres) helps to get a general sense of form and pace in real time – it’s not perfect, but it’s handy to be able to step back and listen to a work-in-progress passively.

    The ability to insert measures at will and to be able to move whole sections from back to front in a work is also a very handy tool – I’m always figuring out where material needs to be expanded or condensed and this ability allows that in a fraction of the time.

    Of course, the best part about it isn’t the composing – it’s the turnaround time once you’re done and you need parts & score. The fact that you can do in a few hours what used to take days or weeks in the past is very good thing.

  8. andrea says:

    i still write everything out by hand, then put it into the computer. i need to see large swaths of my music at one time, which you can’t really do on a laptop. i often will use 18×24 inch paper and draw out the staves. lately, i’ve been using self-designed graph paper from these fine folks:


    i use a lot of weird cycles of subdivisions, so having my sixteenths or whatever already mapped out for me is nice. if i’m writing something very simple and song-like (http://reloadsanear.com/flutebook), then i’ll go straight into the computer, but otherwise, i love pencil and paper.

    so, no. the computer hasn’t changed a lot about the way i compose.

  9. I’m the gloom-&-doom guy about this. Like any highly limited tools (including musical instruments), notation software eases the creation of music for which it was originally designed, but stands in the way of other music — save under very creative or persistent hands.

    For example, the cut-and-paste mentioned above eases the creation of pulse-minimalist music and its successors, or music with transparent architecture. Had the software been modular, however, it would have eased the creation of graphically dominant music or scores with advanced notation. Instead of being locked into a measure basis, had such software allowed sketching (including pen recognition), it would have eased the creation of new forms instead of first forcing the tortuous override of its conservative design.

    Many of the pieces on this page…
    …were especially difficult because of the conservatism of the software.

    This does not mean non-conservative notation can’t be done — only that it is difficult and, if a composer is not skilled at the notation program, impossible or expensive to have done.

    The consequence of conservative tools is conservative composition — so much so that some composers brought up with these tools are only dimly aware of the possibilities outside them. For other composers, the software is so counterintuitive that they work with paper first and convert (or hand off for conversion) to notation software later.

    There are also the playback issues. This software can create great demos — great, sometimes unplayable, and almost always nowhere near balanced as they would be in the real air. They are extremely poor teachers.

    I think we all are relieved and stimulated by the advantages, whether they be meeting deadlines or doing revisions quickly, auditioning or proofreading, and making our work easily read.

    But the conditioning of the composer by the software is an artistically unpleasant business.


  10. Paul H. Muller says:

    I use an older and really basic notation program and the midi instruments (apart from the piano) vary from borderline to really terrible. I find that if the midi playback sounds convincing, I know the piece will improve in actual performance. But if it seems to be lacking something when I hear it on the computer, I know I have more work to do.

  11. Jeremy Podgursky says:

    I now compose everything directly into Sibelius. The key commands have become part of my muscle memory, so I often feel like I am playing an instrument when I write. I did not have the same pleasurable rapport with Finale, a program that looks great, but always felt like it required at least one extra step to accomplish something.
    But the most important influence Sibelius has on my compositions is that I now feel like I am molding clay and not chiseling marble. I feel like my ideas can grow forwards and backwards in time very organically, and I no longer feel so restrained by the Newtonian timeline. Instead of thinking section A-B-C-A, etc., I feel like I am able to work non-linearly, almost as if storyboarding a movie.
    But there are negative aspects to composing at the computer. I have found that if I ever use the playback function (I try not to use it at all), the “perfect” tempo is always different than the optimal one for live performers. But the worst aspect is the damn repetitive motion issue! If I become too engrossed in what I am doing, I often forget to stretch, breathe, mind my posture, and detox from the radiating screen.
    But until I can hook electrodes to my head and translate that into notation, Sibelius is the fastest way for me to extract my ideas. Just my two cents worth…

  12. Jay Batzner says:

    I find composing directly into a notation program to be problematic. I’ve been using Finale since 1992 (not that I think things would be better if I used Sibelius) and when I was doing a LOT of composition directly into the computer, I noticed the following trends:
    1. My ideas were only as big as my screen. I never had any longer ideas simply because my monitor was really small.
    2. Dynamics and articulations were an afterthought. I had to change tools in order to put those in, so I never did.
    3. I would write things that sounded good in Finale playback but that wouldn’t work in actual instruments.

    These problems all came to a head about 10 years ago, at a time when I was immensely dissatisfied with my music. I started doing everything on paper in order to work through some of these issues. It took a while for me to free up my mind and compose without thinking of “how am I going to notate this in Finale?”

    The best thing that I got from breaking away from Finale composing is that I really started thinking of SOUND instead of notes and rhythms. Now I tend to go for articulations and dynamics first, or shapes and gestures, which would be impossible to work with in Finale (and, I’m pretty sure that would hold for Sibelius as well).

    Now I do a lot of paper sketching, put it into Finale, maybe spin ideas out more there, and then back to paper. I primarily use it for its most basic function: clean scores and easy duplication.

  13. I imagine looking at this subject in a systematic way will make interesting fodder for somebody’s research project someday — particularly for composers who were recognized for their handwritten scores and then switched to computer.

    A good example being Donald Martino (1931-2005), whose gorgeous hand-engraved scores were justly legendary (and won many Paul Revere Awards from the MPA), and nearly all his his “classic” works (60s-80s) are filled with enormous notational complexity of every sort. Whatever kind of extended or complicated notation one can imagine, it can be found in the scores.

    As his eyesight worsened, he switched (in 2000) to using Sibelius to compose (not just to engrave), and all of his compositions since then (while still using the same 12-tone harmonic language he had used since his maturity) were suddenly written in all standard meters with “normal” rhythmic values, with no complicated notation at all. Critics all mentioned (very positively) a new “conservatism/romanticism” that they were hearing in his post-2000 compositions, but it was really a virtue of what the notation software brought about in his language.

    Given the positive reception to his late works (and how hard most of the early works are to perform), I don’t think it was necessarily a bad thing at all (since the music is still clearly his), but there’s no question that the notation software had an “overnight” impact.

  14. Nathan Brock says:

    I think that the biggest effect is actually on composers who came up with notation software, since it seems to me that young, inexperienced composers are exactly those who might be more susceptible to the “ease factor” of the software. The example of Martino notwithstanding, it seems to me that most experienced composers are sufficiently invested in a particular musical language that changing it because of something like ease of software use would rarely enter their minds. (Of course, such changes could be subconscious.) But I have noticed, and I’m sure others who teach have as well, that students will set up a length of time to fill and then do exactly the sort of cut-and-paste mass-mover maneuvers David decries at the start of this conversation. They are the ones whose musical trajectories might well be shaped by the natural inclinations of the software.

    BTW, when I first started to write, the notation software was off my radar – I’m 31 now, for some perspective – and I wrote by hand; in the mid-90s I switched to Finale, but didn’t like it for many of the reasons stated above, and as I wanted to move towards greater notational control I switched to all hand-written scores. I think that in addition to providing me that control, hand-writing everything (even final drafts) gives my music a individual “look” quite different from the rather homogenized look of a Finale- or Sibelius-engraved score. You can find examples on my website, above. Note that I’m not doing anything I couldn’t convince Finale to do, but rather that I’m not comfortable with the hoops it forces me to jump through, or with the idea that the software acts as an intermediary between me and my music.

  15. I had this discussion on Dennis’ blog a year-plus ago; I do everything by hand, partly because I was a sign-painter to work my way through art school and my penship leans to the calligraphic. But since it’s been quite a while since an orchestra has played my music (professionally), I’ve been thinking about some sort of system where I can hear what I’ve written. Unfortunately, I have only a) a secretary’s salary, and b) a slow Windows computer. So I don’t think it’s going to be either Finale or Sibelius that I’ll be buying. (I tried Noteworthy and couldn’t figure it out.) Suggestions?

  16. david toub says:

    I think this is a really interesting discussion. As a postminimalist, I have never detected any influence of Finale on my compostions, just on how I notate them (some things I used to do, like time signatures that span several staves, I can’t do (at least not easily, AFAIK) using Finale). It does make it easier for me to add additional repeats if I’m notating things out fully (rather than use a repeat sign and 5x or some other indication for multiple repeats). But that’s it. Again, it doesn’t do anything for me in terms of composition. Even a sequencer has been more influential in this regard, particularly an onboard sequencer that was part of my old synthesizer.

    I guess my question would be why would notation software be any more influential on someone’s compositions than, say, the average sequencing program? Or that MAX stuff some folks use? (and who is Max anyway—did Rieger invent this or something?) ;-)

  17. David, I think you’ve answered your question about influence — your own sense of time signature placement has been altered.

    That’s not much — but how much else is altered in practice? what do you avoid because it causes a bit of kludgy pain? Especially if you’re a composer who doesn’t use a sequencer? I’m guessing that as a postminimalist you wouldn’t be using the kinds of notation in the link in my post above, and so this would not interfere with your usual compositional approach.

    But what if you were to take one of the score collections such Cage’s “Notations”, Moller’s “SoundVisions” or the new “Notations 21″ collection and try to compose some of those using Finale or Sibelius? Some music lends itself to these tools, some does not. If it does not, and yet as a composer you’re still interested in the replicability and editability that software affords, how, eventually, do these limitations seep into the process of composition so that you simply end up avoiding certain practices? Or make no fewer new discoveries because you can’t play on the page — or even play with algorithms or drawings, say, that lead to new ways of self-expression?

    It can be very subtle. Avoid long time signatures now, avoid staggered barlines next, avoid curves staves next… who can say? (By the way, I have a Finale-compatible font for tall time signatures in multiple sizes. TrueType only, but you’re welcome to it.)

    I’ve written about this several times in my own blog. Here is a look at the issue of notation software;



  18. Above “…make fewer new discoveries…” Still wish there were an edit/preview mode.

  19. david toub says:

    Actually, for me, this has nothing to do with time signature placement. Most of my recent music has one time signature and usually one dynamic throughout.

  20. combs says:

    Actually I shouldn’t be so critical, as in my above statements. I’m sure its nice not to be handcuffed to an instrument and be able to write anywhere you want (if you have enough natural ability).

    I would also bet there are still authors who write by pen or pencil in preference of the typewriter.

  21. No influence at all, as far as I can tell. I’ve been using Sibelius for 10 years, but have never been able to compose directly into the program. I find that the result (for me) is better, both compositionally and graphically, if engraving is treated as a separate stage. I seem to have a psychological need to have approximately 53 manuscript sheets in a chaotic formation around my desk in order to generate a conducive working environment; the computer screen allows much less simultaneous visual information. Time-saving is not a relevant question for me as I’m quite an efficient engraver and a very slow composer..

  22. Bill Solomon says:

    David Lang has a wonderful piano solo entitled “This Piece Was Written by Hand”, which i recently heard Vicki Ray play at the Bang on a Can festival in n. adams, MA. Lang said that he was interested in how his use of notation software had impacted his music, so he wrote this piece out by hand (then, of course, put it into sibelius later….). He didn’t mention whether he felt the piece was any different than other pieces he had written. To my ears, it still sounded like a piece by Lang, but I suppose its an interesting idea.

  23. Randy Gibson says:

    I’m one of those composers who “came up with notation software” that Nathan mentions above. Software was always an option for me writing music, and I’m sure it affected my methods, especially early on. As I found my voice and style though, I think I also developed a healthy mix of electronic and by hand.

    Now I find that I use a wide mix of methods to write. Often I’ll work on something in the computer, then print it out and scrawl all over it with my notes. Then again I will often write whole chunks of pieces in a word processor program, in an email to myself, or on a stack of envelopes from my day job.

    I think if I was interested in extremely complex rhythms (i’m not) or graphic notation (also, not so much) I would have a very hard time, and feel very confined by notation software. A lot of my work is improvised, and a lot of my rhythms are only vaguely notated in a semi-proportional notation. I think this approach was certainly influenced by my access to software, but I don’t think that’s a bad thing.

    I think the biggest influence that technology has had on my work is the ability now to send myself an email from anywhere with my sketches for a new piece. Even if I can’t find a piece of paper I can get that idea down in a string of numbers and letters.

  24. Lawrence Dunn says:

    Most simply, I find myself, when working with software, pre-occupied with making the score look good, and doing less composing. I tend to compose faster on paper. Actually, chunked composition made up of blocks is just as easy to do on paper, you just have to have a short hand. I suppose the difficulty comes when you have a multitude of patterns that cross barlines.

    And, actually, I find composing at the piano a far more enjoyable experience than composing at the computer. At the computer it feels like work; at the piano, exploration.


  25. As an FYI, the link above is to a pilot study I published in the SCI newsletter on this very topic. It gives some preliminary results as well as avenues of further exploration. I hope this helps in your research and discussion.



  26. Bill LePage says:

    If notational software had been available during Bach’s time, he would have produced 10 times the amount of music he left behind, but would it have been as great? I think the answer is yes. Notatitional software is nothing more than an assistant, it doesn’t compose for you. It’s like a word processor, as opposed to quill and paper. Bach had several assistants, and I think this is how he composed quite a lot of his music that had to be produced sometimes in a day. I can see Johann Sebastian Bach at the keyboard with Carl Philip Emmanuel, or perhaps Wilhelm Friedrich, sitting at a second keyboard, with Johann improvising each voice line by line, while his sons transcribed them. Then they would play the work back together, on two or three harpsichords so Bach the elder could get a satisfactory and immediate performance of the whole work. In this way, Bach could easily create piece after piece in rapid succession.

    Modern composers nowadays do not improvise their works as they did in the past. Instead they spend hours sitting and writing their music, which professional, trained musicians struggle to play. Having said that Bach’s music is very difficult to play, but the cantatas can be sung by children and performed by high school students, which is the way they were usually performed when he was the cantor at Leipzig. Very rarely were there professional musicians on hand. I think that modern music today has reached the level of being too highly ornamented and artificial, that take many hours of rehearsal time and don’t reach the younger listener because the music is simply not musical, it’s just music by composers for composers. If noatational software and improvising a work first and then inputting it into a notational software program through a MIDI device, can simplify the music and make modern music once again more musical, then I am all for it.

    Interesting to note, some of Cage’s most musical chance-determined works, the number pieces he wrote at the end of his life, were written using a software program of the I Ching created by Andrew Culver. It saved Cage hours of time and increased his musical output to a great extent, and they are beautiful pieces.

  27. ray says:

    Ive been using Finale 2005, and I like it a lot more than writing music out by hand – you can get a printed score, and you can hear the music played back. And with Finale’s “more human playback” the instrumental sounds are a lot more lifelike than with the older versions (before 2005). As far as it making a difference in how I write music, it hasnt changed anything, except the convienence of being able to hear the music as soon as I write it! And you can make recordings too, so I can let other people hear my music.
    Any composer who writes a symphony or a violin concerto would normally go a long time before getting it performed (and even longer to have a recording of it) – this way you can have one as soon as its finished, and the MIDI sounds arent bad either!

  28. Taylor Brook says:

    I think that music notation software is incredible useful and time saving in terms of making edits and parts, but for myself, it’s impossible to compose with. I do all my composing by hand (and I’m young and have had access to finale since I started composing), and finale is simply too limiting and intangible.

    I believe the playback to be especially detrimental for a number of reasons, but most importantly because it is designed to play classical music in it’s most normative form so anything beyond the most basic notational devices goes unheard. That said, I don’t deny that playback is a useful tool, but to think that it even comes close to the real thing is misguided.

  29. Dave Soldier says:

    David, you don’t like relying on that cheap “cut and paste” function to explain the difference, but I hear two things since “contemporary composers” started to write on computer

    1. just that, lots of lazy repeats
    2. no plan for what happens minutes ahead or long phrases. People start to write only for the time they see on their score that is on the screen.

    I think this is the genuine reason that most contemporary classical music performed these days is full of short phrases and doesn’t think ahead or go anyhere. It can’t all be that nearly everyone who decides to write for classical instruments is a sheep. Please don’t say this is attack on minimalism, Terry Riley and lots of others think in both short and long time periods, like looking at a painting up close and from far way.

  30. A Sibelius user for nearly 10 years, I have found that the software tends to influence my ‘voice’ less and less. If one is not writing in continuous or minimalist textures, and even pushes toward music without barlines, approaching music as “sound” in holistic way, then I really hesitate going to the computer if I don’t already have a very accurate conception in my mind of both the desired sound and how the score looks.

    As a composition teacher, I worry about my students who never really learn to wrestle with their material on paper, and failing to exercise the ‘inner ear.’ Plus, one can be tied constantly to the barlines even at times that would be better served by none.

    On the other hand, I have found it useful in playback when wanting to experiment and get an idea with certain orchestral combinations. I find it increasingly useful in getting ideas down in a speedy way, when I already have a good idea of how the score ought to sound and look.

  31. Elaine Fine says:

    Let’s face it. Most of us do not have ears like Mozart. Working with Finale and Sibelius gives us all the tools to be better composers. Being able to evaluate our work while we write it (choice of key for tonal music, instrumentation, dynamics, articulations) is a real time saver. There is less of a need to wait for someone to learn a piece and perform it in order to really finish it.

    I do have some personal concerns though. I tend to work too fast with Finale. I have to force myself to slow down and step back (I have gotten better at that). I also have to remember that music that looks good doesn’t necessarily sound good.

  32. Chris Becker says:

    I recently had to teach myself how to use Finale in order to produce my first piece for classical guitar. The majority of the work was done at the piano while referring to various scores for the instrument as a guide for what was and wasn’t possible on the instrument. I even tried playing my wife’s guitar (I’m not a guitarist) which was very helpful. I also stayed in touch with the man who will premiere the piece for guidance – and initially sent him pencil scores for him to review and critique.

    Finale became a part of the process later when I needed to get a sense of the duration of my work i.e was a movement too short, too long, did ideas need to be repeated, developed, removed, etc. The piece is three movements, and I worked on each simultaneously to try and create an organic whole – something Dave Soldier points out might be lacking in a lot of contemporary writing. It was actually very helpful to sit back, close my eyes, and hear this horrible MIDI rendition of my writing played back at me.

    Before, I used to lay each page of a score on the floor and stare at the whole piece listening with my “inner” ear.

    In contemporary guitar literature, there is a lot of “virtuoso” writing – especially when it comes to rhythms – that I’m not absolutely convinced is coming from the inner ear of composers. I think Finale and Sibelius allows you to create a lot of insanely complicated writing that one doesn’t necessarily “hear” but that shows how, uh, complicated you are as a composer?

    Finale or Sibelius in combination with hands on playing and collaborative work with the performer(s) is where I see myself headed in the next year. I won’t be giving up my pencils! :)

  33. Will Mego says:

    A few days late to the party, I wanted to suggest a parallel with woodworking. In woodworking circles, they debate endlessly between crafting something by hand, entirely with hand tools (such as handplanes, chisels, etc) or with powertools (table saw, router, joiners, and power planers) or with a combination. Certainly you can see how powertools have made it possible for a lot of very novice people to create some very poor furniture, and nurtured a real lack of ideas (notation software leading to endless repeats, or lazy construction of your music), but as it turns out, even the best craftsman use a little bit of both. They use the best possible tool, in the best possible way, for the best possible result, thinking not only about the final design, but the materials, and the effect each different tool, and type of tool, and method of using it will have upon the materials. This careful nature is the essence of what we call craftmanship. Something perhaps we all should keep in mind.

  34. … a technique of a period always influences the art of that period to some point…
    good art maker is never limited by the technique…so to say that Finale and Sibelius (and Cubase, Reason, etc) cannot influence a good artist…
    Tools sometimes give ideas, even possibilities that they where not created for…. and the adventure of creating goes on… (you can use Freehand to write scores, FInale as a deaf mike-transcriber.. to generate rithms and piches..for ex.).
    To write music on paper is just a choise…
    I did many of those things and for solo instr.+electronics I went back using pens. I would never write an Orchestral piece by hand, I just would generate it…and then transcribe it with Finale or Sibelius…

  35. sorry-correcting the link to my page

  36. paul lamon says:

    i had a desire to compose before computers arrived on the scene, but i couldn’t do it – it wasn’t until i got my first notation software with a playback function that i could compose – playback means everything to me – it’s been the only way my brain can figure out how i wanted to shape a piece and how i wanted to arrange it – thank you technology!

  37. Ben says:

    Personally, I find composing and writing easier to do on paper ( at least drafting), as you can see more at once, circle, highlight, cross out, draw arrows, write comments, etc. etc.

  38. michael gogins says:

    I don’t compose either by handwriting or with notation software, I do algorithmic composition, i.e. I compose by writing software.

    I naturally this affects the kind of stuff I write, and I expect the same to be true of notation software. Cut and paste, hear what the playback engine can do instead of what live players can do, see only so much of the score at a time, some things easier than others to notate and/or to see… all true…

    There is no need for this. The notation software should be written as a toolkit with plugins that would accept handwriting, algorithmic composition scripts, soundfiles, MIDI sequences, and so on. You could plugin anything in and it would become part of the score and be printable. And the printing and viewing should be configurable to display up to a hidh-definition projection onto a wall, or a three-dimensional score in layers of piano roll. Music notation software compares poorly with 3-dimensional modeling software such as Blender… ask for what you want!

    Mike Gogins

  39. Mike,

    That’s exactly right. I have absolutely no idea if there is anyone (person or company) in the whole field actually capable of doing this. The number of steps it takes for me to go from algorithm to orchestral score is enormous — and as one who prefers to compose quickly, picking and choosing modules, programs, etc., and then trying squeeze the results of one into another, I can say it is thoroughly maddening but mostly discouraging. What year is this? We’re a dozen computer generations from custom programs for custom computers, but the software is still largely incompatible — even in concept. We continue to get new interfaces for old self-standing programs, and little more.


  40. I find that, like Dennis, there are the endless possibilities – the changes of technology affect the inert quality of composing by hand – and yet my music – very different than what I wrote as a young composer – can be notated well by Finale (the application I used – 2009) — and the copying is easier, the part printing is faster, and the playback features helpful.For every iPhone, fax machine, and flat screen tv that enters into the world, my sense is that the effect of the new device alters the perception of the content. Studying with Morton Subotnick in the late 90′s, he taught me that while we can dream of new ways to write, at some point, the real takes over, and we really have to make what we want to happen happen.I’d like to think that I’m still thinking — how can we change our thoughts so that we’re not? Or do we really want that?

  41. Dean,

    I suspect that you, Mike and I are examples of why this is so complicated.

    It’s true, I can render most work in Finale, but I can’t incorporate the source material directly if it is, for example, an algorithm. Some examples:

    My piece “Vexation Blues” (no reference to Satie) whose source in the right hand was from a fractal generator. Ideally, I’d plug in the fractal software and Finale would notate it, and then I could edit it for what I needed. Instead, the generation was to Midi, then input to Finale’s low-intelligence Midi-to-notation converter, and that took hours to clean up. The left and middle hands had repetitive and blues patterns, but with parts shifted and removed — which again, in ideal circumstances, I could have done largely automatically and then cleaned up. Instead, that was done entirely by hand.

    Other pieces require synchronizing notation and image — again, doable in Finale but without a time-sync notation mode, it’s all pushing & pulling notes by hand.

    Graphical scores (such as the 13 pieces in my “Lunar Cascade in Serial Time” series) are incredibly time-consuming.

    In all cases — and I think this was my point way upthread six months ago — is that were it not for my very thick skin and ability to concentrate for long stretches, I would probably have been discouraged from many of these pieces because the notation (and associated) software are so far behind the thought process.

    And not only that, but the increased standardization of fonts, techniques, etc., generate an expectation of sameness in performers, decreasing notational progress and, in terms of the software companies, discouraging innovation as the niche size decreases.

    As for your last two questions — I’m not sure what you’re asking, and how rhetorical it is! :)


  42. Justin Sante says:

    Re: composing with algorithms, I feel that in general, the modern programming language is the absolute best tool available for manipulating information. And, as soon as a piece of music leaves the composer’s skull and is ‘taken down’ in some medium, that’s exactly what it becomes: information.

    I would not be surprised if most of the next generation of composers becomes familiar with a musical programming language…some type of coding is already commonplace in many schools, and the U of Chicago’s electronic musicians are all required to learn MAX/MSP. Also, coding is just plain fun once you get the hang of it, especially for the Xbox/Facebook generation.

    On that note, there’s actually a piece of existing composition software out there which goes a long way toward what you described in your posts, Michael and Dennis.

    It’s a web-application, and its output is ultra-compatible MIDI (and PDF scores), so it’s very shareable, collaborative and interoperable.

    It’s called MusicDNA Composer (click my name to go there).

    It allows you to use code (or various GUIs) to create ‘snippets’ of music (phrases, chords, chord progressions, scalar passages, etc). These snippets can then be sequenced, repeated, transposed, harmonized, or put into functions/classes/libraries, etc etc. You type code then hit play to preview it, like with the toolkit that was described.

    How will algorithmic composition apps like this affect what kind of music people write? I’d say that once whenever it becomes far enough advanced, it’ll barely be there, and will mostly serve the function of decreasing to a minimum the amount of grunt work necessary to set down musical ideas, just like PHP and Drupal makes it as easy as it can be to create web sites.

    – Justin.

    P.S. I actually did a lot of the programming for MusicDNA, and it’s just now getting off the ground. If anyone would like to talk about the project or get started using it, feel totally free to contact me from musicdnacentral’s about page!

  43. Max/MSP is not a good programming language. IMHO.

    The issues that have been noticed with respect to notation software, occur all over again with programming languages. They make some things easier and other things harder.

    I would prefer it if music software were written in general-purpose programming languages such as C++, Python, Lisp, Haskell, or what have you and then every literate composer would be expected to know the rudiments of this language.

    There are all kinds of reasons why this is hard and hasn’t happened. Some languages are just hard (C++), or LOOK hard (Lisp), or are not widely enough used (Haskell), or are not terribly well suited to music as it turns out (Java).

    As it happens algorithmic composition software does not well reflect how composers actually think, and this may actually be a good thing. It might be better to provide composers with tools for doing things that previously were hard to imagine or difficult to carry out, rather than finding some way to automate what we already more or less know how to do.

    P.S. I will check out MusicDNA.