Stop the world, I want to get off!

I’m grateful to a fellow blogger for a comment he made regarding an earlier blog in which I discussed writing for the rhythm section in jazz.

The book has a section dealing with the ‘hardware’ of music – band parts, scores etc. – that used to be so badly presented by some publishers. I often had to enlarge brass band parts printed on small-sized paper with as many as 14 bars to a line! Thankfully, standards have improved, partly because of computer music notation programs which enable composer/arrangers to produce professional results on paper. This is important because, not only does presentation matter in all aspects of commerce but, in music, clear, professional parts with due attention to accents, dynamics etc. will cause players to take a composer’s work seriously and spur them on to greater effort.

In the book there’s a ‘bonus’ section thrown in which deals with problems I encountered during the working day, trying to use earlier notation programs. The mistake I made was to include information that would date so rapidly because I failed to anticipate the rate of progress. Recent program updates enable, for example, multiple repeat bars (the division sign at 45 degrees), which are a common feature of drum parts, especially, to be compressed into groups of bars without losing the bar-numbering scheme. They also offer dynamic editing, where amendments to the score are automatically reflected in the band parts.

Of course, although consistency is essential, we don’t always want scores and parts to be identical in all respects. (Cueing-in instrumental parts in small cue notes can be a useful aid to musicians, with complex, ‘staggered’ entrances, especially in rubato passages.)

Having said all this, many musicians will still use slightly older notation programs (I do) partly because they are, after all, tools and it’s our job to hock with what we’ve got and what we’re familiar with. Added to this, there’s usually a steep learning curve involved with new programs which will deter writers with deadlines to meet. The added features don’t always work perfectly, either. An enharmonic change feature can produce weird results.

One feature that is useful is the ability to swap from single to double staves (staffs). Piano parts in the jazz rhythm section, for example, often spread over multiple pages so that, where chordal work only is required, single staves will obviously take up less room. Elsewhere, it might be desirable to write in full notation (e.g. during ensemble passages) or to cue-in the melody or vocal part in a separate stave.

Most of us will have experienced the difficulty of keeping up with program and computer updates. A huge investment in time is required which is less damaging to larger corporations where groups of employees can be trained in ‘batches’. It’s another example of what people in the USA call ‘small-team vulnerability’.

I recently suggested that, perhaps, too many updates in too short a period of time might be counter-productive but I was immediately slapped down by an IT expert.

‘They’re already slowing it all down’ he said ‘so that you can keep up!’.

Writers on a tight budget might consider MuseScore, a free notation program with playback that works really well. The standard soundfont has been chosen to suit all computers but recent machines will cope with bigger file sizes easily. There are links in the online manual to various fonts but 1.44 sf2 seems to be the best. I tried larger soundfonts but, although strings and piano worked well, the brass and sax sounds were worse, not better. There will be many other fonts but I just haven’t had time to look for them.

MuseScore’s transposition feature is very stable and never produces silly results.

Playback in this program makes certain assumptions (e.g. that an F tuba will be used, whereas the Eb tuba is often used in the UK) so that, no matter what instrument is notated at the beginning of the line, the default sound will emerge. There are work-arounds for this: duplicate the score and transpose the affected instruments to produce a play-back version. It will look wrong on paper because of the automatic transposition facility. If, for example, a trumpet line is copied and pasted into a horn part, the program does the transposition and still plays back at the correct ‘concert’ pitch but it can only do this for instruments that already exist in its list. Nevertheless, MuseScore copes with full orchestral parts with ease so such problems are rare.

The program also offers the facility of sharing scores with others and is open to the insertion of added filters produced by enthusiasts. Upgrades are available on a fairly regular basis.

It saves as Wav., PDF (etc.) and automatically saves an MSCZ version of each file. This, as everyone knows, is the general format used to share with other notation programs. I use a free online facility to convert the Wav. Files to MP3 ready for uploading, which dramatically reduces file size.


2 thoughts on “Stop the world, I want to get off!

  1. I just commented to my wife yesterday that if someone wants to be serious about using their computer it seems like they need to focus on one kind of activity with one particular software program. If one were a sort of Renaissance Man with gifts in many areas, I don’t see how he can keep up with the changes in all the software let alone keep his craft perfected as things are ever progressing and methods changing in the computer-based tools. I say this because a number of things were just updated on me while in the midst of trying to finish a project and I was dumbfounded by too many changes in too many computer programs. It stopped me in my tracks.

    I do have a student that uses MuseScore so I acquired it and was pleasantly surprised with its capabilities. In the same day I downloaded it I was able to render a complete little piece for her including phrase markings and fingerings.

    And interesting thing about sound fonts, or sampled instruments. I find it rather satisfying to treat these sounds as instruments unto themselves and to write to their peculiarities instead of to the real thing. I don’t have other musicians at my disposal so write for so their strengths and weaknesses don’t have to be accounted for, not that I have the experience and training to understand them in any event. But I do have sounds available to me and they themselves have their own sweet spot of range and their own peculiarities where they are pleasing in their own right quite apart from the realities of the real physical instrument. Perhaps it is making lemons into lemonade, but writing for the virtual instrument at hand to make it sound good is likely a wholly new exercise as opposed to writing for the real thing.

    I do use Sibelius as my scoring program of choice, and Logic for my DAW (Digital Audio Workstation). Sibelius has some very good sound samples of instruments on its own, but one important thing that draws me to it is tempo changes. Not only does it allow frequent tempo changes but you can apply a ritard, for example, and also edit by percentage how much effect it has; also, when exporting to midi, the gradual changes it renders export tempo and volume changes which can be imported into an even more robust program for rendering. If only everyone could afford such tools!

    I am humbled by all the technology currently available and do find myself unable to keep up with it all. And the level of control in some dimensions can slow production to a standstill as one endlessly tweaks minute aspects. Sometimes one should be like Chopin who felt that trying to micromanage the performer with precise instruction was pointless because, and I paraphrase, ‘the artist who understands the music will know what to do with no performance notes, and the player who does not understand the music will not perform well no matter how precise the performance notes. That notion gives me great pause.

    I often think that life would be simpler if I just accepted my role as the piano player and leave all the mess to others. So many shiny objects beckon and there is really not enough time to pursue them all, sometimes it seems pursuing even one is daunting.


    1. That just about sums it up Jim. Sometimes people want an authentic demo, I suppose but for ‘pure’ composing the soundfont sounds can be used in their own right, as you say.


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