I received this letter today from a reader of the blog named Wes Bain. It was meant to be a comment to an article I wrote entitled, “Composing Music by Hand vs Software“, but. I found this to be very interesting reading.
He’s currently triple majoring (I don’t know how you could have the energy for that) at Bellarmine University in Piano Pedagogy, Music Tech and Jazz Performance, and plans on getting a Masters in Composition after graduating.
I love to hear from readers of the site, so don’t be shy. Post comments and send me emails.
Without further ado:
(I attempted to comment with this, but I think it must’ve been too long because it didn’t appear on the page. I wrote this as a multi-part facebook status in which I was essentially commenting on myself)
If rumors about December 21st, 2012, are true, specifically the rumors about magnetic pole shifts EMPing all of our electronics, it will be a blessing to music.
For every great composer writing their works in programs such as Finale and Sibelius, or Ableton Live and Logic, one thousand sub-par & uninspired ones exist as well. The same goes for digital artwork (Photoshop, illustrator, etc).
To be reduced to physical mediums, many would be far too frusturated to continue working, and only those truly containing artistic genius would press on.
Preparing for the listening portion of my Music History exam, I am awestruck by the beauty of composers such as Beethoven, Debussy, Elgar, Schubert and many others–all of their music originally drafted on manuscript paper, either while noodling on an instrument (probably piano), or thinking of harmonic movement conceptually.
I’m guilty of not having written a single piece of music in its entirety on paper. While I have certainly used software notation while sitting at a piano or with a guitar, and thought that honorable, I feel vastly inferior to these great composers of the past, whose volume of work far exceeds mine. Wouldn’t you think notating with software would be super-efficient?
The truth is that it is extremely frustrating, and those of you who use free notation software know it very well.
Finale, the “leading” music notation software, has me constantly frusturated. The very nature of writing music does not lend itself well to notation software, and Finale demonstrates this ‘beautifully.’
Sure, you can master it and be extremely efficient. Richard Burchard & Chris Bizianes are prime examples of masterful finale users. But for budding composers wanting to do something with multiple, disconnected voices of differing rhythms, change time signatures, key signatures, or clefs, modify the position or width of a measure, add instruments, change tempo, add articulations, tie notes, dot notes, change note duration – well, I could go on, but then I would be describing everything that goes in to a detailed piece of great music – there is a separate “tool” with hundreds of parameters and a drop down menu that you must painstakingly eye until you find the one marking you wish to insert.
On paper, you just write it. With the stroke of a pencil, you’ve got that exact pitch you want of the exact duration in the exact position with the exact articulation you want…in milliseconds.
Sure, go back to the argument of “LEARN THE PROGRAM!” Argue that Sibelius is extremely intuitive for musicians (I’ve heard more good things about Sibelius than gripes about Finale). I haven’t used Sibelius or Musescore, but the fact remains that to be truly efficient with it you’ll have to learn the ins and outs of the software.
Even knowing the program though, the creative process WILL be interupted by the point & click/grid snapping nature of software notation.
I won’t regurgitate the article I posted, but do pay attention to the studies it references.
The bottom line is this: Software notation will not allow for the free flow of creative thought as pen to paper will. You are always guaranteed some roadblock with technology, be it a dying computer battery, a software glitch that doesn’t allow you to save or crashed the program, or simply not knowing how to notate what you wish to notate.
After the advent of the printing press, did C.P.E. Bach arrange blocks on the press as he wrote? Hell no! If you think composing in Finale is a bitch, imagine composing on the original Gutenberg printing press. It’s just a stupid idea.
But this is where software notation shines: engraving. Write out your music first, and then learn the software to quickly make it look pretty.
If you want to change keys, instruments, or octaves, and you know exactly the next 20 measures in your song, you don’t want to spend 20 minutes fighting with the program figuring out how to go about doing it. Something tragic could happen…you could forget the music!
As the article mentions, there are some good times to use it. Last minute big band arrangements, unfamiliar transposing instruments, you name it. But even then, why wouldn’t you want to be the composer that can transpose on the spot? Why wouldn’t you want to understand conceptually how something will sound without requiring the aid of midi playback?
Don’t get me wrong, copy and paste is a beautiful thing, but couldn’t that contribute to the staleness of the music?
There are indeed many benefits to composing with software notation, and I can now see that it is a bit of a thorn in my side. This has been on the back of my mind for some time now, and I’m glad I’ve let it out and come to fully understand how writing music on paper will not only benefit my understanding of music and functional harmony, but also increase my output exponentially.
A counter-argument from a friend:
“Good article. I’d say you just have to go with whatever medium you can translate the ideas into your head into concrete form the fastest and smoothest.
If you’ve got an idea for a song, like you said, some people would get hit by technological roadblocks if they’re not experienced well enough with the program (which would hinder their creativity), while others would find writing an idea down physically to be more tiresome and restricting than simply using one click of a mouse on a staff line(also hindering creativity). It’s all about what you’re comfortable with imo. I don’t think anyone is necessarily “better,” I think it just depends on the person.
Some people may see technology as a limitation, while others would see all of the features of the software as aids to their creative flow. This, and the benefits of actually being able to play back what you’re writing immediately is a huge convenience, since it’s easier to hear where a piece is supposed to go, when the rest of the piece is literally playing back to you.
This is not to say there isn’t something to be said about the act of writing ideas down on a piece of paper. Its sort of the same reason why people enjoy listening to vinyl – it allows listening, or in this case writing music an activity that is more of a tangible experience. Also, you’re right about copy & pasting potentially getting stale, but that’s when the artist in you has to buckle down and know not to be lazy and actually focus on the flow of the music at hand and have good instincts.
Software doesn’t make lazy composers. Lazy composers make lazy composers.
Copy and pasting can save a lot of time if you use it correctly, so instead of spending time writing notes over and over, you can have the next idea of where you’re going in your head while you just spend 10 seconds copy and pasting, and modifying as you hear it necessary.”
Mostly good arguments!
My rant is aimed moreso at notation software than recording software. For things like modern electronic music, most of the it would be simply idiotic to notate it on paper rather than play it through . But with “classical” and contemporary works, writing it out is, without a doubt, superior.
Getting instant playback of what you’ve written is indeed great, and like I said, there are people who excell in doing it efficiently. Honestly, I’m not so bad at it myself and, while I’m writing it, I understand what theoretical concepts I’m using. But the issue here is an issue of practice: just as a pianist should be proficient in his/her scales to better perform any work of music, a composer should be proficient in knowing what they’re writing will sound like without requiring playback.
And if you read the studies on the article, it’s proven that handwriting anything improves memory recall. I said earlier that, while I’m writing in Finale, I understand what theoretical rules I’m utilizing. When I review or listen, I’ve forgotten what the hell was going through my head! Had I been writing it out on paper, based on the studies I’d better retain the techniques I used, and I could also develop shorthand to signify what concepts I utilized, so when I start to write another piece I can more quickly utilize advanced techniques and later better analyze pieces of music.
“Others would find writing an idea down physically to be more tiresome and restricting than simply using one click of a mouse on a staff line.”
Let me restate that in terms of a player:
“Others would find practicing scales to be more tiresome and restricting than simply practicing their current repetoire.”
That’s your weakest argument, and again I must say that once you do start writing by hand (and I haven’t even started, but know), it will be FAR less tiresome. Better for your eyes, too. 😉
This is indeed a very subjective argument, and while you are right – using the software is going to be better for some – just as practicing scales is a must for any musician, notating full blown compositions by hand is an essential step in the development of any serious composer.
Thank you so much for writing this article! It has opened my eyes to what has been on the back of my mind for a long time.
I REALLY need to get back to studying, but I see that your blog has a wealth of posts and compositions that I’m eager to check out. Ciao!
Experience and Cognitive Dissonance
You know the more I compose, the more I realize that the software really is a hinderance to my creativity… but mostly in the early stages. I have found if I sit down at the piano, and compose by hand, the resulting structure, basic ideas, and overall meat of the composition is better.
Fleshing out the details on the other hand is usually easier on the computer, simply because of that ability to have the instant playback of complicated music. You are not under the “tyranny of the fingers,” or your ability to play an instrument.
Don’t get me wrong though, composing by hand can also be very frustrating, but that is usually a result of something else going on in your life… some kind of cognitive dissonance.
In fact, it all comes down to brain activation and cognitive dissonance. Is your process allowing you to really be in the moment, listen to your inner composer and save that for the world to hear. If so, then you are on the right track.