The evolution of writing music
Even though many people are aware of it, it has never been really acknowledged that the notation of music has gone through a much more dramatic evolution than other written sign languages since the introduction of machines and later computers.
To give an example – for authors the introduction of the typewriter (1860) was the last really dramatic change in the basic way they work. Writing became considerably faster (if one was good with a keyboard) and it is probably inconceivable to imagine a fast writer like the great Jim Thompson churning out his manuscripts in the speed he did without the help of a typewriter.
The personal computer and text programs opened up countless new possibilities for correction, copying, editing, but the basic input basically remained the same, via a keyboard and looking at the written text on a screen instead of on paper. Even though there are very good speech-to-text programs pörofessional writers rarely use them, as typing can be considerably faster and more convenient than correcting converted speech texts.
Music notation was never revolutionized by a typewriter (even though musical typewriters do exist), and for a while the most revolutionary idea was Stravinsky’s invention of a stave drawing device. When the first notation programs for personal computers began to appear, they were usually cumbersome, inconvenient or programmed by people with no clue about music (like the early versions of Finale). But very slowly they catched on – I would define the moment they became attractive for composers was when it became easy to hook up a midi keyboard and actually press the key of the note to be notated. In early notation programs one had to physically type the names of notes on a keyboard, now long strings of notes and especially chords could be inputted very quickly simply by playing them.
Soon it also became possible to input music by actually playing it with a metronome (or a flexible metronome, like in Sibelius) and have the notation program do the dirty work, but right now this input method is still as slow as dictating, as the amount of mistakes to be corrected is counteractive to the speed gained in inputting. Still, most amateurs I talk to think that exactly this is the way music is notated with a composer. Very often I have to explain to them that I mostly don’t compose WITH the computer, but INTO the computer. The former is only the case when one creates electronic music or uses composition algorithms.
If one is proficient at programs like Sibelius or Finale it is already very easy to do conventional notation, probably up to 90% quicker than writing it by hand. If one uses a lot of complex or experimental notation it is very different, though, and complex scores still take longer to input than doing it by hand (but then have the advantage of playback and part extraction).
I come from a generation which started out writing everything by hand, and I can definitely say that notation software has vastly magnified my output (for good or worse). I remember that I used to spend whole weeks with doing nothing but copying parts or copying score sketches into a clean score, work that was completely uncreative and didn’t make me a better composer and was very time consuming. Now these things can be done in the space of a few clicks, which really is a dramatic change, as I can concentrate much more on the creative process.
The most dramatic change is the playback feature, though, which on one side is very practical if you have to demo your work or give choreographers or singers an impression of the orchestration, but which can also delude and misguide composers who now spend a lot of time correcting or even inventing their music by constantly playing it back instead of listening to it in their head (which is much, much quicker). I very often force myself to work away from the computer for first sketches, because then I will not be distracted by this temptation, once you have a firm grasp of what you want to write, the playback is actually only needed at the end for checking things. But for composers it has changed a lot in the way they work – imagine you are a playwright, and while you write a play there is a simulation of actors actually playing it on a stage! A composer can do exactly that with an orchestra piece, and right now the playback possibilities have reached a stage where most amateurs can be fooled by „artificial“ orchestras.
Still, I know many colleagues who are so used to writing music by hand that they don’t want to directly input it in the computer. They usually prepare either extensive particells or fully-blown scores, and then set out to copy them into the computer (or have other people copy them, like Wolfgang Rihm or Jörg Widmann). I agree with the notion that for pure liberty a pen with a sketch pad with some staves on it can’t be beaten. Even though I usually write my scores directly into Sibelius, I usually do quick written sketches first, sometimes in a coded shorthand that I can only understand a couple of hours after writing it myself. Often have I looked at old sketches of mine and understood….nothing. My shorthand code constantly changes, and I sketch very quickly and messily, but then it is fun for me to input it into Sibelius and make it clearer.
For these composers and perhaps also me there is another revolution at hand, in the form of this new program called StaffPad:. With this program you can write on a pad, and the computer turns everything you write into neat notation immediately, while at the same time giving all the possibilities that other music notation software gives: copying, transposing, playback. So for the first time you can sketch something and make it „real“ immediately. Actually there were already a couple of simple handwriting notation programs, mostly simple affairs for the ipad. But StaffPad has been optimized for Windows 8 and Windows Tablets, apparently a conscious decision because the interface possibilities are better than on a mac or ipad, and features things that have not been seen.
I am not endorsing this program – I have no idea how it is, and I don’t plan to acquire a Windows Tablet anytime soon. I also feel that I would actually be slower when using a handwriting interface, as a keyboard combined with a keypad can be much faster for input than writing can ever be. But looking at the demo some of the features of StaffPad look already very impressive, and it might be a great tool for composing while travelling, when your studio setup is not available. We will see.
Another (minor) revolution might just be around the corner.
(Thanks to Steffen Wick for the link)