Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Overcoming Sibelius (or Finale)

First off - welcome to "The Electric Semiquaver!" If you are reading this, then allow me to say a hearty THANK YOU for reading these thoughts and opinions of mine. I know there are many, many of these blogs out there for you to spend your time reading, so it is an honor that you are choosing to read mine.

I have created this blog as a forum to present my thoughts on a topic very dear to me - composing (duh!). However, since this topic is ridiculously broad, I have chosen to focus in on a somewhat controversial topic in this field - composing within music notation software (Finale or Sibelius, specifically). Why? Well, as both a composer and a teacher of music composition, I have seen many of the missteps, pratfalls, and outright disasters that tend to come about from writing music on the computer. However, through my own personal experience, as well as working directly with my students, I have come up with several strategies and pedagogical approaches to help young composers recognize and overcome the traps that tend to hinder successful "computer composition." I don't in any way profess that these strategies are universal fixes, and that by somehow reading my blog, anyone with one of these programs will become the next Stravinsky. However, it is my hope that using these strategies and approaches might help composers effectively "overcome" the program, allowing them to write as naturally as one might with a pencil and manuscript paper.

A little about myself to start things off: I write in Sibelius. There, I said it. In fact, I have always composed using one form of music notation software or another, having begun composing with an old copy of Finale 3.1 back in 1994. I was completely unaware of the stigma associated with composing on the computer, nor the dangers that might hamper a young composition student. Of course, once I got to college my teachers were very quick to "correct" my approach. I learned how to write by hand, and was formally instructed that this was the ONLY effective way to compose. By the end of my undergraduate degree, I only used the computer to input my finalized scores.

One might wonder why this is such a big deal - after all, a poet wouldn't hide the fact that he or she would write in a word processor (right???). However, music composition is, apparently, different. There are good reasons for this. As music notation software has developed over the past two decades, several issues have arisen that have cramped the style of more than a few composers. These include the misrepresentation of instrument sounds through MIDI playback, the inaccurate notation of everything from barlines to music spacing, and the dreaded crutch of music students everywhere - copy and paste. As a result, the composer begins to unconsciously tailor their piece to the program. Instruments are used improperly, and often uncreatively since the program can't play it back any other way. The composer's ear remains untrained, due to an over reliance on playback. Tempos become way too fast, leading to the eventual criticism from the performer that he or she is "not a robot." Repetition becomes a crutch for the lazy composer, rather than a standard practice of motivic development. All of this leads to one overwhelming conclusion - that composing in the computer stifles the creative process.

Knowing all of this, I slowly began to return to the computer during my years as a graduate student, bringing with me a new-found knowledge of proper notation and instrumentation. This changed my entire approach to writing on the computer. I became a "hybrid" composer, sketching by hand, then composing out in Finale (and then eventually Sibelius). And, I became good at it. I overcame many of the issues listed above (although I will admit that my tempos do occasionally still border on the ridiculous...mostly on my own whim, though). I learned how to use playback to assist me with pacing, rather than to rely on it as a crutch for the entire piece. I adjusted many of the defaults within the program to give my scores a unique, and *accurate* look. Performers complemented my music for "not looking like Finale," a complement that I still enjoy to this day. I successfully "overcame Sibelius."

Despite all this, it is my belief that writing on the computer has fundamentally altered my creative process. This change is not a bad change, nor is it a good change. It simply is. (It is probably similar to the change that composers went through when modern notation began to take a hold back in the 16th and 17th centuries, although I would defer to a music historian on this topic since I am hardly an expert here.) I also believe that I am not the only composer that has experienced this change. Like it or not, music notation software has fundamentally changed the creative process of contemporary composers. And, it is not going away. All of us - particularly those of us who teach young composers - need to learn how to successfully compose in music notation software. The only other options are to have our students be left behind in the ever-shrinking world of manuscript paper (a world which I do enjoy, and will miss terribly when it is gone), or to let them continue to fall into the pratfalls of bad computer music.

OK - off of the high horse now.

I will continue to post here weekly on this topic, with each week focusing in on a different issue on composing on the computer. In the meantime, please share with me your thoughts and experiences as well!


  1. Thank you for beginning the e-discussion on a much-needed topic. As a composer who operates almost exclusively using computer notation software, I am anxious to see what you write in the coming weeks!

  2. I've just begun using Sibelius 6, and I think that this bog will be very useful. I'm looking forward to the follow ups.

  3. This is an interesting discussion. I have used Finale for years and am now going to try Sibelius 6. I view composing at a computer in a similar light as the debate between composing at the piano or away from the piano. I have found that I can come up with things away from the piano that I never would have thought of at the piano. ALSO, I can come up with things at the piano that I never would have thought of away from the piano. Ultimately, whether you write at a computer, at a desk, or at the piano, the music has to go through a sort of "vetting" process by the composer. Usually, if I "like" the music I try to use it no matter how it was conceived.

    That being said, one of the things I miss about writing on the computer is the ability to write with "rhythmic curves." I used to be able to sketch out a piece rhythmically and fill in the notes later. This was helpful to me. With computer notation you pretty much have to write pitches - so the technique has not been that useful.

    Anyway, interesting discussion. . .

  4. This is very interesting. I teach composition at an Apple Distinguished School where students work with laptops from year 5. We have one of the biggest and most revered music programs in Australia. We are now trying to develop the students' inner ear and ability to write down what they hear in their head both away from and with Sibelius. I will be very interested to see whether your approach is similar to ours - or not!

  5. Slightly off-topic - please could you enable an RSS feed for this site? And I do find white-on-black much harder to read than the inverse!

  6. This comment has been removed by the author.

  7. Aftertrace - I added the RSS feed. I personally like the white on black, but I'll experiment and see if there is another format that I like as well. Glad to see you're comments and interest!

  8. I was directed to your blog through the Sibelius blog. I am a legally blind user who has benefited indescribably from the computer revolution and particularly from adaptations for the blind through the decades.
    I began playing the piano as an infant and began composing shortly after that. However, it wasn’t until the combination of text to speech and notation software adapted for the blind made it possible for blind musicians to notate their ideas that I could finally get in the game at the level of my aptitudes.
    I am well aware of the pitfalls of composing at the piano and thus limiting and directing one’s ideas in terms of that which two hands can play. I will be fascinated to hear more about how similar limitations impact the computer notation user. Having listened to acoustic music for nearly fifty years, I hope that I will not find myself choosing tempos “by computer.” Similarly, I hope to have the common sense to employ dynamics and articulations based on what my ears know and not what my software assumes. That said, I’m sure that I will find myself noticing more and more subtleties of choice affected by what Sibelius does or doesn’t do easily and will thus benefit from taking your advice to heart. Thank you for starting this specific discussion and giving us the benefit of your knowledge and experience here.


  9. Thank you for the RSS feed. I'm subscribed and won't miss a post. I look forward to the debate! - James Humberstone

  10. Interesting topic, Kenneth. When I first starting writing music, back in the late 50s, early 60s, I longed for a 'typewriter' that would ease the tiresome handwritten approach to composing. But of course there was nothing available in those days.
    And finally, after a brief stint of getting other people to copy my music using Finale first, and then Sibelius, I went out and bought Sibelius for myself. What a gift. I spent the first months putting a heap of my older music onto Sibelius, and printing out superb copies. Then I tried writing directly onto the program, and had a ball. Now I write music much easily altogether: starting at the piano, and then saving myself a good deal of time copying out repeated sections by shifting over to Sibelius - and then back to the piano, and so on. It seems to work very well.

  11. Hi guys. I have two monitors, one to have all the windows etc, so the other is solely for the score which works well. I agree with your love of PDFs, I use constantly. Amazing what you pick up in a score by viewing it just a little differently.

    While composing I use panorama which takes away a lot of page margins etc which seem to waste a lot of space. Also it's very liberating not knowing where your music fits in relation to page layout ... as silly as that may sound.

    Superb blog, look forward to the next entry,

  12. Like you, I am a hybrid composer who was taught back in the 70s that "real" composers do it with pencil on paper. I bought that until I learned that my teacher often did his work at the piano (oddly, he hadn't mentioned that). Now, I sketch madly w/o benefit of any tool, first; then bang around on the 88 key monster, and then go to Finale (although my students are pressuring me to go to Sibelius, and I will likely give in sometime this semester). This is a process that allows me lots of flexibility but also enables a higher rate of production than before. As that venerable Canadian composer Red Green has cogently observed, any tool can be the right tool. In my experience, the reverse is just as true: any tool can lead us into the pitfalls of convenient comfort and overly familiar sonorities (Morton L., are you listening?) ... any tool can be the wrong tool. In the end, it's not the tools, but the mind and ear and heart using them, that really matter.

  13. As a composer (who, like many of you, migrated from pencil to Finale to Sibelius)I have developed a nose for things that smell of "computer composition", and find some of these things very frustrating. I think the midi playback is a huge problem, because it leads you into things that sound cool on the machine but do not read at all in performance, especially in the area of rhythmic complexity. I have rejected outright for performance many works because they were essentially unplayable yet I know they sounded great on the machine! And I have seen such errors even in the works of well known composers, although an experienced composer can usually (but not always) stop short of the truly ridiculous.

    I definitely see pitfalls in my own works, although I try to fight them. I recently entered into Sibelius a large composition I had written completely at a desk in the days before there was any decent computing software. (and I had no access to a piano when writing this piece, so it was pure "head music"). It was fascinating to hear how different it was-but not only from computer music but my own music composed at a piano. Every method has its good and bad points, but I think overall-and I will be interested to read what you say about this-I think the computer is the most treacherous approach; but I agree, we need to tame the beast (especially the dreaded midi sound and copy and paste tool), not ignore it.