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!