Wednesday, July 15, 2009

The Big Picture

Hello all! It is time once again for this week's edition of the Electric Semiquaver. This week, I would like to address how to overcome what I like to refer to as "Notation Software Tunnel Vision." This occurs when the composer focuses on a relatively small portion of a score, failing to see how that section fits into the rest of the piece. This is an easy problem to stumble upon when composing in Finale or Sibelius, since the only music on screen at any one time is the section that you are currently writing!

In all honesty, though, this isn't a problem that solely exists in notation software. I was first introduced to this compositional issue as a student myself, when one of my own composition professors encouraged me to compose (by hand) on "very, very large paper." I really didn't understand what my teacher was trying to do at the time - after all, how would larger paper improve my writing??? However, when I tried it out it became apparent how much easier it was for me to put my composition into context with itself. I could see exactly what I had written earlier, compared to what I was currently working on. In essence, I was seeing "the forest from the trees." (This may all seem fairly obvious, but until you actually try it out you don't realize what you are missing!!!)

In music notation software, this is a somewhat harder problem to overcome. Without spending a ridiculous amount of money on a "very, very large monitor," the digital composer is forced to work within the relative confines of the screen that he or she is working on. Tunnel vision is almost unavoidable, since the software makes it impossible to see anything other than what the composer is currently working on (unless someone knows of a way to do split-screen in Finale or Sibelius??? Or perhaps a Finale or Sibelius developer could add that as a new feature in the next version?). This problem is compounded when working on a score for a large ensemble, since inevitably the composer will only be able to see one-half of the ensemble on the screen at any given time - not an ideal way to compose!

It may seem pretty obvious, but the very first thing one should do in this situation is to PRINT their score out as they work on it. Having a hard copy to refer to is essential, as it allows the composer to always have onscreen what he or she is currently composing, rather than constantly scrolling back and forth within your digital score. A hard copy can also be marked up, making editing a much easier process later on (after all, as I often threaten my students who don't bring in hard copies of their score: permanent marker + monitor = new monitor).

If you are interested in seeing beyond the individual pages of the score, here are a couple of other tricks to try:

• Post your print-out onto large sheets of cardboard (34"x22") so you can see up to 8 pages at once.
• Vary your screen view as you compose - work in different magnifications, and in different view modes.
• Make a PDF version of your working score so that you can refer to it in a separate screen window.

And, if you have some money to burn - buy a second monitor to mount your PDF file, side by side with your music notation software.

It should be mentioned that I am a BIG fan of working off of PDFs. They are much more eco-friendly than hard copy print outs, and are surprisingly easy to read from. Of course, you can't physically write on the PDF, so a hard copy print out will still be needed at some point in the creative process (especially if you have a sarcastic composition teacher that likes to threaten his student's laptop monitors with a red Sharpie). If you don't have a way to print PDFs, I highly suggest acquiring a way to do so.

How about you? What ways have you come up with to overcome "Notation Software Tunnel Vision?" Please share your thoughts!


  1. Few thoughts:
    1. Both Fin and Sib offer the means to minimize and resize score windows to fit multiples on a screen. On Fin-PC this will be limited by the total size of the application window. So, if you have two monitors, you won't be able to drag past the finale window unless the window itself occupies both monitors. This isn't the case with Fin-Mac and I don't think it is the case with Sib on either.

    2. Fin has a little known and probably underused feature called "Staff Sets" that allows for up to eight different staff combinations to be viewed. So, if you had an orchestra piece and had a flute+percussion+strings section, you could set up a staff set to see just those staves (kind of like staff optimization but it doesn't actually affect the printed score - just the score on the screen). Not sure if Sib has something like this.

    3. Things like bookmarks and hotkeys are essential in order to setup an effecient workflow for moving around and seeing different parts of the document. admittedly they are seemingly counterproductive at first ("why do I have to take so much time to set this up?!"). However, the speed and effeciency offered in future projects is well worth the effort. In terms of Fin, I use the Patterson and TG Tools plugins in order to zip back and forth with views and apply quick edits (I also use two 19" monitors).

    4. I typically print out a score, law it in a big row that spirals around on the floor, and then go through it in real time.

  2. Good suggestions there Rafael. The only reason I don't use multiple windows, as suggestion in post #1, is that my own monitor space is at a premium - in some ways, it makes it harder for me to use multiple windows.

    On #2 of Rafael's post - Sibelius does have the same feature (thank you for reminding me of it!!!), but I can't recall what it's name is offhand. My only thought of this is that, in a way, using these sets also contribute to tunnel vision in that the composer would inadvertently not consider writing for the instruments that are not present in the set (I'm hypothesizing here, though, so I could be wrong).

  3. When working in Sibelius (version 5 or later) there is a mode called "panorama" that I've gotten very attached to. The mode simply takes your score and lays it out without breaks between pages or systems and makes the entire piece look like it is printed on a large strip of paper. Panorama is supposed to allow you to compose without having to worry about layout and formatting so that you can get your ideas down more quickly, but I find that it is very similar to the 'really large paper' idea that your composition professor gave you and helps me to think of the composition as a unit rather than as individual chunks.

  4. I've never used Panorama myself - isn't it similar to Scroll view in Fin, or is it something better than that?

  5. Staff Sets = Focus on Staves in Sib (the icon inbetween panorama and transposition)

    Panorama = Scroll view for all intents and purposes. In panorama you can respace distance between staves and it won't effect page view. I'm not sure why that is good or bad - I just point it out.

    About monitors, I used to have one that would rotate 90ยบ to give a nice portait view. My graphics card at the time really couldn't handle this but it was nice to see an orchestral score in complete view this way.

  6. I like Rafael's idea of the score spiral. I tend to stick things to the wall at eye level and sort them out. I have a couple of whiteboards around for the same purpose.

    I find that I usually print an early copy of a score, mostly so I can edit whatever I need without having to deal with a computer. With my setup, it's faster than trying to find certain spots on the computer, and there's just something about working with paper and pencil.

    I've found that Focus on Staves, especially when used with Panorama, greatly improves the speed of Sibelius, at least with my setup.

    Also, FYI, the version of Windows coming out in October has hotkeys for sending windows to different monitors, or making them take up half the screen, which has come in useful more than a few times.

  7. In Sibelius I make extensive use of the "Focus on Staves" feature. If you're working on the strings you don't need to see the brass, except maybe the first trumpet to remember that there was something. Sometimes I even (automatically) create a "piano reduction" from e.g. brass and woods to have more space on the screen for the strings, or vice versa.

    I also use rehearsal marks and comments to add structure for the composition process; for the final version I delete a lot of rehearsal marks which are useless for rehearsing the music.

    Finally, the combination of "Focus on Staves" and the very handy Cmd + - zoom function makes a lot of sense in keeping track of where you are, in zooming in and out.

    mben77, I'm also attached to Panorama view because it separates layouting from composing. Very helpful feature. Don't know what's it like in Finale though.

  8. Very interesting! I will have to try out these features (Panorama and Focus on Staves) during my next composition session. I've always resisted these personally, mostly because I've grown accustomed to my own approaches. However, part of the reason I started this blog is for this very type of discussion! Good feedback everyone!

  9. As a professional software developer, and "hobby" composer with 3 year Sibelius (and a little Finale) experience, writing for theatre, I noticed The "Big Picture" is the main issue when it comes to handling complexity. There is always a short of features in software and also in Sibelius that address this issue and it comes to me with no surprice. I hope the professional composers to hand over ideas from e.g. music theory and own practise that leads to good implementations. So my question to the composing professionals is: What features should be developed to assist more in managing complexity with the compose and arranging task?

  10. Robert - one feature that I personally wouldn't mind seeing implemented in music notation software would be a split-screen feature (similar to newer versions of Microsoft Word or Excel), where you can easily manage two separate parts of your score side by side, in the same window (that way they are both active at the same time). This would allow for a greater degree of interactivity between the two portions of the score, whether it would be for editing or arranging. Being able to have two different levels of zoom, or two different "score sets" for each part of the split screen would be helpful as well.

    Basically - the more flexibility the composer has in viewing their score in progress, the easier it will be for the composer to adjust their own personal workflow to the program.

  11. Robert and Kenneth, "score sets", yes, that's it. I use Logic to produce the music I've written in Sibelius, and Logic has up to 9 "screen sets" where you can combine all views (like arrange, mixer, event list, piano roll, notation (crap), automation etc.) in whatever zoom level. Pressing a number switches to the respective screenset. This is really fast way to have different highly tweaked views of the same material.

    The analogy in a dedicated notation software would be great. The "navigator" window is a weak remote relative of this one...

    What I would also LOVE to see is a sophisticated version of the Focus on Staves feature where you would not hide some systems but create an automatic "piano reduction" of the hidden material. This would not have to be a playable, nicely prepared voice but only a (greyed out) rough view of the hidden material in no more than one or two systems.

    Ok, given this, the next step would be a modified panorama view where, if there's enough space because your focus is only on one, two or three systems plus the reduction, one can toggle an automatic line break so that one utilises the whole height of the screen.

  12. Kenneth, you can do what you want but with two windows in Sibelius. If you open your score, then go to Window > New Window, then Tile the Windows and/or resize them just as you need them, you can have one zoomed all the way out to see the whole page and one zoomed all the way in on the bars you're working on. This means you don't need the separate PDF window. When you make an edit on either screen you will see the notes move/change instantaneously in the other window. You can even have your zoomed out score in Page View and your close up editing in Panorama. The only problem you wll have is that the one window won't follow the other, so you'll need to manually reposition them as you continue.

    A note on the other posts: Sibelius' Focus on Staves is not quite the same as Finale's Staff Sets. With Focus on Staves each time you want to use it you have to select the staves you want to use, which can take quite a while if you're working on a Mahlerian-sized score, then click the button. Staff Sets in Finale is a little different in that it allows you to make groups of intruments and quickly jump between them. Sibelius' is more intuitive, but Finale users have complained to me many times that it's not as good.

    Luckily there's an easy way to replicate Finale's feature in Sibelius. Go to Window > Parts, and in the Parts Window click on the New Part button. Add whichever parts you'd like to work on together, and you've got a new part with as many instruments in it as you like. You can now locate this in the list and jump to it any time to work on that group - you can even change the staff size, or change to panorama to work just in that part, and Sibelius will remember how you like to work on that group of instruments.

    When you finish your work, if you find you've created a number of parts with groups you were working on and they're cluttering up your parts list, you can simply delete them.

    Thanks for keeping this excellent blog going. I would be interested to know at what point different composers are going to the notation program. Personally I always sketch everything by hand at first, at least so all material is there in rough form before going to Sibelius. I also try not to use Sibelius' playback apart from to proof pitches, because I have learned that my inner ear is much more reliable as far as what will work with 'real' instruments is concerned.

  13. "aftertrace said...
    Kenneth, you can do what you want but with two windows in Sibelius. If you open your score, then go to Window > New Window, then Tile the Windows and/or resize them just as you need them, you can have one zoomed all the way out to see the whole page and one zoomed all the way in on the bars you're working on. This means you don't need the separate PDF window."

    You are correct that using the multiple windows does serve the same function - thank you (everyone) for pointing that out. I'll still use the PDF though, as I like to look at it for reference (there is something about the PDF that feels more like a hard copy than looking directly at the screen).