Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Enharmonically Speaking

This is nothing like editing a large ensemble piece to give one a little bit of perspective as to the pitfalls that you can fall into when composing on the computer! Over the past few days, I have been hard at work editing my new orchestra piece (interspersed with nonsensical diversions, as evidenced by Monday's post...). As you might imagine, this process has given rise to a long list of errors, errors that can easily creep into your work when composing into Finale or Sibelius.

Take enharmonic spellings for instance. It feels like I have gone over my work at least six or seven times up to this point, (although in reality it is more like one or two times...it just feels like more...). Yet, as I continue to scan the score, I continue to catch incorrect spellings of notes. These include: flats where they are supposed to be sharps, augmented seconds and diminished thirds, multiple instances of missing accidentals or accidentals where there should be none, etc., etc. It makes me wonder why it is that these enharmonic spellings, a relatively benign problem writing by hand, has become such an issue when using music notation software.

Of course, I do have a hypothesis as to why this is. In my opinion (and I stress - this is my opinion, not fact!), the relatively quick process of entering notes into the computer allows for the user to bypass minute parts of his or her own creative process. This includes the small, almost inconsequential decision of choosing one enharmonic spelling over another. When writing by hand, one has to methodically choose whether the note will be one spelling or another - after all, the note can't be placed in two places at once on the staff! This doesn't necessarily mean that the right enharmonic spelling will be chosen by the composer, but simply that the composer IS still in control over that choice.

I'll be honest: many times, in my own compositional process, I too fall into this pitfall. I input notes into Sibelius using a keyboard, which as a result completely bypasses this step of choosing an enharmonic spelling. The keyboard doesn't know which enharmonic spelling to use; in fact, all that the keyboard is doing is sending a MIDI note command to the software, which then does its best to interpret whether or not the note is a flat or a sharp. This decision is often completely arbitrary (although depending on the situation, one will be favored over the other), quite frequently leading to incorrect spellings. After the note is input, I am often on to the next note - choosing to leave the spelling aside as an "unanswered question," one that will inevitably have to be answered through the editing process. The problem in this case is that I never made a choice as to which enharmonic spelling I would prefer, and instead let the computer choose for me.

Both Finale and Sibelius have settings to assist with this process, but they are not 100% foolproof. In particular, I find that these programs are most susceptible to incorrect spellings when the composer chooses to do one of the following:

a. when using a key signature, modulating to an unrelated key
b. working in a remote key (i.e. six flats/sharps or more), particularly with a transposing instrument involved
c. working with a symmetrical scale (whole tone, octatonic, etc.)
d. working in an open key (no key signature)

The last one is where the majority of problems seem to arrive for both myself and my students. Without a key signature to check against, the program is literally guessing as to which enharmonic spelling is best in any given situation. The truth is, even when writing by hand figuring out the best enharmonic spelling is often not an easy task. There are many instances - particularly when composing using a non-tonal language - where the best choice is far from apparent. The example of the whole-tone scale is a classic case of this, where it is impossible to spell the scale without either using a diminished third between adjacent pitches, or a diminished octave across the entire scale.

Nonetheless, if nothing else it is the composers duty to ensure that all enharmonic spellings in the work are chosen by the COMPOSER and not by the computer. This process can be saved for editing, as I often choose to do so. However, if you want to find the best spelling the first time, here are a few tips to assist in this process:

1. Always be aware of the scale that you are using (if you are using one), and make sure that the notes you are choosing fall into that scale. If the note is a non-chord tone, then be able to rationalize its spelling as such.

2. When using an asymmetrical scale, be consistent with your spelling. In the case of a whole-tone scale, choose the same place within the scale for your diminished third to appear, and make it a location that occurs infrequently (for example, if you are alternating between two steps in the scale, that probably isn't your best choice of a location!).

3. When composing atonally, choose intervals that are the easiest for the performer to read. Half-steps, whole-steps, and common intervals are always easier than augmented and diminished intervals other than the tritone.

4. Prioritize intervalic spelling within one instrument over vertical spellings within the ensemble - after all, an individual performer is not particularly interested in the spellings of his or her fellow musician.

5. Play or sing the lines as you compose them, considering whether or not the spellings feel right to you.

I would love to read up on how the rest of you approach enharmonic spellings, particularly when working in an open key or when using an asymmetrical scale. Until then, though, I really should return to my editing. After all, I have a bunch of A-sharps in my piece now that really should be B-flats.

I think.

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