Friday, September 4, 2009

Notation for the Traditionally-Challenged

Dealing with non-standard notation in Sibelius/Finale.

Many of my previous posts have been operating on the assumption that when one composes directly into Sibelius or Finale, it is likely that the composer is using standard notation most of the time. After all, these programs are designed to facilitate the use of standard musical practices FIRST; anything which might be considered non-standard in practice is logically less of a priority for these programs, simply because of the fact that they are considered to be *non-standard*.

For example, all music notation software - including "lite" versions of software such as Finale Allegro and Sibelius First - easily allows for the placement of notes, standard simple and compound rhythms, expression markings, articulations, common time-signatures, and tempos with few problems whatsoever. However, if the composer wishes to create a musical gesture that is out-of-the-ordinary (for example, an aleatoric "box" where musical fragments are repeated out-of-time over a set number of seconds) the composer may need to wrestle with the program for quite a while before successfully creating the idea. Don't misunderstand me - these programs CAN handle all sorts of alternative notations with a surprising amount of flexibility. However, creating these often involves "breaking" the program on one level or another, and is almost always a time-intense exercise in patience, diligence, and comprehension of the program's reference manual. (Oh - and don't get me started on graphic scores - that is a whole other issue on its own!)

The problem that needs to be addressed is what to do when the composer chooses - either out of frustration or possibly even laziness - not to go through with their original non-standard idea simply because it is too hard to do. Composers that I have worked with in the past often refer to this as allowing the program to dictate your composition to you. This cannot be allowed. Regardless of how the composer chooses to notate an idea, the composer should be free to implement it in anyway they see fit - whether it is standard or not (of course, whether it is WISE to notate it one way or the other is a different issue altogether. Wow - that's my second aside in two paragraphs...).

A common solution is to write out your idea by hand first, so that when you are notating it into the computer you force yourself to recreate your hand notated idea. This method usually ends up with the composer succeeding in recreating their hand-written idea after many hours of consulting forums, technical support, and the help menu. However, since this blog is about composing directly into notation software, I would like to propose a couple other ways to deal with this particular issue should a composer choose to create their idea that way:

• First rule: DO NOT use playback here. Most alternative notations are used to create sounds and rhythms that can't be handled through standard notation. Unfortunately, neither Finale nor Sibelius are built to handle the playback of most alternative notations (with a few exception here and there) since that would require the program to be able to be taught how to interpret them. Using playback here can actually be harmful to the creative process, as repeated listening of an "incorrect playback" may color the composer's perception of what they've written, eventually leading the composer to change or even scrap what they have created.

• If you must insist on having an audio playback as a way to hear your progress, make an audio mock-up of your idea in the sequencing software of your choice.

• Get accustomed to "breaking" the program so that you are aware of all the different ways that Finale and Sibelius can handle alternative notation. In Finale, get to know the Special Tool box backwards and forwards. In Sibelius, get to know the Properties box, as it will be your best friend.

• Try creating a Schenkerian diagram in either program. This is a great way to teach yourself how to remove barlines and stems, change the size of noteheads, extend beams, and place "invisible" notes to enforce non-standard spacing.

• Experiment with percussion staves. They are programmed to handle multiple sounds and notations on a single instrument, and are great tools to use for graphic representations of sounds.

• For power users - make your own fonts! This way, you can simply bring in your newly created font and place the notes as easily as you would standard notes.

• When all else fails, get to know a graphics program. Both Finale and Sibelius allow the importation of graphics into your scores, allowing for all sorts of alternative notations free from the constraints of the program (Yes - this isn't actually composing into our notation software, but it IS still at the computer!).

There does seem to be a trend that, with each successive version of Sibelius, more and more alternative notations are becoming integrated into the software. Flutter-tonguing, for instance, is a technique that is now completely integrated, even switching patches automatically when called for. Quarter tones, jazz "scoops and falls," and other non-standard articulations are becoming quite common. This is a good trend, and I hope that over time more and more non-standard practices continue to be integrated into the software.


  1. You mention importing graphics into Sibelius/Finale. Another technique I like to use is to export your score into a graphics program and edit work on it as a graphic.

    Many things things that take lots of manual labor and heavy editing/cheating in Sibelius can be done in minutes in Adobe Illustrator using tools that are actually designed for that kind of thing.

  2. Very good suggestion Joe! I'll have to remember that one - that would seem to be especially useful for creating "ars subtilier" style graphic scores.