Thursday, September 17, 2009

A Question of Difficulty

Investigating the role that music notation software plays in the performance difficulty of a new piece of music.

Well, it seems that my regular weekly posts on "Sibelius Composition" has once again been hit by the tardiness bug. However, better late than never, right? This week, I would like to open up a discussion on the role that music notation software MAY have in increasing the performance difficulty of new compositions. I say "may," because in all honesty I'm not 100% sure that this is an issue that stems directly from the notation software itself.

Let's set the record straight: new compositions labeled "difficult" by performers is not new. We all know the story of Mozart's Clarinet Concerto, which was considered so excruciatingly difficult at the time it was composed that Mozart himself claimed that it was a "joke," to see just how far he could push the instrument. Today, it is the most widely performed concerto in clarinet literature. Throughout the 20th century, compositions of a wide variety of difficulty (ranging from "mildly challenging" to "WTF! FML! HOW DO I PLAY THIS??!?!?") have been created both by hand and within the computer, all with varying degrees of success and/or failure. I myself have often been accused of writing music that was "too difficult," but often the end result is still very satisfying for both the performer and the audience alike.

Some of the more overt reasons for this increase in difficulty have to do with the composer's desire to expand what is considered "possible" by musical instruments. This exploration of "extended techniques" (as they are often referred to) frequently leads to new compositions that, on the surface, seem to ask the impossible of the performer. Sometimes - they are impossible. Other times, however, what appears to be un-performable turns out to be quite workable after the performer spends considerable time practicing the new technique.

Of course, this issue of difficulty presented above has NOTHING to do with music notation software. In fact, on some levels the exploration of extended techniques has been minimized as a direct result of composing on the computer. The limitations of the software often make the prospect of developing (or even recreating) an extended technique daunting, due to the notational challenges inherent in asking the player to do something that isn't standard. This is a bad practice on the part of the composer. Composers should NEVER feel chained by the program, nor should the composer ever choose not to explore an extended technique simply because he or she can't figure out how to get the program to notate it. The decision making process must remain in the mind of the composer - not the software. (Incidentally, I am reminded at this point of many arguments that I have had in the past as to whether Finale or Sibelius can handle extended notation better. Suffice it to say, I strongly believe that BOTH programs can handle these notational challenges given enough patience, creativity, and Tylenol.)

But, I digress. Getting back to the topic at hand - the main area of difficulty that can be directly attributed to music notation software isn't one of timbre, but rather of RHYTHM. The bottom line is that it is incredibly easy - perhaps too easy - to create complex rhythms that, while completely performable by MIDI playback, are next to impossible to perform by a living musician. Complex syncopations, rhythmically intricate counterpoint, nested tuplets/quintuplets/septuplets/etc., and constantly shifting meters and metric patterns are all completely possible within music notation software. Sometimes, these rhythms occur completely by accident by the composer (usually due to the unintentional shifting of the musical material by one eighth or sixteenth note). Sometimes, they occur because the composer becomes attached to the vitality that these rhythms seem to present themselves when played PERFECTLY by the computer (with absolutely no tempo fluctuations whatsoever). Other times, these rhythms are EXACTLY what the composer wants, without any regard to the possible difficulty that such rhythms may present.

It IS arguable that many of these aforementioned techniques are in fact completely performable by those musicians who are used to counting these rhythms. In fact, I have been told on more than one occasion that the increase of these complex rhythms have actually contributed to the improvement of rhythmic understanding and virtuosity by a select group of outstanding musicians (often those who are new music specialists). As mentioned above with regards to timbre and the exploration of extended techniques, these are not unique to the world of music notation software. Many composers - Brian Ferneyhough for example - have been exploring extreme rhythmic languages completely outside of the world of music notation software.

Nonetheless, one cannot argue that the software does play its part, and that regardless of whether or not there ARE performers who can play this material, many cannot. So - what is the composer to do? If you view yourself as a "rhythmic pioneer" of sorts (such as Ferneyhough), you should change NOTHING. Keep writing complex rhythms, accept that the work is difficult, and seek out the best of the best to play your music (in many regards, I wish I could have that luxury!). If you are concerned about the level of difficulty your rhythms present, though, here are a few tips that may help you:

• Count out your rhythms as you write them. If you yourself have a difficult time accurately counting out your rhythm, it is quite possible that your performers will have that difficulty as well.

• When applicable, use standard terminology to assist in tempo changes, rather than using "written out" ritards and accelerandos. (i.e. Writing out rit. and accel. instead of using feathered beaming).

• Avoid combining multiple levels of rhythmic complexity (for example, layering in counterpoint two separate lines, both of which use nested tuplets AND syncopations).

• As mentioned in prior blog entries, avoid using "extreme" tempos - they won't sound nearly as good in practice as they do in the computer.

• Try not to add in "unnecessary" rhythmic variation. This is admittedly quite subjective, and will require a delicate touch on the composer's part to ensure that there is plenty of necessary rhythmic variation to keep the music interesting, and not a single note more!

• Remember that most performers will add in some "give and take" to their own rhythmic interpretation. Don't feel like you have to change up your rhythm because the computer playback's interpretation seems "stiff."

Of course, you may also choose to ignore all of the above and simply go for it! After all, the expansion of today's rhythmic language is part of what makes contemporary music exciting! Just...not necessarily easy.


  1. Thanks Ken--good thoughts and thought provoking post. I find that after years of playing new music (I'm a pianist and composer) and getting 100's of scores from composers, I can pretty much tell which composers sit at the computer and invent music without regard for the performers, using the computer as a COMPOSING TOOL. It's one thing to create music that sounds cool, crank up the tempo on the computer and dig the sound, it's another to pass that music along with expectations of a communicative performance in the hands of a live person. This is in stark contrast to those who rigorously study the actual instruments they're writing for and use the computer as a NOTATION TOOL, sometimes as the last step. It's not rhythmic issues you mention that I usually find to be the problem, but textural impossibilities, ridiculously unpianistic figurations, illogical enharmonics, unplayable tempi generated by computer playback, etc. that are the giveaways of a "Finale Composer" (not my term--I've heard many musicians use this to describe the same characteristics). I'm all for a composer trying to stretch the limits on an instrument or notate rhythmic language that expands possibilities--I love that, but I find that the difficulties are rarely a conscious effort at expanded or extended technique. In talking with some of these "finale composers", (often young and inexperienced...and one would think they'd be striving to learn every crevice of every instrument they compose for!), it's simply careless oversight--"my computer can play it on the piano, so why not a pianist?" One finds that they haven't touched an actual piano since they slogged through class piano in college...

  2. Thank you for your observations! The main reason I started this blog was in the hopes that I could assist those very young composers who use Sibelius/Finale as a composition tool in overcoming these "careless oversights" that you mention. Fully understanding the instrument, inside-and-out, is a given; in fact, I always start my own students with the study of any instrument that they want to write for. Proper instrumentation must be known before a composer can successfully write for the instrument.

    The reason I chose to focus on rhythmic difficulty for this post is that I have actually discussed many of your other points in prior blog entries ("Enharmonically Speaking," August, 2009; "Baby got 'Playback,'" June 2009; etc.). One thing that I haven't discussed yet has to do with pianistic writing issues - that very well might be my next entry!

    I agree with you on pretty much every point with the exception of one - I do believe that it is possible to successfully use Finale and Sibelius as composition tools, but it requires education in how to use this tool PROPERLY. That is where there is a huge disconnect here - too many composition teachers ignore this completely, arguing that good composition can only be done by hand. I love writing by hand, but I do my students a disservice if I can't ALSO teach them how to write properly in the computer. Hence the blog - a place where I can try to work out these pedagogical approaches with the hopes of one day making better music for everyone, by hand or by "mouse click."

    If you have any suggestions - particularly with regards to piano writing - please let me know. I will be happy to highlight those strategies in a future post.

  3. Kenneth,
    Another very helpful post. But I struggle to parse this: use standard terminology to assist in tempo changes, rather than using "written out" ritards and accelerandos. (i.e. Writing out rit. and accel. instead of using feathered beaming).

    Which approach are you actually recommending? You seem to say use "standard terminology" and not rit. and accel. on the one hand and then use rit. and acce. not feathered beams on the other. I'm not experienced enough to know what you mean here.

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  5. Sorry - I must not have been clear on that point. I was using "rit and accel" as an example of what is standard, as opposed to feather beams which are not. There are times when feathered beams are completely appropriate - however, they are often misused, and lead to unnecessary complication. If a simple accelarando or ritardando can accomplish the job of "speeding up or slowing down," that should be used (not as "sexy" as feathered beams, but much clearer...).

    (I deleted my prior post - I had a typo in there that made it quite difficult to understand what I was saying...)