Wednesday, February 17, 2010

The (better) art of notation

Tips on how to accurately reproduce your scores in Finale and Sibelius.

Today on The Electric Semiquaver, a noteworthy event: a posting on Finale and Sibelius that actually discusses NOTATION.

All joking aside, this is in fact news - almost all of my posts in the past have eschewed discussing notation directly, instead focusing on the craft of composition within notation software. This has been quite intentional on my part, since the main goal of this blog is to help those who compose in notation software write BETTER music, not just PRETTIER music.

However, as I often tell my students: "notation IS communication." It is impossible for me not to eventually cover the topic of notation, as the accurate representation of one's music is vitally important to the success or failure of a given work. Music that is notated accurately, cleanly, and effectively will ultimately receive a better performance then music that is notated sloppily and full of errors.

Of course, simply discussing how to notate your music more effectively in these programs would prove to be an endless discussion. I am not going to make any attempts to cover EVERYTHING that could be said in one post. Today, I am choosing to focus on ways to make your music look more like actual published music - not simply another generic "Finale" or "Sibelius" look-alike.

First off, before you begin using any of the tips listed below, I HIGHLY suggest that you acquire a copy of Gardner Read's Music Notation textbook. This book, old by today's standards, is still IMO the best text out their that discusses the accurate and CORRECT way to notate your music. Many little details, from the correct way to place a tie and beam angles, to advanced notation techniques, are discussed in this text. "But Ken - doesn't Finale and Sibelius do most of this for you?" No. While Finale and Sibelius do have decent default settings, truly taking advantage of these programs requires the composer to understand how to notate WITHOUT leaning on the software (this is especially important in the eventuality that the software notates something incorrectly - which happens far more often than we frankly want).

Ok then, on to the fun stuff - ways to make your score stand out:

1. Change the default type font. I cannot stress this enough - any score that uses Times New Roman as its font automatically looks cheap.

2. On the same topic, don't use "silly-looking" or difficult to read fonts either. Stick with clean type fonts (i.e. New Century Schoolbook, Garamond, Lucida, and Futura are all good examples).

3. Bold many of your score markings. This includes your instrument names, tempo markings, techniques, and score expressions. For those that you feel italics is more appropriate, try bold italics instead. Remember - your score and parts will be read from a distance. Bold type fonts will ensure that those markings are NOTICED.

4. It doesn't hurt to increase the font size of your tempo markings as well - 18 point is quite appropriate for a large ensemble score.

5. Increase your barline width by one one-hundredth of an inch (usually, taking it from .01 to .02). Default barlines are the same width as staff lines. If you look at any published score, you will notice that those barlines are most definitely not.

6. Play with your beam angles. Don't feel that you have to conform to any one approved style (i.e. French beams come to mind). There are several schools of thought in this area, so experimentation is encouraged. Just...don't go nuts. Also, as with barline thickness, you can also experiment with beam thickness.

7. Likewise, play with the thickness of your slurs. Make sure that your slurs and your ties look DIFFERENT.

This is not an all-inclusive list by any means, but it is a good place to start. The bottom line is that you want a score that doesn't look like a default score, and yet still conforms to good notational practice. When in doubt, ask yourself if it looks right or not. If it looks off, it probably is!

Finally, a note about my lack of recent posts: basically, I find myself in a bit of a pickle. I do wish to continue to provide regular posts to this blog, but unfortunately I find myself with less and less time to do so. To that end, I will be making one more post in a couple of weeks, but then afterwards will likely have to go back into hiatus until the summer when I can post with greater regularity. Thank you all for your patience and continued reading!

What about you? Do you have any notation tips that you would like to share? Feel free to post and share!

43 comments:

  1. I'd actually disagree with you on a couple of points, Kenneth. I don't think it's a good idea to change the thickness of beams, and nor do I think it's a good idea to change the thickness of slurs versus ties or vice versa.

    Beams need to be half a space thick in order to ensure that they can be positioned correctly with regard to the sit/straddle/hang placement rules that books such as Read espouse.

    You should be able to tell the difference between slurs and ties by their placement. Most notation software – including Sibelius – provides ways for you to specify placement rules for ties and slurs such that you would never mistake them for each other, even if you are slurring two notes together.

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  2. Point taken Daniel - in truth, these two elements (beams and slurs) I don't really tweak much myself. The tweaks that I may are VERY subtle, and only provide a minor cosmetic change without changing their appropriate locations. Granted - at one time (many, many versions of Finale ago) slurs and ties DID look the same; this has been improved greatly in more recent versions of the software. Perhaps I need to update my own philosophy. :)

    So - based upon your comment I will need to create a disclaimer: beams and slurs should only be adjusted to create minor, subtle changes. If you prefer to leave them alone, please do so.

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