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On Composing Software… (revisited)

I am reading a book, The Sound of Broadway Music, about the men who orchestrated the Broadway musicals of the 1930s-1960s. The author, Steven Susskin, studied the handwritten scores and hand-copied instrumental parts of over 500 musicals in his research for the book. He detailed the all-night scoring sessions of busy orchestrators, frantically orchestrating last minute additions to the show, writing almost as fast as they could think, with teams of copyists standing by to prepare individual parts the moment a score page was complete. No Finale or Sibelius for these folks.

And just the other day I saw a Facebook post from a Nashville arranger, whom I respect very much, extolling the joy of getting a batch of brand new scoring pencils. This fellow still does all his writing on paper, before entering it in Finale. I remember well the joy of new pencils and fresh score paper, though it has been about nine years since I scored anything other than a lead sheet with pencil and paper. When I began using Sibelius in 2010, I thought I was the last arranger on earth to enter the world of composing software. (I wrote a blog about it you can read here.) It seemed at the time every other writer had jumped on the Finale bandwagon. I was wrong. Though I was late to the composing software scene, there are still folks composing and arranging by hand.

Back then, my primary objection to composing software was that I believed it was, first and foremost, a tool for editors, typesetters, and copyists, not composers and arrangers. I was concerned that composing software would force me to think like the computer, rather than like a musician. So, nine years later, is that still my take on composing software?

Yes and no.

Yes, I think that composing software is still primarily a tool for editors, typesetters, and copyists. An incredible tool. One that provides almost unlimited options and countless “do-overs,” all in a laptop computer. BUT – (Note the big “but.”) – these days, those of us who self-publish have had to become editors, typesetters, and copyists. Composing software is a necessary tool for us, if only in that regard. Plus, it provides the advantage of “playback,” allowing us to hear the notes on the page, and correct wrong notes before they ever reach the publisher’s desk or the players’ music stands.

No, the software did not change how I approached writing. Then again, by the time I began using composing software, my creative process was firmly established. I do wonder if the creative processes of young people, just starting out, aren’t being shaped by the software, rather than by what they hear inside their own heads. Are students today learning how to write down their ideas on paper? I hope they are. It is a valuable skill. (I can still jot down a lead sheet on paper in less time than it takes me to boot my computer.)

Composing software is here to stay. There is no going back to engraving music on sheets of metal by hand, or typesetting with a music typewriter. And it is imperative that young composers with hopes of publication learn to use this software. For good or for ill, few unknown writers will be taken seriously by publishers if they submit handwritten scores. The Old Guard may get a pass because they have a track record. But an unknown composer? Not so much.

However, I still contend these programs can be less than intuitive. As a result, I have witnessed three distinct problems emerge from their use:

  1. Frustration rises when the software (Finale in particular) becomes more of a stumbling block than a help. And it can be a short trip from frustration to stopping all creative progress.
  2. The writer becomes more concerned with making the music look good on the screen than with sounding good when performed. As a result, too much effort is spent on editing and not enough on creating.
  3. The convenience of the “Playback” feature can mislead a writer to believe that the notes on the page are playable or singable, when they are not. The computer is a machine and will play back whatever you put on the page. There is no substitute for knowing what human beings can and cannot sing or play.

It’s notable (pardon the pun) that a new composing software program has recently entered the market to compete with Finale and Sibelius. From what I’ve seen, Dorico has the potential to be a more writer-friendly, intuitive program. It was created by the team that finished Sibelius, with the advantage of knowing all the flaws inherent in Finale and Sibelius. It will be interesting to see how Dorico is accepted. Currently, most American publishers are married to Finale. Sibelius, I think, is more popular in Europe and in Hollywood. In the end, the winner will likely be the program that wins over the next generation of composers.

So, what about that next generation of composers and arrangers? If you are just getting started, I whole-heartedly encourage you to develop the ability to score music on paper. Doing so will sharpen your music theory skills and deepen your understanding of what a score should look like on the page. The muscle memory that comes from writing key signatures on dozens of lines of dozens of score pages will forever cement those flats and sharps in your mind. Nothing will teach a composer how to read the alto clef quite like writing viola parts by hand. And learning to properly stem notes and write chord changes will aid you when your composing software occasionally gets that stuff wrong. (And it does.) Putting notes on a page of score paper literally puts you in touch with your music.

Besides, there may come a day when your laptop battery is dead, the power is out, and you still have to make progress on your latest project. Suddenly that pencil and score pad will be your best friend.

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