In Random Neural Firings, Thoughts on Writing, Uncategorized

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.

Showing 21 comments
  • Todd Wilson

    Robert, you neglected to mention one aspect of Sibelius is that, since it is an Avid Product, it interfaces seamlessly with ProTools for those who use it in conjunction with studio engineering. For the record, I am a Finale guy.

    • Robert Sterling

      Yes, it is an Avid product – and depending on who you talk to – that can a good thing — or bad thing. 🙂 Ironically, I don’t use Pro Tools. I’m a Digital Performer guy.

  • Don Marsh

    Good thoughts, Robert. I have to be in Finale, because most publishers require it and I want my students at Liberty to be compatible with most publishers. This new system sounds good, I hope that it’s compatible.
    Enjoyed the post.

    • Robert Sterling

      You know, Don – with the ability to export our work as XML files, I’ve had no issues submitting work to publishers that was created in Sibelius. Similarly, when i orchestrate something that was created in Finale, I just have the file sent to me as an XML and import it into Sibelius. I hope this ability to move files from one platform to another will only get more seamless as these programs continue. If it does, one day your students should be able to work in any of the programs, and publishers will simply import files into their preferred platforms.

  • Brian Buda

    Sherlock Holmes goes to his mind palace and in similar fashion musicians should go to their mind orchestra. Clearly easier for some rather than most but a valuable skill to develop nonetheless. The ability to get what’s in your head out onto paper is why having an intimate knowledge of notation software is important.

    I’ve grown up with finale since 2000 and composing in it has become 2nd nature. I greatly dislike the playback function and mostly use it to edit in the end.

    Thank you as always for an interesting blog.

    • Robert Sterling

      You are among the first generation of composers to grow up using computer software – so it’s interesting to hear your input. I’ve known Old School writers who didn’t even need a keyboard to write. they heard it in their heads, and put it on paper, and trusted the notes they wrote down were correct. I always envied those guys.

      So, did you ever write by hand at all, Brian?

      And yes – the playback function in Finale is pretty horrible. Sibelius is marginally better, I think. I understand Dorico (owned by Yamaha) is supposed to have an even better playback system.

  • David Gaines

    Great insights from Robert Sterling yet again! Spot on assessment and a masterful critique of an important subject in today’s high-tech music creation world.

    • Robert Sterling

      thx, David. Well, I guess it’s spot on, at least from my particular perspective. Everybody has there own process. And in the end, what works for you is what is best for you, I suppose.

  • Steve Coldiron

    Robert, I’m old school and learned to compose and orchestrate using pencil and paper too under the instruction of Dr. Maurice Hinson at Southern Seminary. I started out slowly with Finale years ago, but now I use it all the time. I have a student orchestra at my church and quickly being able to change all those flats to sharps makes it so beneficial for both the director and those middle school string players! I also just finished re-scoring a piano concerto for piano and winds and can’t imagine doing that without Finale! The negative is that just because Finale allows instruments to play in a certain range doesn’t mean they sound good in that range! It’s so important to know orchestral colors and where the “sweet spots” are for each instrument!

    • Robert Sterling

      You are oh-so-right about the range issue. Just because an instrument (or a singer) can hit a certain note, doesn’t mean it’s a good idea to write that note. As a rule, the further toward the extreme register you get for any instrument, the fewer notes you should write in that register.

  • Glenn Eernisse

    I was just reminding students yesterday of the need to get a read through with players/singers of work still in progress. So much to learn from the real thing before calling it done. I’m a Finale guy teaching at a Sibelius school.

    • Robert Sterling

      Writing is rewriting. 🙂 Re Finale v. Sibelius: I think the day is coming when that won’t matter so much. Already, the ability to import/export XML files is making it less of an issue. And since we don’t all think alike (what???) there will always be a market for competitive programs that appeal to us in different ways. So long as we can share across platforms – that’s what matters most.

  • Kris Crunk

    Great as always. I’ve been messing around with a program called notion on my iPad Pro. I use the pencil to write the music by hand and watch it immediately turn into typeset music. Don’t thing it’s 100% there yet. I do think this might be the future where we get back to writing by hand with the luxury of it looking great – cut an paste – and playback. You should check it out.

    • Robert Sterling

      Hey Kris – I looked at Notion – but never pulled the trigger. For years I have been wanting a glass-pad-and-pencil approach to composing. I know the tech exists, but I can only assume it is expensive to develop. Maybe Notion will be the answer. Or maybe one of the other typesetting giants will buy their tech and incorporate it into their software???

  • Dave McKay

    Dorico was built on the premise of using classical engraving principles by such publishing giants as G. Schirmer, Boosey & Hawkes, Kalmus and Universal Edition. Ironically, all of the classical literature we learned and performed as students was typeset by hand, decades before computers were ever a part of the picture. Think of all the choral, symphonic and solo literature published and performed before computer typesetting was available, perfectly legible, accessible and performance reliable— forever embedded in our memory. The Dorico team set out to replicate these principles in the new Steinberg scoring program’s notation engine, validated and vetted by the Holy Grail of all scoring reference texts, Elaine Gould’s “Behind Bars.”

    • Robert Sterling

      thx for this info, Dave. Most of us who compose music share the same basic goal: Capturing our work as easily as possible. I know that Dorico spent a lot of effort to make the process itself as intuitive as possible.

  • Cary Eaves

    Loved this! It ended and I was wanting more!!!
    Great thoughts!

  • Bruce Upchurch

    Hi Robert – great observations and comments, +1 for learning with a pencil and paper. I likened my own hand-to-computer scoring conversion to learning to write with my toes, it was just a total buzz kill. I’ve used Encore for 20 years now (a Broadway orchestrator I just met said ‘oh YOU’RE the one). Extremely logical and a little buggy (it also imports standard midi files from Pro Tools if I’m really lazy), but limited compared to all the big boy programs. As a lefty, I could never do my own pen-and-ink copy work, so just being able to print out my own parts was worth the conversion therapy (and got me another AFM slot). I don’t have to self-publish intricate choral or orchestral works, my end game is simply studio players/singers, so I continue to use Encore with a hybrid method where I print basic scores/parts and add hand-written dynamics/articulations. Although I have discovered that the old Music Writer pencil-to-paper works best on airplanes, trying to write 32nd-note string runs with a Macbook Pro track pad is next to impossible. Although I just wore my last Music Writer down to the bone (I bought 2 dozen boxes in 1985), do they still make them?

  • Cathy DeRousse

    Thanks for an interesting read. I use Finale, but I typically hear the music in my head first. I recently downloaded Staff Pad to my Surface Pro. It sounds like Notion is similar. I use a stylus to enter notes and expression marks, etc., and they are converted to “published” notation. Files can be saved as XML files to edit in other programs. It isn’t quite as intuitive as I had hoped, but I’m getting used to it.

  • Dennis Clements

    The best Christmas present I received this past year was a dairy with the left pages lined for textual work and the right pages lined for notation… I have already seen that starting with paper and pencil does change my creative process a bit, and I think in positive ways. I had fallen into some ruts and habits in a computer-centric approach.

    • Robert Sterling

      There is something to be said for a tactile approach to writing. Pencil and paper… yep.

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