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Review: Notion Music Notion 2.2 (Mac/Win)

July 1, 2008
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Notion made quite an impression when it first appeared in 2005. The program offered an elegant, easy-to-learn interface and astonishingly good playback sounds, custom-recorded by members of the London Symphony Orchestra, that responded accurately and musically to symbols on the printed page. Now that version 2 has been released, it's time to take a look at what's new.

I'll describe Notion's new tools for working with lyrics; enhanced preview options; and score-layout updates; among other features. I'll also cover sound playback, one of the program's major strengths (for details, see the online bonus material at emusician.com).

Introducing the Interface

Notion has earned plaudits for its easy-to-learn and easy-to-use interface. Fig. 1 shows a typical window, with the score dominating the bottom left. The Sidebar to the right is a well-organized collection of headings and boxes where you access the musical symbols you want to enter. Selecting a symbol in the Sidebar changes the cursor to that symbol, which you then place on the score where needed. There are also shortcut keys that make using the Sidebar unnecessary for many of the most common symbols, speeding up your work considerably as you get familiar with the program. (Pressing F2 brings up a reference window listing all keyboard shortcuts by category.) In general, the organization of the Sidebar is clear enough that you can typically find the symbol you're looking for quite easily without referring to the manual.

The work space also has playback and navigation controls just above the score and a series of toolbars just below the menu bar in the upper left. These give you quick access to commonly needed features. The new version looks essentially the same as the original, but a number of changes and improvements are worth noting.

Because I write a lot of vocal music, the biggest addition for me is lyrics entry, something that was not supported in Notion 1.0. (Fig. 1 shows an example of lyrics after entry.) To access this feature, simply select Lyrics in the Tools area of the Sidebar (or use the shortcut key Shift + L), click below the note where you want the lyrics to appear, and enter your text syllable by syllable. (Click above the note if you want to place lyrics above the staff.) Use a hyphen for multisyllabic words and either a hyphen or an underscore for a melisma (more than one note per syllable).

Other improvements: you can now audition notes with the orchestral timbre that is set for a given staff. Notes sound when you enter them or select them, and if the cursor is ready to enter a note, you can press the Equal key (=) to hear the pitch where the cursor is currently located. You can also select a note and drag it to a new pitch. Notion 2 has added alternate note heads and slashes. Fig. 2 shows a score example along with the palette of available Alternate Notes. You can also select the Chord Symbol tool and type in standard chord symbols that now play back in whatever rhythmic pattern is indicated in the music. (See Web Clip 1 for the audio of this short example.)

Notion 2 offers more control over how measure numbers are displayed and gives you options including every system, every measure, and every 10 or 20 measures. System and page BREAKs have been added, so you can now override the default layout of a staff if you want.

Two new editing features I find especially useful are Clear Special and Add Special. When you right-click on any selected area and choose Clear Special, you are given the option of clearing only one or more categories of symbols. You could, for example, clear only articulations, or only articulations and slurs, or only lyrics, and so on, and apply this to only the upper or lower voice in a 2-voice staff. Conversely, Add Special lets you add any articulation to a series of selected notes, a huge time-saver when you have, say, long staccato passages in a piece. In that case, select the passage, right-click, choose Add Special, and select staccato, and every note in the passage will now contain staccato articulations. A new Go To dialog box has been added — if you click on the measure number at the left side of the timeline, the Go To dialog box appears, allowing you to quickly navigate to any measure number or rehearsal mark.

One valuable strength of the interface is that Notion automatically places symbols and moves them around to accommodate any changes. Fig. 3a shows an example of a simple musical passage, and in Fig. 3b I've changed some notes and added dynamic markings, hairpins, grace notes, and titles. The existing notes and staves all moved automatically to accommodate those changes as they were entered. No additional manual editing was necessary.

Several other changes are worth mentioning. First, you no longer need to use a USB iLok device to run the program. It's now also possible to register and authorize your copy of Notion directly online. And, as of version 1.5, the program is now available on the Mac.

More Than Just Notation

Notion is carving out a niche for itself as more than just another music-notation program. For instance, you might use it in live performance to accompany a dance performance, using the NTempo feature to conduct and interpret the music as a conductor would do with a live orchestra. Notion has also been used in music-theater shows to supplement a live orchestra by adding, for example, a string ensemble. A performer at a laptop computer could follow the conductor so the Notion strings play along with the live performance even as tempos change spontaneously from moment to moment. And, given the excellent sound quality, another great use for Notion is the creation of film scores.

The program is also aimed at the educational market. There is a Notion Conducting program (see the Notion Music Web site for options) with instructional materials and scores that could provide practice for student conductors. Rather than conducting into a mirror with a static recording, a student could hear the response of the orchestra based on his or her tempo choices. And, finally, performers can purchase scores of concertos from Notion Music and play along with them. Unlike with a fixed recording, you could select your own favorite tempos for the piece, choose a slow tempo while you're still learning a difficult passage, and so on.

Caveats

It's important to note that while Notion has considerable strengths, there are some things it won't do. Though you can use MIDI input to enter notes, there is no MIDI output or other way to control an external or soft synth from within Notion. That means if you have, say, a beautiful set of vocal samples on an external synthesizer, you wouldn't be able to use them with this program.

In addition, Notion will customize score appearance only to a degree. You can't change staff size or introduce smaller ossia staff lines. You can display only a transposed score, not a version with all the instruments in C. Nor can you optimize a score (that is, leave out instrumental staves that aren't playing on a given page) or fine-tune the shape of a slur. And though it is convenient that symbols like dynamic and tempo markings place themselves automatically, you can't move them if you want to. If you love to control every detail of your score, you may find that Notion is not the ideal tool for you. If, on the other hand, you don't want to hassle with those details, it will automatically take care of them in a satisfactory way.

If your priorities are excellent playback sounds, complete integration between the sample library and the score, the ability to “conduct” your score in real time, and an easy-to-use and low-maintenance approach to score creation, then Notion has a lot to offer. Worthwhile additions and improvements in version 2.2 make it a good candidate for a wide variety of creative and educational projects.


Peter Hamlin teaches composition, theory, and electronic music at Middlebury College and plays with the live electronic-music improv band Data Stream.

PRODUCT SUMMARY

notation/transcription software $499
academic price (for noncommercial use only) $299

PROS: Easy to learn and use. Adapts to live performance. High-quality sounds. Complete integration between score symbols and sound playback.

CONS: Some limitations in score customization. No MIDI output.

FEATURES 1 2 3 4 5
EASE OF USE 1 2 3 4 5
QUALITY OF SOUNDS 1 2 3 4 5
VALUE 1 2 3 4 5

Notion Music
notionmusic.com

BONUS MATERIAL

Web Clips: Hear audio examples that demonstrate Notion Music Notion 2.2
Read "Expansion Kits" Bonus Material From This Review.

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