Alternative Music Fonts

Custom fonts from the ivory tower to the speakeasy.Although traditional music notation uses a standardized set of markings and symbols, not all printed
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Custom fonts from the ivory tower to the speakeasy.Although traditional music notation uses a standardized set of markings and symbols, not all printed

Custom fonts from the ivory tower to the speakeasy.

Although traditional music notation uses a standardized set of markings and symbols, not all printed music looks the same. In fact, how your music looks in print makes a definite impression on those who see it, so why not avoid the generic look and add a bit more flair to your scores, parts, and lead sheets? Most notation software offers you tremendous control over the appearance of your printed music - you can choose line thickness, staff height, spacing, and much more - but the single biggest thing you can do to put a fresh face on your music is to use a different music font.

I'm not just talking about the typeface of the title. Some of the major notation programs allow you to use a different font for note heads, accidentals, articulations, and so on. Some even ship with alternative fonts. This month I'll take a look at what fonts are on the market and which programs support them.

Fonts are available for everything from "big note"-style music (with note names in the middle of the note heads) to choreography and handbell notation, so I'll cover only a sampling of the options. Don't assume that the features and symbols I mention are exclusive to the fonts I use as examples. Cross-referencing every marking in every font isn't terribly practical, so I simply discuss features in the order in which I noticed them.

DIFFERENT STROKESAside from vanity, why would anyone want to use something other than a program's default font? After all, a notation program is often promoted on the strength of its state-of-the-art "engraver-quality" typeface. Traditionally, however, the preferred look for printed music varies considerably according to how and where the music is used.

If you're sending your latest opus to one of the well-established publishing houses, engraver-quality appearance is critical. On the other hand, if you put typeset-style parts in front of a jazz ensemble, the musicians may tell you that playing swing figures is difficult when they're written like classical music. In addition, contemporary composers often need nonstandard notation to convey alternative tunings or modern techniques.

Commercial music has traditionally been copied by hand, and several applications let you achieve that look on your computer (see Fig. 1). Two of the biggest score-writing programs, Coda Technology's Finale 2000 and Sibelius Software's Sibelius, include a handwritten-style font. Sibelius's Inkpen font is typical of the style, with thicker lines and bolder, less elliptical note heads.

Finale 2000 offers the JazzFont set, a well-established independent font collection that Coda has licensed from Sigler Music Fonts. Available by download as a registration incentive to Finale 2000 owners (and also offered with Coda's Allegro 2000 and PrintMusic 2000 programs), the JazzFont fonts have a particularly bold and aggressive look, which Rich Sigler describes as a "West Coast, in-your-face" style. Sigler Music Fonts developed the set for use in jazz arrangements in which engraver-style notation seemed inappropriate. The company also recently released SwingFont, which has a lighter, more refined appearance.

The JazzFont set is a collection of five fonts designed to be used together for a completely unified appearance. JazzFont itself consists of note heads, accidentals, articulations, and other markings typically included in a stock music font such as Petrucci or Sonata. The JazzText font ensures that all text has a consistent handwritten look as well. Additional text characters with international accents are in JazzText Extended. JazzChord contains chord-symbol notation, both individual markings and ones grouped in preset suffixes to preserve natural hand manuscript spacing. Finally, JazzPerc has the special percussion markings found in Coda's Tamburo font, only in JazzFont style.

One of the first hand manuscript-style fonts to appear was GoldenAge, by Donald Rice. Like the JazzFont set, GoldenAge is a group of related fonts with all the standard markings and a complete text font in a handwritten style. It looks sleeker than JazzFont and SwingFont, as if written with a lighter hand. GoldenAge includes enhancements for commercial-style notation, such as those little eyeglasses that appear so much in show music to call attention to important information.

Express Music Service (EMS), a music-preparation service in Orlando, Florida, offers a series of three fonts on its Web site. The fonts are based on the styles of the company's top copyists. AshMusic (see Fig. 1), LeeMusic, and RussMusic are all of the commercial genre, but each has its own individual character. As is the case with many third-party fonts, templates and text fonts are available to complement the music fonts. EMS founder Lee Monroe says his company's fonts were developed with the practical demands of commercial copyists in mind; the fonts balance appearance issues against ease of use. For example, some of Finale's efficient Smart Shapes are simply thickened in the EMS templates rather than being replaced with additional hand-copied symbols (more on templates a little later).

IF YOU KNOW THE SCORENot everybody wants his or her music to look hand copied, though. You can replace Finale's default engraver font with Klemm Music Technology's November, which the company describes as "warm and rich." The Klemm Web site displays an extreme close-up of a November character, showing Klemm's attention to minute details. The font incorporates fractal design and includes such extras as microtonal accidentals and baroque ornaments.

Klemm also offers Medieval, a Finale plug-in that enables notation of early music such as Gregorian chant. Medieval includes two fonts, Neuma and Neuma Symbol, along with two templates. The plug-in has a new palette with 12 graphics tools.

The designer of Finale 2000's new Maestro font, Blake Hodgetts, also created a pair of accessory fonts. Fughetta provides rare and unusual markings, such as obscure accidentals, symbols for note clusters of various intervals, and alternative note-head shapes including equilateral triangles, semicircles, squares, and more. The next Fughetta update will add choreographic symbols. Toccata offers square and triangular fermatas, glissandos at various angles, and numerous other markings that are critical in academic contexts.

Another font designed for academic music notation is Sicilian Numerals, by Ronald Caltabiano. It presents figured-bass symbols in every conceivable arrangement to facilitate notation and analysis of Baroque music. Caltabiano also designed the Ghent Percussion font, a series of more than 90 pictographs depicting percussion instruments and techniques, and the Rehearsal fonts, which simplify the process of entering rehearsal numbers.

The award for most intriguing company name goes to the Really Loud Font Company. It offers an eclectic assortment of special-purpose fonts for the academic user. Odd-meter signatures, harp pedalings, microtonal accidentals - these fonts leave no stone unturned. There's even a font for inserting musical examples into regular text in a word processor.

STURM UND DRANGMusic notation is a tremendously complex craft with hundreds of symbols that need to be arranged according to sophisticated spacing rules. Designing a new music font is therefore a huge undertaking, and there aren't any real standards. To see just how far wrong a font could go, I tried using Sibelius's Inkpen in Finale.

To be honest, the results weren't all that bad, although in an older version of Finale (3.0) some stems were way off. Finale, especially its more recent versions, makes changing default fonts easy (as does Sibelius). You can even change just the flags, accidentals, or other character subsets to another font (see Fig. 2).

After I chose Inkpen in Finale, the music immediately looked bolder, with fatter note heads and wider spacing. In fact, it looked a tiny bit too bold, so I changed the size from 24 points to 22. The most glaring error was that note stems didn't quite connect to note heads (see Fig. 3). I was able to fix this problem easily, however, with Finale's Stem Connections dialog box.

Other problems were of a more cosmetic nature, but then that's the whole point, isn't it? For example, stems, barlines, beams, and other lines looked positively fragile next to the new note heads. These elements aren't determined by font selection, so to thicken them you must go into the program's settings. Ties didn't look quite right, so I changed tie thickness and vertical- and horizontal-attachment positioning.

Fortunately, in a full-featured notation program, all of these many elements are user definable. In fact, makers of alternative fonts often make available document templates that incorporate line thickness, attachment points, and other specifications that tell the program how to make the font look its best.

For handwritten-style fonts, these specifications can include thicker staff lines and barlines, thicker and sometimes longer ledger lines, and heftier slurs and crescendos. Time signatures and clefs often look more convincing when they're a couple of points larger than the rest of the symbols. More traditional fonts may need only minor spacing and alignment tweaks.

FINAL BARUnfortunately, support for third-party fonts is not yet universal. Finale, Sibelius, and the Windows version of Cakewalk's Overture allow you to select alternative fonts globally. Sincrosoft's Opus allows substitution on a character-by-character basis. Mark of the Unicorn's Mosaic and Passport's Encore currently don't support alternative fonts. Among entry-level notation software, only Coda's Allegro 2000 and PrintMusic 2000 have embraced the notion of third-party fonts, and their alternative-font support extends only to JazzFont.

Most aftermarket fonts are compatible with Finale, presumably due to the program's prominence in academia, publishing, film, and music recording. And because notation programs generally follow the same basic mappings, a font that is compatible with one program is likely to be compatible with others - give or take some fine-tuning.

For those of us with illegible handwriting, computer-based music notation is a godsend. Finally my music is sight-read accurately, without my having to explain what I really meant by that smudge-scratch-smear thingy in the third bar. Using an alternative font to create the illusion that I have hand-copying skills is truly the ultimate revenge. Whether you're after a personalized look or you need specialized symbols to convey your musical ideas, there's a font out there to suit your needs.