The quest to capture music in written form has been an exercise in frustration for centuries. As composers and players inevitably discover, quantifying most performance techniques is extremely difficult, and the rhythmic subtleties in many musical styles often defy accurate description. Nevertheless, music transcription remains an important method of transferring ideas, because it enables us to preserve our music and communicate it in a standardized form other performers can understand.
As with desktop-publishing programs, desktop-notation programs have grown more sophisticated while their user interfaces have become more friendly. The evolution has yielded several high-end programs that offer publisher-quality output and very high levels of flexibility. Yet expressing musical ideas through printed music takes more than simply putting notes and symbols on paper. It requires attention to detail and an understanding of how to effectively communicate with other musicians, especially under the stress and strain of recording sessions and stage performances.
With that in mind, I'll discuss some important tips and tricks for score and part preparation that over the years have helped maximize my end results. After covering some general considerations, I'll point out several of my favorite efficiency-boosting features in four popular programs: Cakewalk's Overture, Coda's Finale 2000, Mark of the Unicorn's Mosaic, and Sibelius Software's Sibelius.
NOTATION ETIQUETTEThe most important factor in creating music charts for other musicians is readability (see Fig. 1). Remember, the players often navigate their parts on the fly, so you'll get the best results from a thorough, well-planned score. In particular, if you're creating charts to be read only during a recording session or performance (rather than for professional publishing or archiving, for example, which may have more stringent guidelines), you can make it easier on the players and avoid slowing down a session or rehearsal by simply adhering to a few basic standards.
For starters, all charts need clear and consistently placed page numbers. Also, put the title (or an abbreviation of it) on each page of the score and parts in a smaller font size. The labels will prevent you from mixing up pages from different charts (see Fig. 2).
Be sure all of your scores and parts include rehearsal letters or marks at important sections or transitions in the piece. For example, you might use a separate rehearsal marking for each verse, chorus, and bridge of a pop song. The rehearsal marks don't have to be separate letters; some people prefer to use enlarged measure numbers instead. The idea is to provide a simple reference point for the musicians to use while they're rehearsing or recording. The rehearsal letter is typically large and surrounded by a box (see Figs. 1 and 2), although in some programs it's customizable in other ways.
When possible, adjust the layout of the individual parts so that rehearsal letters, key changes, and other important transitions line up with the beginning of a staff system. This lends the chart a more uniform appearance and makes it easier for the players to keep their place, as their eyes and ears perceive a common point of reference on the left side of the page. In addition, use double bar lines liberally; they also help point out significant sections and transitions within a piece.
Long runs of empty measures are typically combined into multimeasure rests, which help condense the parts into fewer pages and thereby reduce the number of page turns. You must still take care, however, to show where all rehearsal letters, double bars, tempo changes, meter changes, and other significant markings and transitions occur. In other words, multimeasure rests must be grouped in a way that makes musical sense, even if it means creating several multimeasure rests in succession to allow for double bars, rehearsal letters, and other musical landmarks. You can't simply throw a 97-bar rest at musicians and expect them to make their entrances reliably (see Fig. 2).
For some recording sessions, I don't combine rests into multimeasure rests unless I am absolutely certain that I don't want that particular instrument to play in that section. Instead, I leave the individual bars completely blank (without whole rests) in case I or the player decides to sketch in a new line or add a doubling at the last minute (see Fig. 2). It often pays to leave yourself some room for spontaneity or last-minute fixes.
To avoid confusion and wasted time during rehearsals and recording sessions, display measure numbers in every bar. Be sure to put in count-off measures at the beginning and any duplicate measure numbers resulting from repeats, alternate endings, and codas. Don't forget to include the range of measure numbers within each multimeasure rest (see Fig. 2).
Although individually numbered measures clutter the chart a bit, nearly all professionally copied music parts include them. Especially when a chart has a MIDI-sequence counterpart, it's extremely convenient for the score and sequence to share the same measure structure and form. Measure numbers are most commonly located just under the staff to the immediate right of the bar line, although sometimes the numbers appear above the staff.
Include the initial tempo and any subsequent changes throughout the piece, especially if a click tempo has already been determined. It is also helpful, although not always necessary, to add a few cues of other instruments to help the player keep his or her place in the music and to provide a better overall view of the piece. Despite being more time-consuming, adding the cues ultimately helps ensure proper entrances from the players.
When preparing your score, don't forget the simple yet essential performance guides, such as dynamics markings, articulations, written directives, and other helpful information. Don't be afraid to use straightforward, descriptive text. Foreign language terms such as adagio and molto rallentando are now mostly relegated to traditional, high-art music literature. If you're writing a contemporary arrangement, film score, or jazz chart, and you want the music loud, put "LOUD!" in the score. If you want a guitar part to be creepy and spooky, or a synth part to sound obnoxious and buzzy, create a text box and place your descriptive phrase in big capital letters at the top of the chart. If you want a song to have the same rhythmic feel as a well-known tune, put that information in the chart too.
Don't underestimate the importance of these elements; professional charts always include them. Musicians who read competently "get" their parts much more quickly if you include stylistic direction. Their initial level of confidence, especially on the first read-through, can set the tone and attitude for the whole session.
As a courtesy, include the names of the composer and arranger (and any copyright information) on the score as well as the parts. The composer and arranger will appreciate your acknowledgement of their work. A credit for the person responsible for the music preparation (in small print at the bottom of the title page) is also acceptable, especially in a work-for-hire project.
Use large, easily legible fonts for the title, rehearsal letters, and other text-based markings that affect the performance. Although cool fonts abound, the players shouldn't have to work unnecessarily hard to read the text. It's also a good idea to use your text styles consistently. For instance, use italics for performance guidelines, such as "softly" and "staccato," and nonitalics for more global text, such as "Verse" and "Chorus." Whatever your approach, make your style consistent within the piece and between pieces to prevent confusion.
Most professional music is copied onto special 9.5-by-12.5-inch paper, but this size is usually available only in cities with large music communities. Charts on 8.5-by-11-inch paper are gaining acceptance, but the roughly 20-percent size reduction is quite noticeable, especially under less-than-optimal performance conditions. Whichever size you choose, use a heavier stock to prevent visual bleed-through between pages. If you use letter-size paper, print on as much of the surface area as you can, and make sure your layout is clean and legible.
For parts, tape all of the pages together; this keeps the pages in order and saves the players from having to shuffle through loose pages. Professional copyists use a relatively inexpensive tool to tape up parts. Stapling parts is a big no-no. If your music charts serve an ongoing live situation, print and tape up a complete backup book of all your charts, and store them separately from your main charts in case of emergencies.
Most important, read through each part as a player would; check for accuracy, clear placement of vital elements, convenient page turns, and overall readability. This simple exercise will be your best feedback, and I guarantee the players will appreciate the effort.
SET UP TEMPLATESNothing wastes more time than repeatedly building a new score from scratch. In all likelihood, you'll need several types of scores and parts, so it makes sense to set them up ahead of time with as much detail as possible. Even though some programs provide setup wizards and/or generic templates to help you set up scores more quickly, there are still plenty of personal touches you'll want to have in place. Creating detailed templates takes time in the beginning, but it saves time later on (when you probably need it more) and ultimately helps you create better charts.
First, create a blank score or open a generic template with the proper number of staves. Name the staves, choose the text font and size, and make other instrument-specific adjustments, such as staff order, staff spacing, and transpositions. Drop in a large dummy title and dummy text for the composer and arranger credits, part name, page number, and other text you'll use in most of your scores (see Fig. 3). If your scores contain lyrics, make sure they are properly dummied up as well.
If you'd like to use a specific font (and your notation software offers it), choose it while setting up your initial templates. Changing fonts in the middle of an actual score is extremely difficult; you have to spend substantial amounts of time reworking (or even replacing) large numbers of articulations, accidentals, and other markings. Over time, I have built separate templates for my common instrumentations with both engraver and handwritten font styles.
A good way to create your template is to delete all of the notation data from a previous score that you've fine-tuned to your satisfaction. Then save the score as your setup file. Your templates may not be absolutely perfect for all situations, but they will save you time by minimizing the number of repetitive tasks needed to generate a readable score and parts.
Print a few test scores or parts on the same paper size you'll use for your final versions, and correct any new problems that unexpectedly show up on paper. If you anticipate using several paper sizes, make separate templates for each size; simply resizing a chart rarely works. Don't forget to read the parts as if you were someone seeing them for the first time. This test ensures that the fonts are sufficiently large and clear, that the text isn't overlapping staves or notes, and so forth. What looks great on one paper size may prove illegible on another. You can eliminate most readability problems with a solid collection of templates.
INPUT METHODSAll midlevel to high-end notation programs provide several methods for inputting notes into a score, including mouse clicking, computer- and MIDI-keyboard entry, and importing Standard MIDI Files. I use combinations of all four input methods, so the placement of my computer keyboard and mouse, monitor, and MIDI keyboard is extremely important. I must be able to keep my hands on both keyboards without looking away from the computer monitor. An ergonomic work environment is essential to the effective use of notation programs.
If you generate music charts primarily by extracting the notes from a MIDI sequence, keep in mind that what looks good on paper and what sounds good are seldom the same. Notation programs are getting better at translating MIDI files into usable notation, but trade-offs inevitably arise.
Using the built-in notation capabilities of most sequencers may enable you to generate adequate parts, but even with sequencers boasting professional-notation capabilities, you still must add many important details such as dynamics, articulations, repeats, text directives, and so forth. And you'll have to add these elements with a less-comprehensive or less-intuitive tool set than you'd find in most dedicated notation programs.
You may also be stuck with a single proprietary music font that doesn't look especially good or provide all of the necessary symbols. Most important, the crucial page-layout and fine-tuning features that ensure proper printing are typically missing. The situation is improving, but I'm usually disappointed with the results when I try to create great-looking charts with a sequencer.
On the other hand, importing a MIDI file into a notation program offers the advantage of a more complete set of tools and an interface optimized for producing high-quality output. How you prepare the MIDI file before exporting it from your sequencer, however, can greatly impact the amount of time you spend tweaking the music once it's imported.
For the best results, create a copy of your sequence and rename it, so you'll know it's for notation purposes only. Working in the sequencer with the sequence copy, quantize any instrument parts that will be printed. In addition to having the attacks lined up on the beat, remember to quantize the note durations according to how you want the notation to look. Otherwise, you could end up with a bunch of unwanted 32nd- and 64th-note rests and tied notes scattered around the page. At this point, use your sequencer's built-in notation capabilities to check the quantization process.
Once you're satisfied with the quantization and basic transcription, export the sequence as a Standard MIDI File and open it in your notation software. The notation's overall appearance should be much better, although you'll still need to deal with the page layout and the other performance-related details.
SOME NOTES ON NOTATIONSpeed versus power has always been a big issue with notation programs, but the truth is that the feature sets in high-end programs have all become quite extensive, and today's computers have largely erased most performance problems. From a practical standpoint, the real differences between programs lie in their user interfaces, ease of operation, and level of editing detail.
Current notation applications all have inherent strengths and weaknesses. For example, some don't link scores and individual parts in the same file, so if you make changes in an extracted part, you have to make the same change in the score as well. Some programs make part extraction a painful process by forcing you to readjust elements that were perfectly placed in the score. Other applications force you to use their own fonts, which may not have all the necessary symbols and may not look the way you want them to. Finally, some programs simply can't do all the things that you really need them to do.
Nevertheless, most programs today are surprisingly powerful and flexible. Here are some noteworthy features in several popular high-end programs that can help you work more effectively.
Cakewalk Overture (Mac/Win).Overture was originally Opcode's baby, but now Cakewalk is developing it. If you're familiar with Studio Vision, you'll feel right at home with Overture, which has a reputation for being fast and easy to use.
Overture lets you enter music solely with the computer's keyboard (you don't have to use the mouse). Once you get the hang of it, you can really fly, so some users prefer this method. It's often the fastest way to get notes into the computer.
Overture's shortcut keys allow you to add ties and slurs very quickly by simply dragging across or highlighting a group of notes and hitting the appropriate key combination. Other key combinations change enharmonic spellings, flip stems, and insert meter or key-signature changes. You can also cycle through the eight available voices per staff and toggle between the arrow cursor and whichever input cursor you last used - a handy feature.
Overture is particularly appealing to guitarists, because creating tablature is so easy. Simply enter an empty tablature staff below an existing staff (with standard notation) that you would like to convert, highlight the notes in the upper staff, and select Notes to Tablature. That's all there is to it. The music is instantly transcribed into tablature (see Fig. 4). You can even specify alternate tunings and other parameters such as allowable finger span. (Sibelius and Finale offer similar capabilities.)
Overture also lets you attach MIDI playback messages to its expression markings (as does Finale). Double-click on a marking and enter the data (tempo, patch, or controller value) in a dialog box. You can use this feature to create a Program Change between an open and muted trumpet sound, for instance, or to create a tempo change during playback.
Coda Finale 2000 (Mac/Win).Finale is one of the most popular notation programs among professional arrangers and copyists, music publishers, and educators. Learning to use Finale's extensive set of features takes some time, but the recent addition of setup wizards and an improved interface have made the program more manageable than it used to be.
Finale allows you to assign colors to different elements, making them much easier to identify on your computer monitor. You can have up to four polyphonic voices (in either of two layers) on a staff at one time and assign different colors to the different instrumental lines sharing the staff. The colors make keeping track of the lines much easier, especially when the parts cross (see Fig. 5).
Finale automatically creates the correct transpositions for specific instruments, but it still allows you to work on the score in concert pitch. You toggle the Display In Concert Pitch on and off in the Options menu. Input your notes at concert pitch, uncheck the command, and your instrumental lines are automatically transposed correctly. (Sibelius has a similar feature.)
The Program Options command opens a dialog box with more global parameters. One is a checkbox labeled "Load Application into RAM" (in the Mac version). If you have sufficient memory, checking this option significantly improves the overall program performance. If you ever have to trash your Finale Preferences file, be sure to recheck this box.
Finale's numerous plug-ins automate a lot of common tasks, but many users still shy away from these handy time-savers. The plug-ins extend Finale's capabilities and greatly speed up operations that previously required wading through a variety of menus. The Automatic Tablature plug-in, for example, rivals Overture's tablature capabilities, and the Piano Reduction plug-in reduces several staves into a piano grand staff. (Sibelius offers a similar plug-in.) You can nest your favorite plug-ins at the top of the list in the Plug-ins window, and you can create your own plug-ins by downloading a Plug-in Developer Kit from Coda's Web site.
For those using Mark of the Unicorn hardware or software, Finale 2000 (as well as Sibelius) now supports MOTU's FreeMIDI. I use FreeMIDI, and it works great - although the original shipping version of Finale 2000 had a bad habit of forgetting its MIDI settings (regardless of the chosen driver). Be sure to download the current update from the Coda Web site.
Mark of the Unicorn Mosaic (Mac).MOTU's notation program has a lot going for it, but development by the company has recently been lagging, and they've offered no indication of when another update might arrive. In spite of this, Mosaic has a host of loyal users around the world, and they have an active online user's list that posts work-arounds and other tips.
Some of Mosaic's features are excellent, especially its extensive drag-and-drop capabilities. In addition, it has one of the best engines for converting MIDI files into usable notation. Digital Performer owners can synchronize the two applications in real time, allowing better-sounding MIDI playback in the background while they're working simultaneously on the notation file.
Mosaic draws a distinction between voices (instrumental lines) and staves. If you clone a voice onto different staves, editing one voice changes all of the others as well. This is a great feature for working with unison solo lines or doubled parts.
Because scores and parts are linked in the same file, changes to one are reflected in the other. However, when you extract a part, a lot of things tend to move around. If you're working on a score with only a few lines, you can minimize the amount of time you spend redoing your work by using the same staff and font size in both the score and in the individual parts.
First adjust your score to your satisfaction. Then create additional staves for each part that you want to extract. Assign the same voices to the new staves and use them for the part views. This lets you preserve the score's layout, but still edit the parts as necessary for later printing. Changes made to notes in the voices are reflected in both parts, because the voices are shared.
Mosaic's Multiple Views feature allows you to simultaneously open windows for the score and parts, galley view and page view, and different zoom levels. If you have a large monitor or multiple monitors, try setting up the windows so that you can edit the score in galley view and the part-layout in page view at the same time (see Fig. 6).
Don't forget that Mosaic's excellent custom-key-binding feature lets you assign any of the program's functions to almost any keystroke or key combination, which can significantly speed up many of your editing tasks.
Sibelius Software Sibelius (Mac/Win).A relative newcomer to the United States, Sibelius has been catching on like wildfire during the past couple of years. The program is fast and easy to use, its output looks great, and like Finale, it offers a handwritten-style font.
Sibelius has excellent customizable keyboard shortcuts. Many of them are quite easy to remember: K is for adding a key signature, T for a time signature, M for rehearsal marks, and so forth. For many other operations, Sibelius offers a similarly direct approach. For example, if you want to change several note heads - say, to percussion note heads - you highlight the notes you want to change and press one of the number keys to select one of several note-head types. A dialog box also displays all of the note-head options (see Fig. 7), but learning the number-key equivalents can greatly speed up rhythm-part editing.
Once you learn the program, you can perform almost every operation using the computer keyboard - often with just one hand. If you prefer, you can also work mostly with the mouse or combine the mouse and keyboard. (The other programs give you similar options.)
Sibelius also offers plug-ins that automate a lot of common operations. You can create your own plug-ins using the built-in Manuscript language. The Keyboard Reduction plug-in (similar to Finale's Piano Reduction plug-in) is especially useful; it creates a piano reduction from a full score.
Sibelius handles tuplets better than just about any other program. Enter the first note, hit Control-3 (for triplets), and enter the rest of the notes. (Finale has a similar setup.) You can create any tuplet by typing the appropriate number; for example, Control-5 for quintuplets, Control-7 for septuplets, and so on. You can also easily nest tuplets within tuplets, which is very cool.