Square One: Duly Noted

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Until around a hundred years ago, the only way to send music over long distances or preserve it for posterity was to write it down on paper. Electronic media have changed the picture dramatically, and today many musicians don't bother with notation at all. But printed sheet music is still important for a number of types of musicians: classical composers; arrangers who need to print out charts for live performers; teachers who prepare materials for their students; librarians who need fresh copies of old, tattered music; and songwriters who want to share their work but can't sing or aren't set up to record their own demos.

If you need to create printed music, you may be wondering how computer software can help you. In this column, I'll take a look at what specialized notation programs do and how you would interact with one.

Product Choices

There are several high-end notation programs on the market today, each of which is capable of producing fully professional results. Among these are longtime favorite Finale (finalemusic.com), formerly from Coda Music and now published by MakeMusic; Sibelius (sibelius.com), which is published by Avid and has a reputation for ease of use; and Notion Music's Notion (notionmusic.com), which, like the others, includes a high-quality orchestral sound set. Because this isn't a product shootout, you'll need to look elsewhere for detailed comparisons, but I'll use Sibelius for the following examples.

Many MIDI sequencers include utilities for printing basic notation. If you only need to print out occasional charts for a small group, your sequencer may have the features you need. Sequencers' notation abilities usually fall short when it comes to the more complex challenges at which specialized notation programs excel.

Entry-level programs are available as well. Windows users may want to look at NoteWorthy Composer (noteworthysoftware.com), for instance. For Mac users, Adept Music Notation's NightLight — a free, scaled-down version of the company's Nightingale — is one of several choices if you're just getting started (note that Leopard is not supported).

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FIG. 1: If you aren''t satisfied with the default positioning of a slur, Sibelius allows you to zoom in, grab it with the mouse, and move it in small, precise increments.

Technical Challenges

The conventions of European music notation developed over hundreds of years. To be useful, a notation program must handle a number of surprisingly tricky chores. Some of these, such as how to space the notes and accidentals in closely voiced chords, come up often. Notation software usually handles graphic spacing automatically yet allows you to make adjustments as needed (see Fig. 1). Other jobs, such as using note heads with unusual shapes, show up only once in a while (unless you're notating drum parts). Professional-quality software will handle both everyday and exotic demands intelligently.

Notation software combines graphics with musical meaning, and users may want or need to interact with absolutely anything on the page. Fingering numbers might collide with beams, for example, and have to be moved up. That's a purely graphical decision. Whether to spell a given note as a G-sharp or an A-flat, however, is a musical choice, not a graphical one, and the software needs to give users an easy way to switch from one enharmonic spelling to the other.

Notes and accidentals need to be spaced properly so that the music is easy to read and has one or more complete measures on each line. And if, as occasionally happens, that's just not practical, the software needs to be smart enough to allow you to break a measure in the middle. Songwriters need a program that can lay out several verses of lyrics and respace the notes as needed so that the lyrics are readable.

Many types of rhythms, such as triplets and quintuplets, need to be dealt with. If you try to insert too many beats in a measure, the software needs to prevent it, and if you don't insert enough beats, it needs to add rests to fill out the measure.

If you're writing for ensembles, you'll need to print out individual parts, perhaps with cues (using small note heads) showing the performer what other instruments are doing. Some instruments, such as trumpet and saxophone, transpose — that is, their staves have to be displayed with a different key signature than the rest of the score. If certain parts rest for several consecutive measures, the software will need to produce multimeasure rests in the parts, but not in the score.

Numerous symbols — including slurs and ties, dynamics markings, and ornaments (such as “tr” for a trill) — need to be attached to individual notes. If a note moves horizontally because it's aligned rhythmically with notes in a different part and that other part is being edited, the markings attached to a note need to move with it. Piano parts occasionally require beam groups that cross from one staff to the other. Instruments such as cello sometimes need to change from one clef to another in the middle of a measure.

The spacing of symbols and the curvature of the slurs may need to be adjusted by hand. Though most software tries to guess what you want, being able to edit objects with the mouse is absolutely necessary to achieve a good-looking page.

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FIG. 2: This small floating window in Sibelius corresponds to the number keypad on a computer keyboard. It has five pages of common rhythm values, accidentals, and other marks that can be selected by clicking or typing.

Recording and Playing Back

Modern notation software will provide several input methods. You can enter data using the computer's QWERTY keyboard and mouse, which is easy to understand but rather slow. You can attach a MIDI keyboard to the computer and step enter notes fairly quickly, which is my preferred method. Using Sibelius's keypad, for example, I can touch-type with one hand on the computer and the other on the MIDI keyboard, switching rhythmic values and inserting rests and ties quickly (see Fig. 2). If you're an accomplished keyboardist, another option is to play the keyboard in real time while the software produces a metronome click, and then let the program figure out what rhythms you played.

If you're doing real-time recording, the software needs a way to adjust the notes having a duration that is either slightly too short or too long, or that starts or ends just before or after the intended beat. The notes' actual start times and durations have to be rounded up or down as needed to produce standard note-duration values rather than a maze of ties and 64th-note rests. You'll typically find some options in the Preferences box that will help you deal with this.

Another input option is scanning. Sibelius includes a program called PhotoScore Lite, which can interpret printed sheet music and produce a Sibelius file. (PhotoScore Ultimate is available as an optional add-on.) If you have old music that's falling apart, scanning can save you the endless hours it would take to recopy by hand. Scanning handwritten scores, however, is still in its infancy as a technology. I've tried this with PhotoScore Ultimate but found that it was no faster than using Sibelius's standard data-entry methods and was more error-prone.

Some notation programs include sound-playback engines or allow you to assign General MIDI sounds to individual staves. Listening to your score, or “aurally proofing” it, can be very useful: you may be able to hear the errors that elude your eye. You can also save the playback as an audio file, but notation software can't compete with a sequencer/recorder program such as Steinberg Cubase, Apple Logic, or Digidesign Pro Tools as a platform for producing professional-quality recordings.

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FIG. 3: For swingin'' jazz charts, Sibelius lets you choose a pseudohandwritten font. Though it appears jagged onscreen, this font prints out with smooth edges.


Notation software typically includes a variety of fonts, such as pseudohandwritten fonts suitable for jazz charts (see Fig. 3). Printing scores and parts on standard 8½ × 11 paper in an ink-jet printer is a no-brainer. If you need to print out large sheets, such as an 11 × 17 orchestral score, you can save a PDF file and take it to a local print shop.

Sibelius includes a Web-based publishing utility called Scorch. The Scorch browser plug-in is a free download. Once visitors to your Web site have installed the plug-in, they can display, listen to, transpose, and print out sheet music that you have uploaded.

Producing high-quality sheet music at home can be time-consuming, but with today's powerful tools, it's easier than ever. Check out the notation features that your current software provides, or download a demo of the programs mentioned here. Your music will never look better.

Jim Aikin (musicwords.net) writes about electronic-music technology, teaches classical cello, and creates text-based computer games.