What Your Notation Program Will Reveal to You, and What it Will Hide

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I am of a generation to have gone through my student years, and indeed the start of my lecturing career, before notation programs were the normal way to write music. (I also wrote all my undergraduate essays by hand. Astonishing to think that I used to have handwriting that other people could read. Sort of; there were some complaints.) It used to take a lot more time to produce a score and parts back then. Oh my, producing parts was painful...but then again spare a thought for those musicians who lived before the invention of the photocopier.

Anyway, using a notation program is not only faster and more legible than writing everything out by hand, it gives you a different relationship with material. In particular, playing back what you’ve just written is fundamentally different when it isn’t you at the piano but a device that is not only external to you (and so will play what you actually wrote, not what you thought you wrote), but guaranteed to play it accurately.

So I am eternally grateful for the helpful people who invented this tool.

But it is easy to be beguiled into a false sense of security by your playback function. Its unerring accuracy may be the Platonic ideal of a performing musician, but is actually quite unhelpful to the creative process. It never pulls a face when you write something that we in the trade would call ‘a complete pig to play’, leaving you to experience that the old-fashioned way when you present your music to actual human beings.

It is useful, therefore, to think through which aspects of our craft the notation software will help us discover, and what it will conceal.

Notation playback is useful for:

  • Verifying harmonic choices Do these chord choices sound sensible at tempo? Even with good touch-typing, it takes longer to notate music than to play it, and often choosing chords takes longer than it takes to notate as you have to think through the possibilities. And what sounds sensible at the careful speed at which you choose the chords doesn’t always make musical sense at the speed it will be performed. Your notation playback will save you from the mistake of a harmonic rhythm suited to the speed at which you can figure out chords rather than the speed at which they need to happen in performance.
  • Spotting voicing errors, for example missing notes and/or unwarranted doublings (these two often go together indeed). These errors take more careful listening to identify than chord choices, though – they are quite easy to miss if the general harmonic framework is plausible. This reminds us that it’s not the playback device that is doing the work, but our own ears and brains, aided by the playback. But with practice the ear will pick out the fleeting gaps in the sound quicker than the eye does.
  • Typos: wrong notes, missing accidentals, incorrectly transcribed rhythms. The gap between what you intended to write and what your splashy fingers careening across the keyboard actually input comes vividly to life in private so you can correct it before you print 30 copies and people obediently learn your idiocies. Note, however, that it doesn’t proof-read your lyrics for you, so opportunities for performers to have a good laugh at your expense still exist.

Notation playback is not useful for:

  • Breathing plans. Computers don’t use lungs to produce music, and so won’t lose quality towards the end of unfeasibly long phrases. I know some people like to use choral breathing as a matter of course so don’t worry about these things, but quite apart from the artistic counter-arguments I have to this practice, I do like to make my music performable by one-a-part ensembles as well as large groups. (Now I’m wondering if there’s a correlation between the rise in choral breathing as a practice and the near universal shift to notation programs for producing new scores…)
  • Prosody Are the individual lines intuitive to sing, or do they keep sending you back into your technical brain to negotiate? This category covers issues of pitch content/intervals, shape (e.g. repeated notes can be weirdly awkward in some circumstances), or how the lyric lies on either of these. You may spot the obvious infelicities if you play back individual lines, but quite often a line will seem quite reasonable until you try to wrap your own voice around it and discover unforeseen obstacles within it.
  • What are the obvious mistakes that singers will make singing this? This is related to the previous point, but it more about how singers use their experience to anticipate where they are going than about overt difficulties. As a singer called Pearl memorably put it when I first met her a couple of decades ago: it is easy just to sing the line of least resistance. To discover these moments, you need to put the music away at least overnight, preferably for a couple of days so you forget the detail, then come back and sing through. You discover these hidden traps by falling into them yourself. (N.B. Often the solution to these is to change the line to what people are going to want to sing and tweak the other parts to fit. Saves a lot of rehearsal time.)

All of this adds up to the point I have made many times before and will no doubt make many times again: you need to sing through all the lines of what you want other people to sing to make sure it is viable. A lot of the infelicities I hear in performance of new arrangements these days sound like musical ideas that have benefited from the advantages of my first list, but are tripping over hazards from the second. A great musical idea is only great if it sounds as good or better in the medium it is intended for as it does in the medium it was written on.

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