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Music Notation Software: a Composer’s Best Enemy?
by  Francis Kayali



I. Two Approaches
II. Issues with MEPS
1. A brief look at the advantages of MEPS
2. Hardware Issues
3. Notation Issues
4. Playback issues
5. Other technical issues
6. Aesthetic Risks
7. Stigma?
III. Defensive Composing Strategies
IV. Comforting Perspectives
Works Cited


Music notation software programs such as Finale and Sibelius were first released in the early 1990s and were quickly adopted by composers of concert music. While marketed primarily as a means of printing professional-looking scores, these programs also come with compositional utilities (e.g., playback, cut-and-paste, and transpose).

This paper identifies a change in the way composers of different generations approach the use of music engraving and playback software (MEPS).[1] Composers born after 1975,[2] who had access to these programs from the very beginning of their careers as young student composers are more likely to use MEPS as a compositionaltool, composing directly on the computer, making extensive use of a program’s compositional utilities, and assessing their work through trial and error by listening to the computer’s playback. Meanwhile, the generation that learned the craft of composition before the availability of MEPS is more likely to limit itself to using MEPS as a means of printing clean, professional-looking scores.

This shift in compositional practice toward relying on computer tools and playback marks an entrance into uncharted territory, and raises questions regarding its potential pitfalls. Most notably, critics blame the poor quality of a composition on the overuse of the cut-and-paste function, or the inadequacy of the computer playback. Such pitfalls would affect inexperienced composers who do not have extraneous training, but they may also influence more experienced composers (whether or not the latter are conscious of this influence).

This paper aims to list and discuss the ways in which the compositional utilities of MEPS can have a detrimental effect on the quality of the music being composed, and what strategies might be implemented to diminish these effects. While MEPS has the potential to limit options or steer the compositional process, interviews of composition teachers reveal that music produced using MEPS is just as aesthetically valid and effective as other music, showing either that users are able to circumvent the issues, or that the influence of the computer is not aesthetically detrimental.

I. Two Approaches

Chris Watson’s 2006 dissertation The Effects of Music Notation Software on
Compositional Practices and Outcomes offers the first comprehensive study on the effects that MEPS has on the music of composers who use it as an integral part of their process.[3] This paper will complement Watson’s study with a more informal one carried out at the University of Southern California in the Fall of 2007. The similarity of our findings leads me to believe that the portrait drawn by Watson of the use and effect of notation software in New Zealand can be readily applied to the United States.[4]

As Watson points out, such studies have been rare. Yet, they are likely to be particularly useful to young composers who are increasingly reliant on music engraving and playback software such as Finale and Sibelius to compose, and are most likely to overlook ways in which the program directs and constrains their writing.  

Apart from Watson’s dissertation, this topic had been the subject of the online magazine New Music Box in August 2002, which featured accounts by six established composers on the matter, showcasing the variety of their approaches.[5]Two of them, Gloria Coates (b. 1938) and Jerome Kitzke (b. 1955), do not use a computer to compose, preferring paper and pencil. Mary Ellen Childs (b. 1957) also composes with paper and pencil, but likes to input her music in the computer, printing a professional-looking score of her piece in progress once a day. Walter Thompson (b. 1952) also uses Finale to notate his music, but despite his positive tone, it is quite clear from his score examples (and ultimately his narrative) that Finale is not an adequate tool for his purposes.[6] Robert Morris (b. 1943) writes a lengthy history of music software that shows a great deal of awareness of the quirks of the different programs he has used throughout his career. He only listens to playback to detect copying errors. Writing about the software available around 1990, he notes: “The possibility of playing computer-copied scores electronically via MIDI did not impress [composers] either, for part of a composer’s training is to hear music internally by reading a score.”[7]

The only composer in the set who appears to use playback, Joseph Pehrson (b. 1950), expends a lot of energy coaxing micro-tonal sounds out of the computer. He also works hard at making the program yield the notation he desires. Composers of this generation do not interact with the program: they do not make compositional decisions based on the feedback they get from the computer, and they will not let themselves be influenced by the difficulties inherent to obtaining a particular sound or notation. Such composers experience the computer as a tool destined to serve ideas obtained entirely independently from the computer. The computer may not influence or otherwise contribute to the compositional process. Such composers will enforce their concept even if it requires delving deep into arcane functionalities of the software, and coaxing the desired result from it at great expense of time and energy.

Meanwhile, Chris Watson (b. 1976), who analyzes and describes his own process in great detail in his dissertation, belongs to a different generation of composers (born 20 years after the youngest composer featured in the NewMusicBox survey). For him, as well as for the composers currently studying at USC (born, generally speaking, between 1975 and 1990), the use of the computer is common. For many in that generation, the use of playback is central.[8] One of my interviewees at USC, whose process involves a great deal of sketching away from the computer describes the value of playback as follows:

"The one thing I find [Sibelius] useful for compositionally is to figure out timings. In one’s head or at the piano it can be hard to figure out how long an idea is or should be, and having the computer take you through the music in real time can be helpful."[9]

While this marks a clear departure from Morris’s vision of trained composers hearing scores internally and, presumably, judging timings in their heads, this student is in fact conservative when compared to my other interviewees.[10] Much like Watson who describes his use of playback as obsessive, another USC student explains:

"I never sketch at the piano. I find that I sketch away from the computer less and less. I will admit that I have become addicted to the instantaneous feedback that MIDI and computers make available."

Such an account is in fact quite typical. Younger composers now compose directly on the computer, rely on and react to playback, interact with the computer, sometimes choosing to surrender to what the software does naturally, sometimes choosing to fight for a given result.

Before we discuss the opinions of composers on the influence of these programs, let’s review what MEPS can and cannot do, and discuss the effects of the limitations on composers. While limitations are most likely to affect novices, they can also influence experienced users who are pressed for time. Finally, some musical ideas are outright impossible to notate or play back at this point, using MEPS.[11] Watson mentions that Sibelius is the most widely used program in New Zealand. According to the composition faculty at the time of my study, Finale was more widely used at USC. Thus, the following study centers on Finale, but tends to be applicable to both programs.[12]


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