Notation: A room of one’s own

This post is in response to a fascinating article by R. Andrew Lee over at I Care If You Listen in which he talks about his growing preference for handwritten scores over typeset ones, but I think it may have been brewing in me for a while. This could get random. You have been warned 🙂

Andrew’s post centres largely on the personality of a piece being expressed through the presentation of the score, with an emphasis on the information that a handwritten score conveys that a typeset score does not.

I totally agree – handwritten scores can convey a lot of information – particularly about personality – which is often missing from computer-notated versions, but I think that the whole issue (partly addressed in the second half of his article) is more than just handwritten vs typeset, but instead should focus on the issues of care and who created the score. Any score created with care and an eye for design by the composer themselves should be able to convey as much – or nearly as much of this information as a handwritten score.

A disclaimer

I am an accredited music copyist1 using Finale. I don’t write my scores by hand. I find the experience tedious and frustrating, and duplication, preservation, backup and distribution are, frankly, a damn nuisance when compared to the ease of a computer-notated score. I inevitably mess up when hand-copying, then have to scrap the whole page and start again. I hate having to work out how many bars I’m going to allot to a page and how much space should be in those bars in order not to leave gaps at the end. I have too many other things to do to spend time on an activity which I am not good at, don’t particularly enjoy and which – for me – produces a sub-optimal product. I am in total awe of hand-copyists for the patience and precision the task requires.

Different approaches, different results

As I see it, there are several variants on how scores are produced, each combination of which will provide a different experience: by the composer themselves or by a copyist, with care or without, and handwritten or typeset.

Copyists will always be at a disadvantage in this discussion – simply because they are not the composer. No matter how talented they are and how good their eye for design, they don’t have the intimate relationship with a piece that its creator has. They can’t. A copyist will produce a good-looking score, but to look for the level of personality in that score that can be conveyed through a composer-created score is a bit unfair – and doubly so if they’re preparing a score for publishing within the constraints of a house style.

So let’s stick to scores produced by the composer. Poor handwritten scores are easily identified: maybe the noteheads are poorly formed or placed, making it difficult to read the music; perhaps barlines or notes don’t line up properly. These problems are caused by a lack of care taken in the creation of the score, and possibly a lack of understanding about how important a little thing like lining up notes meant to be played simultaneously is. I suspect that, in a world full of computer-notated scores, some of the minutiae of manual notation might not be generally communicated. My own undergraduate degree included a 1st-year course where a proportion of the mark was allocated to how well the score was written out, but I wouldn’t be surprised if this sort of thing isn’t generally taught now.

A poor computer-set score, however, isn’t always obvious at first glance. Usually it seems to result from an assumption that the computer will do things correctly, but this is far from the case. While a notation programme will generally put things in more-or-less the right place, to produce a really good score requires an eye for detail and a willingness to prod things which look OK to look excellent.

Usually before I send out a score I need to adjust some or all of the following: number of bars in a system, the point at which a system breaks, placement of dynamics (Finale aligns them with the notehead instead of putting them a tiny bit ahead of the note as it should), curvature of ties crossing a system break, alignment of dynamics with each other, size of the music (usually I send out parts resized to 90% because I find Finale’s default a little too big), the point at which a page turn occurs, individual note-placement within a bar… and so on. Most of these are things that a cursory look over a computer-engraved score wouldn’t pick up. The score looks OK; it’s usable – but is it really good? Is it going to be a pleasure to play from?

A private space

The score is a private space I create for me and the performer. It’s not merely a set of instructions, it’s a place, just as a piece often seems to be a person. It’s probable that the years I spent studying the music of Erik Satie have had too much effect on me, but there it is. One of my favourite of Satie’s quirks is his inclusion of bizarre comments in some of his scores. The jury is out as to exactly what he intended by them, but my opinion has always been that they are performance directions – not conveying an instruction but a mood. “What a nice rock! Very sticky!” will convey different things to different performers, but I don’t think anyone who reads that direction will play that passage in the same way as they would have were it not there. Satie uses text to partly create his score-space – something which endures regardless of who does the notation.

A score produced without care from a notation programme is like inviting your performer into a beige room – it’s so neutral it has no personality. Handwritten scores can be like walking into an Arabian Nights harem. I aim for something in between. I try to use placement of notes and other elements, spacing of the score and fonts for headings and performance notes to convey something of the feel I am looking for, but I also want to leave room for the performer to be able to make themselves at home.

I love that Andrew is embracing handwritten scores – I love that composers are still producing handwritten scores! It’s not something I do, but I like to feel that my scores to share something of their own personality, and mine. Maybe it’s all in my head, but I can’t feel good about sending something out without tweaking alignments, finding it its own personal font and generally approving the balance of the music on the page.

Which method do you prefer – handwritten or computer-set? Do you think about the design aspects of a score, or just the notes? Share your opinions or questions in the comments!

1. Yes, in Australia copyists have to pass an exam and become accredited – by the Music Arrangers Guild of Australia. I am number 398 🙂