Leland Smith, creator of the SCORE music typography system, dies at 88

Leland Smith
Leland Smith

Leland Smith, creator of SCORE, the first commercially available music notation program, died on December 17th, 2013 at his home in Palo Alto, California. He was 88 years old.

Born August 6, 1925 in Oakland, California, Smith held music degrees from the University of California in Berkeley, and taught composition and theory at Stanford University beginning in 1958. His professional performing as a bassoonist included positions with the Chicago Lyric Opera, New York City Ballet, San Francisco Symphony, and San Francisco Opera Orchestra. As a composer, Smith’s works were performed by the San Francisco Symphony, the Orchestra of America, and the Singapore Symphony.

Smith was a pioneering computer programmer who made lasting contributions to music’s digital age with his music input system, music typesetting research and computer music. In 1970 Smith turned his attention to computerized music typography, and in 1979 he published the first book on music ever produced completely by the computer.

The SCORE music typography system was released in 1986 as the outgrowth of Smith’s work, and over the course of the 1980s and 1990s it became the first music software embraced by leading music publishers. Written in FORTRAN for the DOS operating system, SCORE was suited to professionals accustomed to engraving music with a precise level of manual control. Later, even as programs like Finale and Sibelius began to gain broad consumer acceptance, SCORE maintained a dedicated following of users who continue to produce high-quality work with it to this day.

Music engraver and publishing industry veteran Bill Holab recalled the early days of SCORE’s development. “Leland took the time to visit all of the major publishers to show them SCORE version 1,” Bill said. “It didn’t use any fonts (even for text, Leland had a stick figure font) and you couldn’t edit text strings without digging into ASCII code. The manual read like a geometry textbook and talked a lot about ‘vectors’ since the program doesn’t draw any curves, but uses short straight lines to create curved objects.

Screen grab from SCORE, featuring Bill Holab's Rhapsody for Guitar. Engraved in the late 80s, it shows the crude stick-figure font used in the early days of the program, but also its remarkable flexibility with things like custom time signatures.
Screen grab from SCORE, featuring Bill Holab’s Rhapsody for Guitar. Engraved in the late 80s, it shows the crude stick-figure text “font” used in the early days of the program, but also its remarkable flexibility with things like custom time signatures. (Courtesy Bill Holab)

“We all saw the potential in the program and patiently worked with Leland to develop the program into a working professional tool,” Bill continued. “The program comes with libraries of symbols for the music objects (clefs, noteheads, et al.). Schott provided their clef designs for Leland to incorporate into the program. We created many extra symbols that were added to the list of objects. And, most importantly, we convinced Leland to abandon his stick font and put in the capability to use PostScript text fonts. These changes eventually led to version 2, which was the first iteration of the program that was used for serious publishing work.”

The printed output of Bill Holab's Rhapsody for Guitar, engraved with SCORE
The printed output of Bill Holab’s Rhapsody for Guitar, engraved with SCORE (click for PDF) (Courtesy Bill Holab)

Once SCORE was included in the publishers’ tool boxes, its use spread. Music engraver Thomas Brodhead recalled, “I began using SCORE in 1993 on the recommendation of publishers who insisted on it at the time, when the alternative programs were deemed unsuitable for high-quality publication. Leland Smith’s genius was that he had considered all aspects of notation and broken them into categories, and then considered every possible way that a music glyph might need to be altered. As such, his program allows a user to manipulate each aspect of a musical object independently of all its other aspects, and without interference from a ‘global editor’ that attempts to correct ‘improper’ notation. In part this may have been a product of the memory limitations of DOS at the time that he prepared SCORE for its initial release, but if so, it resulted in a program with such fine control over music graphics that still no other program can rival it, and some projects are still only possible in SCORE.”

Smith was indeed very proud of the flexibility and wide range of output that SCORE could produce. In a 2006 interview with the NAMM Oral History Program, Smith said, “SCORE will do just about anything,” showing examples of music produced in SCORE from John Adams to Beethoven to Eric Clapton. “I’ve never run into a piece of music that I couldn’t do.” Smith did note, however, the program’s deference to the user was perhaps its greatest feature — and weakness: “It doesn’t save human error!”


Bill recalled that eventually SCORE was updated with the help of a programmer named Perry Devine from Passport Designs. “Perry partnered with Leland, and added some improvements that gave the program a crude menu capability and other behind-the-scenes functions,” Bill said. Bill was also hired to write new technical manuals that were released together with version 3 of the program. This version, said Bill, “was the most mature version of SCORE and is generally the one most people continue to use today.” Tom Brodhead agreed, saying that “version 3.11 presented the most robust and industrial-usage friendly version of the program.”

Tom explained that Smith constantly made variants of the program to suit particular requests, working on SCORE up until his death this year. “Leland was never afraid of third-party developers creating programs that manipulated the output files of the program, and thus a few other SCORE users and I independently developed third-party programs that capitalized on the fine controls that were present in the transparent data structure of the output files.”

Tom said that “Leland was never concerned with the commercial success of SCORE, and he frequently joked that if he added up all the hours he spent developing it and compared that with the amount of revenue he made from it, he had only made about 25 cents an hour. SCORE was his creation, his toy, and his joy. He resisted all offers from others to help him with it, except if the offer was to help him solve a specific problem he had at hand; he perhaps feared that if others became involved professionally, the goals and philosophy of the program might be redirected in a different direction than he had intended for it. SCORE was his reason for waking up in the morning, it might be said.”

Bill Holab said that “SCORE was the first program that gave us the ability to efficiently create professional music pages. With care and dedication, we created methods that streamlined our workflow no matter what type of music we were preparing, traditional metric notation or complex non-mensural graphic scores. This was not limited to classical music publishing; the program excelled at many other types of music like guitar tablature, which made it an essential tool for companies like Hal Leonard. And thanks to Leland Smith’s patience and willingness to listen to publisher’s needs, the program ushered in computer note-setting to our entire industry.”

“SCORE revolutionized classical music publishing,” Tom Brodhead said, and “Leland Smith was in fact revolutionary. At the same time, he was a soft-spoken man who loved conversation, and he always tried to be helpful to anyone who called him for help with SCORE. I’ll never forget the innumerable phone calls I had with him and his anecdotes, and I’ll cherish the times that I met him and spent time with him in person.”

Leland Smith’s late wife, Edith, an artist and teacher to whom Smith was married for 65 years, died in 2011. Leland Smith and Edith MacNamara met in Oakland when they were 11 years old. Smith is survived by three children, five grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

Note: Read full, detailed remarks about Leland Smith and SCORE from Bill Holab and Thomas Brodhead.


  1. Don Stewart

    Holab’s summation of Leland Smith’s work is, at this moment (Dec 29 2013) valuable. But nothing is said about the improvements Leland continued to make, including (ultimately most important) his transference of SCORE from DOS OS to Windows…now called WINSCORE. Leland worked on this rewrite to the very end, with successful if yet incomplete results

    1. Philip Rothman

      Don: Thanks for mentioning this. In order to keep the article at a desired length, we edited some of both Bill’s and Tom’s remarks. You can, however, read Tom’s remarks in full, where he talks about WinScore. Bill’s full remarks also provide some more interesting details.

  2. Ernie Jackson

    Excellent article, story.

  3. Maureen Chowning

    Thank You so much. I am a singer friend of his who performed his vocal pieces. Several years ago and before Sibelius came out, I worked directly under his tutorage while trying to solve notation problems of my own. He was always very curious and cheerful and kind.
    Maureen Chowing, Palo Alto CA.

  4. Wolfram Domay

    I only now realized that Prof. Smith has died.
    In no ways I am entitled to contribute to this article, yet I am deeply moved that such a genius passed away. I always was fascinated by the quality and philosophy of SCORE when other notation programs seemed to be so much more efficient and definitely were not – till today (yet I use Sibelius a lot, but not when it comes to quality alone, then SCORE is unbelievable more flexible and – at least – faster!!!).
    After SCORE became affordable for me, I probably was the last customer (and DOS-oriented dinosaur) who purchased a copy in Prof. Smith’s lifetime and even had some small mail exchange with him.
    I just love SCORE!
    Thank you, Prof. Smith!
    (And – please excuse my verbal skills, since I am a german).

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