The Nepomuk text font: it takes a certain type

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When learning the finer points of music engraving, a useful exercise is to take a piece of traditional, plate-engraved music, and try to recreate it as closely as possible. (It’s also a great exercise for learning the capabilities of your chosen notation software, too.) No matter how close I got the music looking, one other factor would have a profound effect on the look of the page: the text — or rather, the type.

Traditional plate engravers used a set of ‘punch’ tools to stamp clefs, noteheads, rests and other symbols into the metal sheet; and these tools included sets of type, which would also be hammered in. In a straight line. Evenly spaced. In reverse!

I soon noticed a particular style of type prevalent in European 20th-century engraving. You’ll probably recognize it when you see it. Even though there is variation between publishers, it’s immediately redolent of old scores by firms such as Durand, Novello, Ricordi and Henle.

However, finding a family of digital fonts that closely matched this ‘music type’ was very difficult. The standard font libraries from companies like Monotype and Linotype, which converted many of the classic designs from the hot metal era into digital form, had nothing that was exactly right.

An array of similar fonts
Madness sets in when you start to compare similar fonts for too long

Type nerds might well describe music type as being in the ‘Scotch Roman’ genre of serif faces; even narrowing it down to a variant of the ‘Century’ family, which was created in the 1890s and gained popularity throughout the 20th century. (New Century Schoolbook, now commonly used in music scores, is a variation of the original Century, though this is too wide and podgy when compared to music type, and the Italics are quite different, particularly the f, which lacks a ball on its descender. It may have gained popularity for the similarities it has to music type.)

ITC Century, despite having 16 different styles, is perhaps the closest, but it’s still not perfect, and has some noticeable differences in its weights and metrics. The open source family ‘Old Standard‘ also comes close, but still no cigar (nor a Bold Italic).

So, to fill the void is Nepomuk. It was only a matter of type!

Nepomuk

Nepomuk in use

As luck would have it, my friend Florian Kretlow had created some designs for just such a typeface, after studying some old Henle scores.  Florian described his designs as ‘nowhere near finished’, so as I had already worked on bringing his designs for the Sebastian music typeface together into a SMuFL typeface, it seemed like a good idea to bring a family of ‘music text’ fonts to fruition. The existing symbols needed revising for a consistent look, and I had my own ideas about adjusting the metrics of the lettering to make them just so; many more non-alphanumeric symbols needed creating. I also wanted enough diacritics to be able to write names like Leoš Janáček and Antonín Dvořák. Bold and Bold Italic styles needed to be created.

The adjustment of the optical spacing between particular pairs of letters, known as kerning, was the biggest task. The letters Av, for example, need to be closer together than normal, because of the parallel diagonal lines that allow the v to overlap the foot of the A. Otherwise, you see a large white gap between the letters.

Kerning
Optical adjustment to lettering is crucial

There can be a lot of different text on a page of music. Titles, dedications, names, page numbers, copyright declarations, publishers’ catalogue info — and that’s before we get to lyrics, tempi, expressions, dynamics, and other instructions on the staff. You can use different faces, though they need to be contrasting; otherwise using one face in a small range of styles and weights is  You could use twelve different styles of type to cover all the uses, but of course plate engravers had a limited number of sets and sizes on their shelves, and in graphic design, as with Jazz, less is more. The type needs to be versatile to handle all these different uses.

Lyrics is one area of engraving where the choice of font is most crucial. The type must be legible, often at a small size, and not so big or wide that the note spacing suffers. Many an attractive typeface will produce unattractive music. In revising the font’s metrics, I wanted to make sure that it would be as clear as possible while minimizing distortion to the note spacing.

Academico needs more room here, and would normally cause the notes to move apart.

Style it out

In plate engraving, titling and other ‘page furniture’, like the composer’s name, is often set with some additional spacing between the letters. I thought that it would be better to make the font quite tight by default, letting users add extra spacing where needed, instead of making it looser, and letting users squish the characters together.

The Italics were also crucial and idiomatic to the style. The original music type works well as a companion to dynamic symbols, for things like ‘sempre’.

The Regular and Bold faces contain Small Caps glyphs, though very few (if any) notation apps can access OpenType features like alternate glyphs. So, I’ve created additional fonts that have the lowercase and small caps switched. You can select RegularSC instead of Regular.

All the Nepomuk variants: Regular, Small Caps, Italic, Bold, Small Caps Bold, Bold Italic

I’ve created a complete facsimile of a 1903 Durand score (Debussy’s Trois Chansons), to showcase the font. But there is still more work to do. I’d like to add Greek and Cyrillic alphabets, as there is plenty of music that needs those language scripts. IPA symbols are often used where singers are unfamiliar with pronunciation, or for vocal effects.

Alternatives

These days, we are blessed (or possibly cursed) with thousands upon thousands of digital typefaces: free and open source; mainstream commercial; and bespoke boutique. Font-creation software is a lot easier to use than it used to be. As ever, I’m not the only person ploughing this furrow.

Jawher Matmati nailed the Durand type with his Roman Ionic, which is an excellent recreation, also available from Notation Central. Djuro Zivkovic has also been working on Roman and Italic faces called “Old Music Standard“. Among all the Centurys, Moderns, and Scotches now produced by smaller foundries, there may be other decent matches for Music Type.

The best designs are the ones that get out of your way, and provide the information without you noticing them. But they also convey a spirit; a mood. I hope that these fonts convey the heritage of traditional engraving, while also being functionally useful for new publications. I didn’t want a font that was a historical re-enactment, simulating ragged, worn edges, and blotchy, over-inked corners, like some typeface for a Disney Pirate. Everyone knows we’re using computers and laser printers now.

Get Nepomuk

Nepomuk is available at Notation Central. It was created and is made available under the SIL Open Font License, and as such it is available at no charge; however, a suggested contribution of $10 or whatever you care to contribute towards this project is greatly appreciated.

Incidentally, if anyone has a set of traditional engravers’ punches, either for text or music, or knows where some might be: do get in touch, as I’d be very interested to see them.

Comments

  1. Paolo T.

    Absolutely fantastic! It has the something that one feels missing when using music fonts trying to replicate that era’s look.

    1. Chris Aher

      Thanks Ben,

      Beautiful work!

      Chris aka Epeedad

  2. Paolo T.

    Maybe I’ve lost it in the story, but is there a reason for the name? Was the original type originated from the town of Nepomuk?

    1. Ben Byram-Wigfield

      Florian named it after Johan Nepomuk David, an Austrian composer (1895 – 1977). Though of course it’s a common name in Austro-Hungary — e.g. Hummel, St. John Nepomuk, etc.

      1. Paolo T.

        I see. Thank you for clarifying!

  3. Christos C.

    It is a superb font indeed. I’ve been using it for the past five years or so, and I rarely need to look for alternatives. It matches beautifully with plenty of sans-serif fonts and overall makes for a very elegant score and accompanying notes.

    I only wish there were more weights (light, semi-bold, ultra-bold etc) and also the choice of old style numerals. Perhaps you might consider the above in a future update.

    Thank you for making it available!

    1. Peter McAleer

      Hummel?

      1. Peter McAleer

        Sorry, wrong person. I meant to reply to Christos C.

        1. Peter McAleer

          Not my day – I meant Paolo T.!

    2. Ben Byram-Wigfield

      Yes, more could be in the works. The Bold is not that Bold, and may become SemiBold in time; but a heavier weight is certainly planned. Old Style numerals also. Updates will be forthcoming!

      1. Christos C.

        Thank you Ben! Any chance you might also add a long S in there? Just in case one might need one…

        1. Ben Byram-Wigfield

          It does have a long S — also a long s-t ligature! Let me know if you can’t access it.

          1. Christos C.

            So it does! That’s lovely, let me know if you need any help with the Greek characters in a future update. Thanks again

  4. Peter McAleer

    Great article Ben. Nice work with the font – I liked the look of the lyrics you showed particularly.

  5. Dan Gordon

    Looks great, just purchased! Trying it out with OpenOffice Writer and WordPad on Windows 11, switching to bold gives small caps instead – might be worth investigating?

    1. Ben Byram-Wigfield

      I don’t have Windows to test, but I understand that Windows is a bit ‘basic’ in its handling of font styles. I guess it’s because there are two Bolds: the Bold SC and the Lowercase Bold, and the former is taking preference.
      I’ll see if I can distinguish them somehow.

    2. Ben Byram-Wigfield

      I’ve identified the cause of this problem and created a fix. It will be uploaded and made available shortly.

  6. Philip Rothman

    Thank you everyone for your comments so far, and to Ben and Florian for their terrific work, which is borne from their passion and attention to detail.

    If you use Nepomuk and enjoy it, we would greatly appreciate your taking a brief moment to leave your honest review on the product page; please click the “Reviews” tab there. It really helps!

  7. Kęstutis Daugirdas

    Hi, great font, but only the regular font weight includes all of the extended characters for Lithuanian: ąčęėįšųū. The other styles are all missing the nasal-indication vowels: ąęįų. Would be great to see an update with these included, so that I can use them in Lithuanian scores and properly spell my own name :)

    1. Ben Byram-Wigfield

      Yes, the missing diacritics will be added to the other styles very soon. Sorry that they weren’t quite included for this release.

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