Eric Whitacre on the role of notation software in composition


A composer whose work I greatly admire, Eric Whitacre, has been blogging for about a year at He has started a series of posts that he calls “Advice for the Emerging Composer,” and in the very first post in the series, he writes about how notation software hinders his compositional process. He writes:

I use a pencil and paper. That’s it. I’ve tried Finale, tried Sibelius – I just seem to write better when I’m using ‘old school’ materials. Something about the smell of the lead and the feel of the paper make me feel more like I’m working, and for me that’s an essential part of the process. I like to get to the end of a writing day and have sore fingers and little bits of eraser all over my clothes, like a woodworker leaving his studio.

Of course, our aim when designing Sibelius has always been to allow it to feel as natural and as real as working with a pencil and manuscript paper. How do we, as makers of notation software, respond to the problems that Eric and other composers find? More after the jump.

Eric outlines three big problems that arise when using notation software, and none of them are actually concerned with the mechanics of using the software; rather, they are philosophical problems. To paraphrase:

  • Copy and paste make it too easy to create music without thinking: when there is no cost to copying and pasting something, do you stop to consider whether or not it’s the right thing to do?
  • “The playback sucks.” The composer can either find himself second-guessing what he has written because of the poor quality of the playback sounds, or conversely be disappointed when hearing his piece played by a human ensemble because he doesn’t have Hans Zimmer’s horn section in real life!
  • “You’ll stop using your imagination.” If the composer cannot hear his music in his mind’s ear (so to speak) then he will not find the true expression of the idea he is trying to communicate.

This kind of sentiment is by no means uncommon, and equally by no means limited to the field of music — it has been a long-held view that, say, the rise of desktop publishing software in the 1980s was a bad thing for the world of design, since it meant anybody could do it, though of course, the experts would scoff, most people would make catastrophic creations that break all of the conventions of typography, proportion, use of colour, and so on. And therein lies the rub: this notion that only experts should be able to design a newsletter, or write a novel, or compose a symphony, that only skilled artisans should be allowed to do it, risks accusations of elitism.

There is also a tacet assumption that there is a direct correlation between the use of a particular tool and a particular result — that if you do use notation software, you will copy and paste to the detriment of your music, that you will second-guess yourself because of the limitations of software-based playback, and that you will stop using your imagination. Of course, there is no such correlation. If you were to take this argument to extremes, you might argue that even using a piano as part of your compositional process would lead you to make choices that you would not make if you relied solely on your mind’s ear, or that using pre-printed manuscript paper would allow you to write longer pieces than if you had to rule every staff by hand…

I’m being facetious, of course, but my point is that notation software, like a word processor, or a typewriter, or a carpenter’s plane, is merely a tool. A tool in the hands of an experienced craftsman can be used well, and it can also be used cack-handedly by somebody who lacks the necessary skills.

I have been fortunate enough to see our software used successfully by children as young as seven or eight years old (for example, in the pioneering Vermont MIDI Project), and that tells me that notation software can play an important role in opening up a new world of expressive possibilities to people who have not had the great fortune to be educated to a high level in music theory and history as some of us have. I would not suggest for a moment that notation software should ever replace any other kind of tuition in music, but in recommending that young composers deny themselves the useful things that notation software can do when used well, the baby is in danger of being thrown out with the bathwater.

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