Microtonal notation in Dorico


Editor’s note: This is the first of two articles exploring microtonal music in Dorico. The next article, by Thomas Nicholson, reviews microtonal playback.

New musical materials and ways of combining sound are continually stimulating new forms of notation, which, in turn, allow these constellations to be reinterpreted by other musicians. As writing evolves, it establishes a grammar of its own, a lexicon of that which may be written, shaping composition. Just as the art of engraving and printing music has changed the appearance of written manuscripts, scoring software and the possibilities it offers us composers today is radically transforming our work, shaping and sometimes limiting our expressions and imagination.

For example, the decision to ignore certain fine differences (commas) of tuning in Western notation, in spite of numerous proposals for possible notations debated in the mid-16th century, has profoundly affected the course of European music. It has led, in effect, to the seemingly commonplace acceptance of a tempered (out-of-tune) “system” which pianos, harmoniums and later MIDI keyboards have propagated worldwide. In spite of this colonisation of our collective imaginations, the desire to explore finer gradations of harmonic differences is alive and well. The fresh sonorities emerging therefrom in musics of sound cultures worldwide are drawing today’s musicians to explore the beauties of various microtonal systems and to find instruments and notations suitable for these new and rediscovered tonalities.

The most radical and, to my mind, positive development offered by the newest music engraving and playback software, Steinberg’s Dorico, is a bold attempt to follow the human musical workflow. One starts with an unmetered “flow”, graphic representations of sounds, possibly numerous parallel fragments or sketches, which may be trimmed or inserted as a word processor might edit text, allowing these to be formed gradually into phrases, pieces, movements, songs, cues; graphic materials which actually, as symbols, may later be formatted for publication and also be interpreted by computer instruments and/or live musicians.

The program, to its great credit, is both ambitious, and at the same time openly presenting itself as an evolving work-in-progress. I deeply appreciate the dedication and accessibility of the persons collaborating on this project, and look forward to the program’s future transformations and refinements. At the same time, after the major update to version 2, I feel ready to adopt Dorico as the main software for all of my own scoring work. I look forward to learning, exploring the new possibilities it offers, and to help shape the program as a beta tester. I know what a challenge it is to go through a new learning curve when one already has the habits of a system well in grasp; in this case I can say, it is well worth the effort.

The tonality system editor in Dorico, shown here using the Helmholtz-Ellis system

I was drawn to Dorico when it was still very much under construction, and was especially curious about the development team’s wish to implement microtonal and polymetric notation and playback, along with many other special advanced features.  Unlike other currently well-known engraving softwares, which in many common situations require “fake” work-arounds to write up even slightly non-standard or experimental notations, for example to insert a line break in the middle of a measure, Dorico has taken on the challenge of actually realising such special-case situations as part of normal “music writing”, as real musical notations, which are actually represented as meaningful, interpretable data within the program. For many years, when using engraving programs, I found ways to make my scores look good, but I was often disappointed that the symbols I used were simply visualizations: text attachments without actual functionality, for example, which required manual repositioning of notes, chords, polyphonic materials and correcting all my transpositions by hand.

When Dorico 1 was first released, I purchased a copy and began experimenting with it. The basic options for microtonal notation were possible early-on (defining an alternate “Tonality System”), but it was not until the recent release of Dorico 2 that the details began to be implemented: defining precise-positioning of cut-away corners so multiple accidentals on chords would position themselves naturally, and of course, the actual playback side of things. The powerful correlation between written symbols and a diversity of possible tonal systems is an absolutely incredible breakthrough in contemporary composition. Various equal temperaments, scale systems used in various world traditions, European historical temperaments, and especially new speculative tunings like extended Just Intonation may be notated as actual pitches, and the program has the ability to play back a polyphonic digital simulation of each new tonality system without any further programming of hidden MIDI pitch bends, channel re-assignments, hidden tracks, system exclusive commands, synth specific patches, MTS codes, etc. I think that this feature, as it becomes fully implemented, will have absolutely significant future effect on the development of music.

The Edit Accidental dialog in Dorico

The tone system is currently defined by specifying the number of equal units between each of the diatonic notes A B C D E F G, which then automatically specify a division of the octave, and as a second step, defining a pitch change in these units for each user-defined accidental. The Bravura Font, or various open-source modifications, offer many built-in symbols which may be entered either as glyphs or text strings and positioned appropriately. Custom fonts may also be used.

I attach an example of a recent score of mine set in Dorico 2: the voices are written in free polyphonic notation, metrically aligned but without any hidden tuplets to coordinate the parts, even though sometimes the voices have different numbers of beats, and with microtonal Helmholtz-Ellis JI Pitch Notation accidentals, which the program precisely integrates in layout, including chords, and which the playback engine interprets to produce microtonal playback accurate to 1/1000 of a semitone (based on a division of the octave into 12000 microintervals). The ease with which such a notation can be programmed as actual, working data, gives me a very optimistic hope for the program’s future, and I am pleased to see this level of support in a commercial software release.

Marc Sabat’s Part song, set in Dorico (click for PDF)

There is still much work to be done: transposing instruments need to know how to respond to an alternate accidental system, for example. But after years of work-arounds, the prospect for composers wishing to experiment with notating compositions in non-12-equal-division tuning systems and hearing the sounding results is finally possible in a remarkable flexible and sophisticated way using Dorico 2.1.

Anyone interested in a template of accidentals or free open-source custom fonts based on the SMuFL standard please feel free to contact me at masa@plainsound.org or through the website www.plainsound.org. A microtonal tuning calculator for just intonation composition by Thomas Nicholson is available at www.plainsound.org/HEJIcalc.html.


  1. Lillie

    Great post! I couldn’t help wondering, are your degrees (e.g. +10) part of the custom accidentals or are they text objects?

    1. Thomas Nicholson

      The cent deviations are created using text (user defined style, overriding default collision avoidances) Ctrl+X.

  2. Claude Lapalme

    Great piece Marc. Very informative. I’m also delighted to see that you are using Dorico!

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