Notation isn’t music: excercises for mastering notation


Jonathan Feist is an author for Berklee Press and teaches Berklee Music’s online course in Finale (Berklee also offer courses in Sibelius, which I have posted about before), and his latest blog post makes the excellent point that music notation is not music:

It’s a way of writing about music. What’s good about writing out our music, using notation, is that it gets our ideas out of our heads, which makes them both easier to edit and possible to share with others. What’s bad, though, is that it a step between the creative spirit and a usable expression object. Notation is cumbersome. Part of the craft of becoming a musician, of whatever stripe, is to become comfortable enough with notation so that it’s less of a barrier between us and our music.

Jonathan goes on to suggest a number of exercises that can be done to help increase your fluency with notation, and to help lower that barrier.

This had me musing on whether it’s possible to do exercises in using notation software to help increase your fluency. Notation software, in a sense, adds an additional barrier between the creative spirit and something that can be interpreted by others: no matter how fluent you might be, how many keyboard shortcuts you know, how efficient you are with input methods, notation software is still a barrier to that expression, as surely as is a pen and a piece of paper.

But there are things that you can do, of course. Some are purely mechanical, and some are more creative. For starters, even if you worked through the tutorials for Sibelius years ago, it’s worth revisiting them, particularly if you’re using Sibelius 6. The old “Quick tour”, which took you through the mouse and alphabetic input methods but not much else, has been replaced with five project-based tutorials that cover a lot more ground and introduce all of the major features of the program. Check them out (2.4MB PDF).

Here are some further ideas:

  1. Go online to the Internet Music Score Library Project or the Choral Public Domain Library, grab a piece of music in a genre or for an instrumentation that you don’t commonly write for, and copy the first page or two. You’ll probably come across a number of features that you don’t typically use, and this will be a good opportunity to learn them.
  2. Take a score you’ve already completed and arrange it for another instrumentation. For example, taking a chamber piece and reducing it for keyboard can be done simply by using the Reduce plug-in, but take the time to look at the resulting notation and consider how playable it is: remember that your notation software cannot make every decision for you, and that there’s no substitute for experience and expertise.
  3. Use a new input method. If you’re a died-in-the-wool mouser, just try using step-time or alphabetic input. Different input methods are more or less suitable for different types of task, and having them all under your fingertips can save you a lot of time.

What tips and tricks would you recommend to help increase fluency with notation software?


  1. Cesare Valentini

    This is the good and the ancient way to learn music composition. Copy, transpose, reduce and transcribe music of old masters!

  2. Jonathan Feist

    Very glad my post interested you! You might appreciate this Finale practice game that we developed for my online course at Berkleemusic. It’s very much in the spirit of your musings.



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