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Music Review Print



A Little Essay on How to Write Music on Paper

April 6, 2020 - Raleigh, NC:


Coping with crisisOne of the abilities most people enjoy without much consideration is writing the language they speak, although some of us suffer from neurological disorders that make this difficult or impossible, even though our verbal abilities are fine. We learn from this that literacy is something that requires a specific brain function and is not something that is universal to language. Music is processed differently than speech. Most people can learn to read music, if they are so inclined (although few do these days); but writing music – not just a tune and chord changes, but a real full score – appears to a good many to be a mysterious ability and a rather black art. There are studies on brain function in musicians that are dizzyingly complex and cause discomfort in the frontal lobes, but the basic idea seems to be that composition, in the traditional western sense of scribbling all the notes down, is facilitated by a brain that works in a different way than for most people in processing music.

Suppose you find yourself with such an abnormal brain. While it might be prudent to seek a neurologist in hopes of a cure, failing that, you might become interested in attempting a score of your own. "Scoring" usually implies some kind of athletic accomplishment, or success in romance, or some such desirable outcome. In music, it most often means you end up with an expensive stack of paper, with thousands of dots meticulously arranged thereon, to be placed reverently in a file cabinet where it can cause no harm.

How is this attempt to be done? For hundreds of years, the first step was to find a goose and pull out a feather. With a few skillful whacks of a knife, you had yourself a pen. Soot from the candle that feebly illumined your freezing garret, mingled with tears from your poor choice of profession, sufficed for ink. This prevailed for the first 900 years of composition. For a precious few composers, after printing was invented, scores would go to an engraver, who would painstakingly transcribe the scribbles onto metal plates. This was (and remains) slow and expensive but nonetheless a process requiring great skill to produce a thing of beauty and elegance. From the early 20th century, Ozalid technology dominated the reproduction of manuscript scores and parts done in ink on translucent paper, a process uniformly regarded with dread and contempt, as well as impermanence. Xerography was a welcome invention, but as it doesn't work well with pencil, ink remained a necessity.

This was the state of the art for getting notes onto a page and in front of a musician until the 1970s.

When I studied composition in 1973, my teacher had made a pen with five nibs to draw staff lines, practically identical to one used by J.S. Bach. For hearing what we had written, there was a piano to bang as best you could, which for me was a problem since I was a violinist. The result of our labors was a manuscript which could never compete with engraving. I submitted some solo violin music to a violinist I'd studied with for years, and he said that he never played music that wasn't engraved. Since the going rate was $70 a page, that was impossible....

Given the primitive technology, and musicians saying "no" or "pay me," composers were drawn to electronics, much like lonely men to inflatable love dolls, and for the same reasons. I tried my hand at what was available in the '70s. Slicing magnetic tape with a razor and glopping the pieces together with stickum was one popular pastime. Another was parking my ass in front of a telephone switchboard and connecting one hole to another to produce odd noises. Neither process had anything to do with writing music on paper, to which my abnormal brain was suited. I became engulfed in ennui, wallowing in a miasma of turpitude, and bailed on electrons.

In the early '80s, I visited a friend who hung out in a studio in Denton, Texas. A rich fellow had spent a quarter of a million clams on a computer and a Synclavier II. I watched in wonder as he pressed a note on the keyboard, and voila! An eighth note magically appeared on a staff on the monitor. And it played back, in whatever manner of caterwaul or banshee wail the program dictated. What wonders the mind of man had manifested – but only for the very rich. I continued on with my primitive pencils, pen, and tear-soot ink, in my freezing garret.

There followed 20 years of musicians saying "no" or "pay me," and thus no performances. At long last, in 2002, I set up shop with a decent computer, a synthesizer module, a keyboard controller, a terrible tangle of confusing cables, and the copy work program Finale. By this time, the cost of equipment was quite affordable, and Finale was impressive. This changed everything. The decades of skills that I had used were now useless, but the trade-off was vastly improved productivity and a result that rivals engraving. What had taken months, such as extracting parts from an orchestral score, now took a couple of days. Adding or deleting measures in a completed score and parts was now easy, instead of nearly impossible. With considerable effort, some rather awful and mechanical rendition of the score came out of the synthesizer. The whole process of producing music on paper changed more in 20 years than it had in the previous thousand.

And so now, Dear Reader, if you are so inclined, you can apply yourself to learning any of several programs to create music scores and, after a fashion, play them back. With any decent printer, you can run off a quality of workmanship that used to be the prerogative of the great music publishing houses of Europe. With all the technology, though, there is little or no overall increase in musical creativity; the vast amplification of the ability to say things outstrips the supply of things worth saying, in this field, as in all others. I recommend leaving the onerous task of composition to those of us with suitably abnormal mental equipment. Don't forget the tip jar at concerts. Perhaps even more than critics, composers are at the bottom of the food chain in music, which is not surprising since no one is inconvenienced when we go on strike. The biggest challenge in putting music on paper remains, as always, how to spend most of a lifetime on work that does not earn anything. This also requires an abnormal brain.

Note: The author's autobiography, an ongoing work-in-progress, may be read here. And do be sure to feed that tip jar when you see him – or it.