Compose by Hand or Compose by Music Notation Software?

Last semester, spring of 2011, I competed in Michigan State’s Composition Competition. The judge for this competition was none other than David Maslanka. We received an email of Maslanka’s comment about our pieces, and one of the comments that he said to all of us was the following: “I want to say to take everybody’s computer away and make them write by hand. [In other words], Learn to hear internally and at the piano without [the] benefit of computer playback” – Maslanka, email.

I did not actually experiment with this method until two months ago when I began writing the third movement of The Two Siblings (sax/euph duet). At first I thought, “This is taking forever!” But shortly, I realized that this was easier for me to compose than using Finale from start to finish. Before I go on, I’m not here to say those who exclusively compose by Finale or Sibelius are wrong, but I’m comparing the pros and cons between the two methods.

Compose by Finale/Sibelius

One of the benefits of using music notation software are the large assessment of tools that a composer can use. They are quite accessible and easy to use. In addition, they are a great way to make music scores look professional (as long as you know what you are doing). You can also change the size of the paper, score, everything in the music with a couple clicks. In addition, you can erase and edit in a short amount of time (even though it still takes forever to edit). Now for the cons. The main problem with music notation software is the playback. I can imagine that many of you reading this are thinking “But that’s the best part of Finale!! I do not need to play any instruments. I don’t need to listen to a band. I don’t even need to think! I just sit back and enjoy the sweet sounds of video game music right in my ears!!” I can not emphasis this fact any more: the playback will disorient the natural sounds and capabilities of the instrument, therefore the composer will assume that if the particular motive sounds good on the computer, then it will sound amazing in person. In other words, it’s not real! In addition, MIDI playback is absolutely HORRIBLE!! (really!) MIDI, along with other sound libraries, can deceive your ears by making music sound either disturbing, or somewhat decent. The point is that these sound libraries, such as GOP4 and COMB2, try to recreate real sound to help the user on how his/her music will sound in person, yet even if they sound exactly like an authentic Saxophone, it will never match a live instrument. Another problem are the tools used in these programs. I might be contradicting myself here, but the available tools on Finale/Sibelius are amazing: convenient and easy, but it is very easy for someone to get distracted by these tools and not pay attention to the realistic results to the real musicians. That is why so many young composers’ sounds so fragmented. You have so many options to work with, along with playback, that when you hear a motive that sounds so EPIC, you will use that motive REGARDLESS OF WHAT ELSE IS GOING ON IN THE PIECE!

Though I bashed this category quite a bit, I still use Finale, but only when I’m “publishing”/editing my pieces, and/or arranging music.

Compose by Hand (Old School)

There are many benefits to composing by hand. One of them is flexibility. Although you can not control how your staves look, you can add any marking just the way you want it, such as adding aleatoric boxes, customizing time signatures, omitting barlines…anything really! In addition, Sibelius/Finale contain a lot of tools that you can use to write music. One benefit, in my opinion, to composing by hand is the lack of distractions to writing. Finale is amazing in so many levels, but there’s too many options for me to choose, and sometimes they make composing much more complicated than it should. By hand, I can focus a lot more on only the ACTUAL composing part of the process. As far as how to hear your music, you can either play your music on a piano, play it on your instrument (if possible), or you can give it to a musician who would be willing to check your music out. One of the cons for this method is the editing process. Since you write in pencil, you will be erasing literally all the time. In fact, time is a big problem when writing by hand. When comparing finale to hand, it could take about 10 minutes or less to write 10 measures on finale where it could take about 20 minutes, or more to write 10 measures by hand.

I highly recommend writing by hand, however I would also consider using Finale/Sibelius for editing purposes. Everyone has their own preferences about which method is better. The only way to find which method is the right one for you, is to try both methods out.

BTW: the recordings from the Premieres Concert are here, so I will post Concert Etudes I on Youtube tomorrow!

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