Computer vs Handwritten notation when composing…is one better than the other?

After a series of discussions (attempted discussions really – the other protagonist never really answered any of my points) on Facebook recently, I thought I would write down something about how I compose and why I do it that way.

The first thing to say is that there is no right way and no wrong way – as a composer you have to find the method that works best for you, a way that allows you to write the best music that you possibly can.

I have used the word best a lot here – you also have to work out for yourself what best means! For me, I want to accurately and efficiently write what is in my head and/or heart.

I like to plan – on A3 landscape. It may be notes, shapes, rhythms, chords, harmonies, structural ideas – it can be anything. Sometimes a little idea cultivates on that piece of paper quickly, sometimes it takes a while. (it is also worth noting at this stage that rarely is the planning ever adhered to – allowing something to have a natural, organic life is important to me and the way I write).

Once I get to a position where I feel the need to get my teeth in to actually writing the piece I fire up my PC, double click on Sibelius and set the score up how I want it.

There are inherent dangers to using a computer to write music on (more on this later) but if you are disciplined enough, and part of that I guess is experienced enough too, then using a computer program is, in my mind, no different to an author using Word as opposed to paper and ink.

Writing on a computer has its advantages for me.

Firstly I have shocking (and I mean really very,very bad) handwriting. So to efficiently write and communicate what I want as simply as possible becomes more tricky without Sibelius; the chances of errors creeping in to my work become higher and, significantly, it slows me down – I can’t keep up with the rate that my mind is working at.

Secondly, and probably most importantly, I produce my best work when I am totally focused in a (relatively) short space of time. From the moment I start, following the planning stage, my mind thinks about nothing but the piece I am writing. I am lucky that I am a pretty quick composer once I have started, and so a piece that may take 3 weeks when written by hand may only take 10 days (or less) on the computer. I will write for long periods of time each day, again keeping everything focused. This helps with the piece to be more coherent and, most importantly, more musical.

So for me it produces better results than if I wrote by hand – my method produces as close as possible to what is in my head and heart and it does it as economically, as accurately and as musically as possible. As I said earlier, you have to find your own process, your own method, that works for you.

But using computers does have its dangers if you are not disciplined.

Playback – this becomes an issue when you rely on it. What you hear actually bears no resemblance to the balances of any ensemble that you are working with. It also doesn’t let the virtual instruments interact with each other – for instance, a brass chord will sound more brilliant at the top if underpinned by full sounding, in tune, tubas underneath. It is the harmonic series at work right before your ears! It can also make people lazy – you need to use your “inner ear” to write if you want to have a chance at being a quality composer, and playback does seem to be used as an alternative. It isn’t.

At this stage it is worth pointing out that I do use playback – most often to check how the proportions of a work line up. You know it is a computer so it is only a guide, but can be useful.

It is also worth pointing out that composing at the piano has similar problems to using playback – a piano can produce plenty of harmonies that aren’t there in your score and again lazy composers can almost be deceived by that.

Lack of creativity, thought and imagination – by this I mean that you can simply cut and paste a section with ease, “orchestrate” with ease and add “harmonies” with ease. Again, if you use these, chance are you are not going to be giving yourself the best possible opportunity of writing quality music. This lack of thought and imagination will make music stagnant, un-musical, and generally unsatisfying.

This is just a rough guide to my method, as well as a couple of concerns I have about people using, in fact relying, on software to compose on.

So my advice is this – don’t be blind to yourself. This is very much a situation where you “need to know” and you need to rationalise what it is that you are doing, and why it is that you are doing it. Try writing in as many different ways as possible, keep experimenting until you find a way that gives you the opportunity to work at your very best, to produce the best quality music that you can. And then experiment again.



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