I write a lot about technology here. But there is no technology more important to a composer than paper. Whether one uses pen or pencil, the use of paper is integral to one’s development as a beginning composer and as an advanced one.
As a beginner, writing on paper helps one intuitively learn the basics of notation. The way things are laid out; the shape of a notehead; the relationship between clefs and the staff; the placement of slurs: writing on paper helps one learn musical notation and how the composer can shape music as they wish.
But, paper is not just about notation. It is also about freedom to draw where there are no limitations. One is not limited by the orientation of a screen, the extent of the surface (just add more paper!), the horizontal alignment of text–one can draw anything in any direction, color, thickness, “font” (i.e. handwriting), and more. This means that no only can one make graphic notation, but more importantly one can sketch, draw, express, plot out a piece, analyze a motive, or anything else that will help in one’s compositional process.
Finally, paper forces us to use our inner ear. The inner ear starts out quiet in most of us, most commonly by following a tune by ear and then singing it. Writing on paper forces us to hear things in our inner ear, without playback, or the limitations of our own skill (or lack thereof) on an instrument or voice part. Starting with one note, we learn how another note sounds in relationship to that note. Soon we can hear (in no particular order) melodies, basic harmonies/intervals, chords, counterpoint, complex rhythmical relationships, extreme spans of notes, tone colors, instrumentation, conducting directions, spatial imaging, and so much more! This is all done in our head, which makes us stronger at executing the ideas we hear, but most importantly expands the limitations of what we can create and become inspired to create.
Notation software is a great benefit to us as composers. But, we oftentimes allow it to tell us how our music sounds. How our music sounds should be our determination, not a computer’s. And frankly, more times than not playback gets it dead wrong.
So, if we use notation software, how do we keep our inner ear? Here are some techniques I use to ensure I am the creator of the sound, instead of the program dictating the sounds:
- As the composition plays back, keep the playback sounds in the background of your mind–as a backdrop to guide you when needed. Make every effort to hear “over” the sounds–to hear the real music in real time that overrides and masks the playback. This may mean you hear different tone colors, phrasing, amounts of dissonance and consonance, or other sound qualities, while the computerized sounds have a background relationship to what you hear in your mind.
- Play back the composition with different MIDI patches, for example once in Finale with MIDI playback, then with Finale with Garritan, then in Logic with its presets, etc. This ensures you are not wedded to how it sounds in one program, which is (again) oftentimes dead wrong. By hearing how it sounds in multiple programs, you are open to other sounds and possibilities that ensure you do not call a certain playback file the “definitive” edition.
- Hum along as the file plays back, focusing on different instruments at different times. Use percussive vocal sounds when percussion is used. Be lyrical when there are large phrases. Sing different chord tones when there are stacked intervals. This helps take you out of the playback sounds and into the music itself.
- Ask a friend to listen to the playback, even if it is not the final version of the piece. They will likely have suggestions about the piece that are informed based on what they hear and how they listen, and may indicate how they believe it will sound in live performance.
Notation software, whether on a computer, tablet, or phone, is a powerful tool. But, the most powerful tool of all remains paper. By taking yourself into the physical world more than the virtual/electronic, you have more options and are more deeply connected to the actual, final result. The end purpose of writing better music and creating organic, self-intentioned art is served more fully. You will grow as a composer, and so will your art.