TI:ME Essay: Notation Software

As I said in my previous post, Electronic Instruments & MIDI, these essays are part of TI:ME Level 1 Certification and answer specific questions posed for certification.

This essay goes a little further as it address the concept of music literacy.  Before purists vote to lynch me, let me say that I think teaching students to read traditional music notation is important.  However, I don’t think it’s of primary importance and that becomes clearer in this article.  Reading music notation is crucial for recreating music but is not urgent, given today’s tools, to create music.  I think we spend far to much time emphasizing music notation as THE tool for music literacy.

Notation Software

Notation software is sophisticated graphics manipulation program made specifically for the needs of musicians.  The top notation software is Finale and Sibelius.  Fans of each could tell you why they prefer one product to the other that might include ease of use and learning curves.  With products this sophisticated, choosing becomes a matter of personal taste and personal needs.

Sibelius and Finale have several versions of their products at different price points.  Entry-level software and “lite” versions of both have fewer features than the full feature parent products. Some of these limitations include:

• Limited number of manuscript paper choices
• Limited header and no footers
• Limited number of staves per score
• Limited articulation marks, accidentals, pick up bars,
• Limited ability to customize graphics such as articulations, beams and rest groups, brackets and braces
• No ability to include cues in parts
• No ability to change transpositions on transposing instruments
• No ability to import files from competitors products

Sibelius provides a complete comparison chart between its newest “lite” edition product Sibelius First and its full-featured edition Sibelius 5 at http://www.sibelius.com/products/sibelius_first/features.html.  The website also provides a comparison chart between Sibelius Student and Sibelius 5 at http://www.sibelius.com/products/sibelius_student/features.html.

Finale provides a nice overview for their products at http://www.finalemusic.com/store/productoverview.aspx?p=1.  MakeMusic, the producers of the Finale line, also has a comparison chart at http://www.finalemusic.com/CompareFeatures.aspx?compare=finale.

Notation software is imperative for musicians who want to print their music either by self-publishing or through a publishing company.  Educators will find a great deal available to them with full feature programs.  A variety of templates come preloaded including the ability to create worksheets directly in the notation software without the need to use a separate word processing program.  Transpositions are a matter of a click of the mouse as is the ability to play back the music notated and create audio files for students to listen to.  You can even scan music in, post notation on the Internet, record audio and include video in today’s sophisticated notation files.

Students can use notation software to compose their own music, complete Theory and AP Music Theory assignments and transcribe music.  Personally, I am not a fan of using notation software as the primary composition or teaching tool for students K-12.  Although the ability to read and understand notation is important, non-performers need to understand the basic functions of music as it relates to the piano keyboard.  So do performers but that’s a topic for another day.  For instance, do students understand how a major scale is built and can they visualize the layout and play it on the piano keyboard?  Can they visualize any triad and play it on the piano keyboard?  Do they understand and can they play a I, IV, V chord progression in root position and inversions in a variety of keys?  How about any other number of chord combinations?  What about the difference between major and minor?  Seventh chords, jazz scales, Booggie Woogie basslines? This kind of literacy is far more important to forming musicians overall than the ability to decipher where G is on a staff or memorize “F A C E” for spaces on the staff.  The ability to visualize what they do on the piano keyboard and, more importantly, HEAR what they do, builds complete musicians.  Let them play what they hear into the keyboard or experiment with sounds and combination of pitches on the keyboard and let the machine capture it.  Sequencing programs allow students to see all kinds of music information instantly as they play and record.  Pitch, note length and volume are displayed graphically, a language students can understand with virtually no explanation.  Students should eventually be able to transfer their knowledge of the keyboard to the staff once they have a full understanding of the functions and relationship of notes on the piano keyboard.  Today’s sequencing software gives students the ability to do all of this.  They can create on a keyboard, understand and practice music theory, piano skills and use notation software.  Even entry-level sequencing programs have notation capabilities.  Albeit limited, it’s plenty sophisticated for students to use.  If students need to produce a more professional printed version, they can simply export the MIDI information and drag it into Sibelius or Finale.


6 Responses to “TI:ME Essay: Notation Software”

  1. musicteacher541 Says:

    Yes, indeed, there are lots of software and technologies on the internet that are intended to help music teachers. There are also available sites that provide tips and resources in music teaching. We, music teachers, just have to utilize these innovations to further increase our knowledge and skills in teaching.

    Thanks for sharing!

  2. Roger Wagner Says:

    I like how you give a brief overview of the two most popular programs. I personally use Sibelius, while my university chooses to use Finale.

    But beyond that, you make a very valid point that having the musical aptitude to understand what you’re doing in a notation program, to hear it, and to produce it on a keyboard is imperative. The point being that we need to be able to speak musically before we read it, but what I’m most concerned about is making sure that we, as music educators, let students experiment with notation software.

    Let’s look at Messiaen’s “Quartet por la fin du temps,” however. A piece that isn’t written within the context of normal composition, meaning that it doesn’t follow a structured form of meter, but one that the performer is responsible for delegating. A work like Messiaen’s is very difficult to create in a notation program, but noticeably easier by hand. Which brings me to this point- it is imperative that students be able to produce the same work on manuscript as they can on notation software. Notation software isn’t meant to be educational so much as it is meant to be productive, thus whatever education being provided could happen on staff paper, then opening up projects for students to work in Finale/Sibelius. However, it would be worth while teaching students how to use the programs so that they have a working knowledge and so they can branch out into other endeavors. I think what is most important, is making sure equip students with the skills they need, while not limiting them.

    We generally don’t keep up to date with this technology when we’re out teaching because of the various other duties we fulfill, but I think it’s important that we become a technological field. We need to adapt to a musical world that is employing electronics in a way more than Steve Reich’s “It’s Gonna Rain.”

    We’re a creative folk and we need to teach others that creativity is acceptable and fantastic.

    • MusicEdTech Says:

      Thanks for your very thoughtful reply. I liked hearing from the post secondary perspective. There are concerns for post secondary music students that I just choose not to address in high school. Most of my students won’t become musicians but enjoy listening to and creating music. They want to make “good” music. They want to make engaging music. They understand that creating engaging music means mastering the language of music, the fundamentals of music, the relationship of notes to each other or what we call music theory. When they learn to create engaging music they must also become critical listeners. Learning musical composition makes creators and critical listeners. Notation is a means of preserving their creations. There are other means especially if the music is NOT going to be recreated by other performers. I went to college with professors of composition and music theory Charles Dodge, Noah Creshevsky and Robert Starrer. We studied George Crumb and Steve Reich. I don’t know the Messiaen example you refer to but I can speak to a more known piece Respighi’s Pines of Rome. How does one notate the exact sounds heard on the tape of birds? I know your point is about the necessity to learn hand written manuscript and I will agree for students of music this is important. It can only help when using software. Better yet is what you consider to be “most important”, “making sure we equip students with the skills they need, while not limiting them”. Several of my colleges and I have been discussing the limited time most of them have in the secondary classes to teach composition given all the other requirements of the curriculum. I only ask other music teachers to ask yourselves, is teaching notation given the software and hardware tools available today really of priority over teaching the musical skills necessary to create engaging music or is teaching notation and expecting composition solely through and with notation really limiting them? Critical assessment of music does not have to be only visual through notation. Hey, it music! Listen to it! Look at it in other ways. Why do we need to teach students to read and write Greek to speak Latin? Thanks so much for your reply!

  3. choirguy Says:

    I’d like to respond to your statement which read, “Personally, I am not a fan of using notation software as the primary composition or teaching tool for students K-12.” I use Finale Notepad (2008, which was free) in my music theory classes that I teach (grades 9-12). I wouldn’t call Finale Notepad the “primary teaching tool” that I use, but I have developed weekly computer lab lessons where students apply what they’ve been learning in class on a daily basis…for example, asking them to create specific scales (on a template) for given keys immediately following after our unit on scales. In this case, I’d say that using Finale (Notepad) is the primary composition tool I use in my theory classes. The time in the computer lab is very popular with my students, and they use the time working on the assigned labs, and when finished, often work on creating their own compositions. It gives a “change of pace” to the daily procedures we normally follow (lecture, sample exercises, and so on). And we’re all familiar with the impact the inclusion of technology has on any academic field…music is the same–technology increases student interest as well as (forces!) teacher creativity. Finally, if you’re using a standard theory textbook in grades 9-12, many resources are available specifically for music notation programs, like Finale.

    In summary, although music notation software might not be the primary tool you use for composition or as a teaching tool, I’d certainly argue that it should still be part of your curriculum. The fact that Finale notepad now costs $10 can be problematic for schools that have been accustomed to getting the program for free (Where do you get $340 to outfit a 34-station lab?). Nonetheless, I still urge music educators in 9-12 to do this; and I’d even argue that students in 6-8 are capable to learn some of these concepts as well.

    I’d also like to add that we can over-stress the importance of the keyboard in theory, too. Students need to be able to understand the concepts of music theory both at the keyboard and away from it.

    • MusicEdTech Says:

      Thanks for your thoughtful comment. First I want to say that if my comments sound a little defensive or self-righteous it’s because we have an ongoing debate in the State of CT about how to assess the 8th Grade Composition requirement. It really isn’t about your reply.

      I agree notation software is readily accessible and cheap. Actually, my main software, Logic Studio, has very respectable notation capabilities although I wouldn’t try to publish a piece with it. Even GarageBand has notation capabilities. I see how in your music theory classes you would want to use a notation package. I would, too, if I were teaching music theory class. I would venture to say that most of, if not all, of your students in the music theory class play an instrument or sing in a choir or have done so for more than a year or two. Music theory classes are aimed at advancing the skills of already existing musicians/performers. At least that’s what they are in my school and I would say that’s a good guess for most schools. My classes, Electronic Music (composition) classes, are the old “general music ” class. That’s the class mostly for the non-performer. My students have had little or no experience playing an instrument or singing in a choir and they have absolutely no desire to do so for the most part. IF they want to pursue music more than just a hobby or want to delve more intensely into the experience then I tell them to put themselves in a chorus, take piano or guitar lessons and take our schools Intro to Music Theory and eventually the AP Music Theory classes. Even our performance ensembles advise students to study music outside of their classroom (private lessons, outside ensembles) if they are serious about it. We just can’t give them all they need in a classroom. Being a fulfilled or even “successful” musician does not require one to read music. Look to Paul McCartney, Barbara Streisand, Ray Charles and any number of musicians who never learned how to read music. Yes, I’ll concede that they are the exception and that we really do have an obligation to make complete musician. Hey, I don’t teach TAB in my guitar classes for that exact reason; notation is important and critical to making well-rounded and complete musicians. Sure, I teach notation somewhat. They need to know basic rhythmic notation and they surely learn the notes of treble and bass clef. However, they simply cannot master it enough in the classroom to compose solely with notation unless I turn it into a performance keyboard class. Then it’s not a composition class but a keyboard class. That’s not my goal. My goal is to create critical listeners through understanding what it takes to create engaging music. You don’t need notation for that. As I said in a recent post, why teach reading and writing Greek for them to speak and understand Latin? Just listen to examples of student music on this blog. I really don’t think I could get the level of sophistication that they produce if I focused on notation and asked them to compose in notation software.

      I am happy to say that my Intro classes are THE most requested in a building of 2800 students. On average 1/3 of all the seniors in my two most advanced classes go to college as Music Composition or Music Technology majors. One third of them NEVER played an instrument or sang in a chorus before they entered my classroom. My philosophy is to grab them and hook them in. If they really want to dedicate themselves to the process of being a musician then they have much more work to do than we can give them in a classroom. I think what we do at our school works not just for the general population but also for those that have a true gift and never had or took the chance to develop it.

      • choirguy Says:

        I guess I’m not following the Greek-Latin argument. I consider notation and notation software to be a direct relation to the study of music. I’d suggest taking one of your classes with their compositions and exposing them to the actual notation software, and see what happens. In my experience, students learn the software quickly…and the ability to hear what they compose helps greatly.

        My music theory classes are actually 1/2 and 1/2…1/2 are band/choir students with a background in reading music; the other 1/2 tend to be guitar students who have no idea how to read or write music, but want to.

        Funny you should mention guitar…I’ll be teaching a guitar class to 9-11 grade students this fall, and I’m not a major guitar player. I passed some guitar proficiency classes for elementary music education fifteen years ago. But I have some good method books to work with along with other resources, so I know things will be fine. I do plan on teaching traditional notation…but we’ll also study tab notation, as they’ll see it in the “real world.”

        I’m with you, 100%, in the idea of hooking students into what we do. Technology is a key to that. And I don’t even think I’m arguing against your point…I just think that notation software has a place in the high school curriculum for sure–even for performance courses. In vocal music, students can create their own accompaniment for SmartMusic with Finale…and learn about keys, time signatures, tempos, and the vertical aspects of music. Instrumentalists could do the same. I also knew of a band director who had a song literally falling apart, so he took his kids into the computer lab and they each re-created their own part (the piece was permanently out of print). They were learning the same things…as well as discovering another step in the production of music itself…the hidden role of the engraver.

        Thanks for taking the time to shoot ideas back and forth!

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