I was asked to answer the question, “Does music notation software have a considerable impact on musicians?” on Quora. Here’s my answer. (If you want to follow me on Quora, here I am.)

I’m certain that music notation software has had an impact on musicians in many fields, both on the creation side with composers, arrangers and publishers, and on the consumption side, with performers. This impact is both positive and negative, of course, just as with any other tool.

At its best, music notation software should be as invisible to its user as a chisel is to a sculptor: it should provide no impediment to the expression of the creator’s intentions. However, I don’t believe any of the currently available music notation programs have achieved this level of power: they are either too complex, too slow, or not flexible enough to express the complexity of every creator’s intention.

So if the tools are currently imperfect, what impact does this have? For composers, particularly inexperienced composers, it is all too easy to rely on the playback they hear through their computers’ speakers, and to believe that the ease with which instruments can play and balance each other at extremes of register will translate to the real world. It’s all too easy to use the copy and paste features to quickly bash out lots of notes without giving them due consideration.

For the performer, he may be faced with music that has been inconsiderately laid out, with poorly-chosen page turns, too large or too small a staff size, and so on. There is also the risk that where the default behaviour of a particular program is not ideal, if it is blindly printed over and over again, it can become accepted by performers (and indeed publishers) as correct, and conventions that make music subtly but definably easier to read and perform from are gradually lost.

But each of these impacts can be ameliorated by the user taking responsibility for what the software does, and not simply accepting blindly the default results given by the software. Like any tool, music notation software takes time to learn its strengths and weaknesses, where you can trust its defaults, and where you cannot.

Furthermore, I do not agree with Harrison, who has already answered this question, that composers should always and without exception work in pencil first and then transfer to the computer once the work is finished. You would no more ask a novelist or screenwriter to write his magnum opus using pencil and paper before putting finger to keyboard in Word or Final Draft than you should a composer or arranger.

Using notation software speeds up the process of getting music performed and published. It allows people whose creative expression would otherwise remain private and personal to realise their ambitions of having their music performed. It allows students to learn the complex language of music notation more quickly and efficiently.

Ultimately, music notation software is a tool. Even in an imperfect state, it should be held no more responsible for the quality of the final product than the sculptor’s chisel, the artist’s brush, or even the novelist’s word processor.

For more than four years, we have been working on music notation software that is intended to act as a more assistive partner in the composition process, and it’s now available, with a 30-day free trial. Try Dorico, the music notation software from Steinberg.

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