Today I’m at the Music Encoding Conference in Mainz, Germany, where I am giving a presentation on the work I have been doing over the past several months on music fonts for our new application. There are two major components to the work: firstly, a proposed new standard for how musical symbols should be laid out in a font, which I have called the Standard Music Font Layout (SMuFL to its friends, pronounced with a long “u”, so something like “smoofle”); and secondly, a new music font, called Bravura. Read on for more details.


One of the (many) barriers to interoperability between different scoring applications is that there is no agreement on how music fonts should work, beyond a very basic layout that dates back to the introduction of the first music font, Sonata, which was designed nearly 30 years ago by Cleo Huggins (@klyeaux) for Adobe.

Sonata uses a mnemonic approach to mapping. From the Sonata Font Design Specification:

The encoding for Sonata is intended to be easy to use for a person typing… The symbols are typically either visually related to the key to which they are associated, or they are related mnemonically through the actual letter on the keycap. Related characters are typically grouped on the same key and are accessed by using the shift, option, and command keys to get related characters.

For instance, the q key is associated with the quarternoteup glyph, Q (or shift-q) with the quarternotedown character, option-q with the quarternotehead character, and so on. The treble clef is located on the ampersand key (&), because it resembles an ampersand.

In general, the shift key flips a character upside down, if that makes sense for a given character, and the option key selects the note head equivalent of a note. There are many instances where this is not possible or practical, but there is a philosophy in its design that will become evident and will allow a user to easily remember the location of most of the characters in the font.

Fonts that followed in Sonata’s stead, such as Steve Peha’s Petrucci, the first font for Finale, and Jonathan Finn’s Opus, the first font for Sibelius, initially adhered reasonably closely to Sonata’s layout, but pretty quickly they began to diverge as the applications matured, and there was no agreement on how to map additional characters.

As hundreds of new symbols were added to these font families, and new families were added, there was no standardisation at all. The Opus family, for example, now has hundreds of glyphs spread over 18 different fonts, but there is almost no overlap with how many of the same symbols are laid out in, say, Maestro or Engraver, the two font families most commonly-used in Finale.

In 1998, Perry Roland from the University of Virginia proposed a new range of symbols to be added to the Unicode standard for musical symbols, and the range of 220 symbols he proposed was duly accepted into the standard, at code point U+1D100.

Unfortunately, although this range represents an excellent start, it has not caught on (to date, the only commercial font that makes use of the Unicode Musical Symbols range is the OpenType version of Sonata), and it is in any case insufficiently broad to represent all of the symbols used in conventional music notation.

So these are the problems that I set out to solve with the Standard Music Font Layout, or SMuFL: to map all of the symbols used in conventional music notation into a single Unicode range; to allow for easy extensibility in the event that new symbols are dreamed up or there are omissions; to provide a framework for the development of new music fonts; and to develop a community around the standard, so that the wisdom of experts in different fields of music can be brought to bear.

If you want to find out more about SMuFL, you can visit its own web site at

Developing a standard like SMuFL is all very well, of course, but to make it real and useful, there need to be music fonts that demonstrate the standard: enter Bravura.


bravura-fibichThe above image shows Bravura in action: it’s the first two bars of Fibich’s Nálada (Op. 41, No. 139). You can click on the image to see a larger version, or you can download a PDF of the whole page. (The music is set in Sibelius, rather than in our new application, by the way.)

The word “Bravura” comes from the Italian word for “bold”, and also, of course, has a meaning in music, referring to a virtuosic passage or performance; both of these associations are quite apt for the font. In keeping with our desire to draw on the best of pre-computer music engraving, Bravura is somewhat bolder than most other music fonts, as this comparison of the treble (G) clef shows:

g-clefs-compBravura’s clef is the rightmost clef in the above example. It has a very classical appearance, similar to Opus, Sonata and Maestro, but more substantial than all of them. (Emmentaler, the most stylised of the clefs above, is the font used by Lilypond and MuseScore.)

Here is another comparison, showing the eighth note (quaver) from each of the above fonts:


Again, Bravura is the rightmost example. The notehead is nice and oval, though not as wide as Opus (an exceptionally wide notehead), and relatively large in comparison to the space size, aiding legibility. The stem thickness is also boldest for Bravura, though this is only the precomposed note from the font; when a music font is used in most scoring applications, the stem thickness can be adjusted by the user.

Here are a few other symbols from Bravura, to illustrate its classical design:

misc-symbolsThat rightmost symbol is the percussion pictogram for sandpaper blocks, by the way. The small, semibold numerals immediately to the left are for figured bass.

You will notice that there are few sharp corners on any of the glyphs. This mimics the appearance of traditionally-printed music, where ink fills in slightly around the edges of symbols.

All of the basic glyphs were modeled after the Not-a-set dry transfer system, as mentioned in a previous post. Originals were scanned, examined at high magnification, and then hand-drawn using Adobe Illustrator by yours truly. I have shared the resulting designs with a number of expert engravers, who have given me invaluable feedback on details large and small, and many of the symbols have already been through many revisions.

The result of many hundreds of hours of work, I hope you will agree that Bravura gives a very fine, classical appearance. There is still much work to do, since our own application is not yet at a sufficiently advanced stage of development that all of the glyphs in the font are being used, and there are details such as ligatures and stylistic alternates to be considered as well. But we are making Bravura available now in support of the effort to continue developing SMuFL.

Even better, Steinberg is making Bravura available under the SIL Open Font License. This means that Bravura is free to download, and you can use it for any purpose, including bundling it with other software, embedding it in documents, or even using it as the basis for your own font. The only limitations placed on its use are that: it cannot be sold on its own; any derivative font cannot be called “Bravura” or contain “Bravura” in its name; and any derivative font must be released under the same permissive license as Bravura itself.

If you use Finale or Sibelius and want to use Bravura for your own scores, unfortunately you cannot use the font unmodified, as neither Finale nor Sibelius (yet?) supports SMuFL, and there are technical restrictions on accessing the font or characters at the Unicode code points where they exist.

Nevertheless, if you would like to download Bravura to try it out, you can do so from the SMuFL web site.

If you are a font designer and you would like to contribute improvements or modifications to the glyphs included in Bravura, we’re definitely open to including them: just drop me a line with details.