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Digital Music Applications for Composers

A "How-To" in Outline
by Daniel de Quincy

Step One

The Score

I use two digital devices in connection with composing a conventional musical score. Properly speaking, they are used together as one device with several separate components. The first of these is a typical PC, configured to conventional standards, with no special attachments or alterations required. Installed on the computer, I have a multi-purpose music software program called "Cubase VST Score." Sitting next to the computer, I have a K2000S Kurzweil Music Synthesizer, a professional keyboard instrument characterized by great sophistication of design and luminous beauty of sound.

Cubase and Kurzweil may be considered preeminent brands in the field. But, it is not necessary to use such high-end hardware and software in order to compose your score. It is helpful, however, to use some kind of keyboard in this stage of the work. As a so-called "controller," the keyboard is a convenient means of entering "data" into the computer – along with the computer mouse, of course. If you wish, however, you can dispense with the keyboard and use just the mouse. ("Data" refers here simply to the notes and other notations that you are entering into the musical score.) A controller may be purchased for as little as $100. Music software is available at a similarly reasonable price.

When the keyboard is used as a "controller," it is used much in the same way as the ordinary computer keyboard is used to enter data in the form of letters, numbers, and words. In the case of music software, messages are transferred to the computer from the keyboard (according to a specification called MIDI) such that if, for example, the key corresponding to C4 is pressed on the keyboard, a note corresponding to the pitch Middle-C is entered into the score displayed on the computer screen. (As noted above, notes may also be entered into the score with a mouse.) All of the "tricks" associated with word processing are available: i.e. cut, copy, paste. Are you in a hurry to write that repeating fugal subject? Just copy and paste. Do you need to two bars transposed to another section of your piece? It is just as easy and two clicks of the mouse will do it. Do you need to insert a bar? No need for messy erasures: just "insert" and continue working.

When it comes to using the keyboard for more than simple data entry, personal considerations come to the fore. The keyboard can also be used in a way analogous to the way in which some composers use a piano – i.e. as a way of audibly testing harmonic or melodic procedures against their imaginative reflection in the mind. There are composers who disapprove of using a piano in the work of composition, lest what cannot be played will not be written. Stravinsky, for one, said that he was not concerned with such caveats, and so I feel no shame in saying that I prefer to work at least with a piano. Far preferable to a piano, however, is a synthesizer keyboard. My keyboard has the sound makes many more sounds available to me for testing and consideration: flutes, clarinets, the harp, etc. And, if I wish to relieve a certain aural ennui, I use a harpsichord rather than a piano – indeed at times I select an enchanting vibraphone that seems to inspire new ideas for some strange and unaccountable reason.

Consider working in the following way. Use your keyboard and mouse to place notes on the staff just as you view it on your computer display screen. Print the page as you have written it, and study the score. If you are away from your computer, write your revisions if any with pen on the paper score, and then transfer the revisions to the computer score with the keyboard later when you return to your desk.

The Audible Score

Now, if you like, listen to what you have written: the score may be played automatically on your synthesizer by the computer (again, via MIDI). Realize that this is not meant to be a true "performance" of the score. At this point the music you hear will be absolutely metronomic. There may be no dynamic gradations (depending on the way you entered the notes into the score). Nevertheless, you may be amazed to discover how much can be learned from what I like to call the "audible score."

You may, for example, decide on a whim to assign a trumpet to a line that had previously been assigned to the oboe. Listen to the revised orchestration of your "audible score" played back instantaneously on your synthesizer. Does it works as well as you thought it might? If you are satisfied with the revision, then print the score and study it at your leisure once again, making further revisions as you please. Repeat this process as much as you like.

It is worth noting that a synthesizer like the Kurzweil will provide you with samples of instrumental sounds that are highly realistic and even beautiful in some instances. Combined instrumental timbres can be heard quite distinctly, even in the raw form described here – i.e. using the "factory" settings of the instrument as is.

When the piece is finished, print the score and send it to your favorite conductor or instrumentalist. Or, consider the possibility of providing something more to the conductor. What if you could provide the conductor with a modified version of the audible score described above, something that reflects a little better the actual phrasing of the music, its dynamics and nuances. Or, you might want to provide a moderately realistic simulation of a true performance? You may even want to take your performance simulation to the level of the state-of-the-art and distribute it for sale on CD. If this interests you, then move on to "Step Two."


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