Is Traditional Notation for Film Composing Dying?

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When I first arrived in Los Angeles in the early 70’s, most scores were still composed for real players and prepared for sessions the way they always had been.

1.Composer composed the music on score paper.

2.He either then orchestrated it himself (sorry ladies, back then, it was indeed probably “he”) or gave a full score or fairly complete sketch to an orchestrator.

3.It then was passed on to a copyist or a team of them to prepare the final score and parts for the recording sessions.

All this used traditional music notation as the language to communicate the composer’s musical ideas and wishes to the musicians. Small wonder as most film composers were classically trained in musical notation, as I am. Check out IMDB’s list of the best film composers of all time.

You may disagree with some of the choices and/or the order they are in, but it is simply a matter of fact that nearly all of them were trained in traditional music notation.

Modern “traditional” music notation became the standard early in the 19th century in Europe and has always been somewhat a compromise, as it is limited in exactly how much information it can provide and leaves a lot of room for interpretation by conductors and performers. One man’s adagio or mezzo-piano in a piece might be very different from another’s. This is arguably both a creative strength and a weakness, but in the film world music is timed to picture and frequently recorded on a tight schedule and time is money.

Depending on whom you believe, Carl Stalling of Warner Brothers cartoon fame or Max Steiner invented the click track as a way to take some of the ambiguity of the timing and Earle Hagen made it pretty much de rigueur for TV music recording.

In the concert hall music world, the advent of new musical techniques, like post-serial and aleatoric music, stretched the usability of traditional notation to a point where with the scores of composers like Berio and Stockhausen, it is barely recognizable as such. But as these techniques only made relatively few appearances in the film music lexicon (other than Ligeti’s) traditional musical notation still was the norm.

Enter the computer. The computer was an obvious alternative to traditional music notation preparation. While not as elegant as a beautifully hand copied score and parts, it was easily edited, recallable, transposed, etc. Plus, depending on the program you used, you could do sequencing AND music prep together.

In 1990 I was hired to score the TV series “Zorro” for New World Television and decided that it was time for me to get into computers. My best choices were Performer for the Macintosh and Notator for the Atari platform. I went with the latter because it displayed AND could print very good traditional notation. I used it for MIDI sequencing and the score preparation and it worked quite well. Eventually, Notator evolved to Logic Pro for the Mac and that is what I have used ever since. For those who are interested, I have written a book on Logic Pro’s Score Editor.

As the computer became more and more popular for music prep, (although many better-budgeted projects did and have continued to use traditional copyists) a number of great programs arrived and found enthusiastic users. Many good programs have come and gone. I seem to remember that the program used by Universal TV pretty much exclusively was called Encore and I had conversations with the head of the department, the late Julian Bratalubov, in which he praised its many virtues. Mark of the Unicorn had one that worked in tandem with Performer named Mosaic that was quite good. Overture was another that had its adherents and is still used by many.

But it is fair to say that two programs became the industry standards, Finale and Sibelius.

Finale came first and for “engraved” quality scores to be published, it is perhaps still the most powerful and elegant. It had the reputation, certainly warranted many years ago, of having a steep learning curve. Also, its preparation for parts from a full score was a separate process and changing one did not automatically update the other, as Logic’s score editor did. And as a sequencer, it was rudimentary at best.

This changed over the years in the opinion of many of its users. It became easier to use and while not a full-fledged sequencer app, became more powerful to he point at least where you could hear an OK playback of what you had entered.

Sibelius was a powerful program that arrived on the scene boasting that it could accomplish beautifully all that Finale could with a much easier workflow and learning curve and even though it was more expensive, it became the best selling notation software. It was purchased by Avid in 2006 with an eye to integrating it with ProTools, which Avid also purchased, and to a degree, this was accomplished. However, there is a wide spread belief that Avid is discontinuing its development, due to its closure of its UK office, and its user base is very nervous and upset.

Whatever actually happens, the bigger question is how much this will matter to a newer generation of film and TV composers who are not as invested in traditional notation. Many do not read music fluently, if at all, and are composing for sample-based libraries and virtual instruments and either have little interest in composing much for an ensemble of real players or financially with today’s lower budgets will be unlikely to have many opportunities to do so. Indeed, if you go to the Apple App Store to buy Logic Pro, despite its continued viability as a notation program, it barely gets mentioned in the product description and has no pictures of the Score Editor.

There are other complications that create problems for notation programs. What do you do in a notation program with a part that changes pitches or repeats a sequence of notes by simply holding a single note? And what does the program do when a melodic phrase is triggered by holding a single note or combination of notes that do not in and of themselves, have relevant musical meaning to the cue?

These are not unsolvable problems but it definitely does add time and complications to the process of eventually preparing the scores for real players, if that is the goal or partial goal of composing in the software.

For good or for ill, this is the reality of where the film music future is heading and while I am confident that the demand for trained composers who rely on traditional notation will not vanish, the lack of such training is no longer the deal breaker it once was, and this begs the question of how many of the apps for scoring will survive.

Hold on to your hats, folks, it is going to be a bumpy ride :)


  • November 5, 2012 @ 4:53 pm

    I am a graduate of the Dick Grove School of music, and use extensively Finale and DP with tons of programs like vienna
    strings and brass and lass with mac pro quad core. When I compose any theme whether for commercials or film I always write as if a full orchestra could be the final product rather than just synth programs not sure if that is the norm but I tend to agree with your assessment of the upcoming trend. Thanks for your interesting article, Thanks Larry

  • November 5, 2012 @ 7:25 pm

    Wonderful article, Jay.

    It really is a shame that classically trained composers and hands on copyist and score prep personal are slowly dying out, but I guess that’s what technology can do.

    That, and directors wanting the score to The Dark Knight for their indi film for $400. If the film’s had better budgets for music, I think we’d see an increase in live players, copyist, etc. So many people turn to samples for scoring because they’re nopt being paid enough to hire the orchestra they’d actually prefer. Myself included.

    With the cost of college and music education going up, the wages of musicians going down, it is indeed, a bumpy road.

    You’re right, not having the training won’t be the deal breaker anymore, but there’s something that still is the deal breaker. And that quite simply, in my opinion, is experience, and professionalism.

    Due to the ease of use in technology, many of the people who use it have become lazy as a result. ( Not an attack, I’m one of the younger tech users too. I also don’t read music, because I taught myself everything I know, but never needed to read a score before. I just worked out that way.)
    So I feel that many composers don’t understand the effort that goes into scoring a film with a collaborate team, do to the ease of technology. As a result, they fail to meet their deadlines.

    I’ve been hearing more and more that directors and producers really don’t care about the degree you get anymore, all they care about is you doing the job, and you doing it well. Unfortunately, college does not teach you how to finish a scoring job, or even working as music prep. People lack that knowledge because technology can replace it, and like I said, the cost of education going up, and the wages going down.

    I’m sorry, I rambled quite a bit!

    it will be very interesting to see where the industry turns, and what it develops into.

    I remember hearing Hans Zimmer talk about the orchestra dying…no one in this field wants the orchestra to die, sure they get less work because of the usage of samples, but trust me if everyone could afford the orchestra, we’d all take them over samples in a heart beat.

    John Williams did say recently that he’s learn how to score and prep his work on a computer if he was younger, so there is the need to adapt to change. But at what cost?

    My 2 cents.

    Again, wonderful article. Ill take your advice and keep a hold of my hat…It’s going to be a very bumpy ride indeed.

    Best Regards,

    Austin Lawrence

  • Peter Middleton
    November 23, 2015 @ 4:16 am

    Hi Jay, that’s a great article – I’m a jazz musician primarily, though I’m interested on orchestration and film music – I’m hoping you could do me a big favour and point me in the direction of a couple of typical film music scores, one of ‘Mysterious’ and the other of ‘Work’. I’m asking because my daughter, who is doing a music degree in music at Exeter, has asked me what would be typical devices used to promote those moods, and what kind of notation might be employed? This is however further complicated by the fact that she has chosen an ancient Egyptian overall mood for her piece. I’ll be very happy if you can point me to any relevant resources. Emily uses Logic X (as do I) but is more of a singer/songwriter than a technician – as we are both dyslexic we never became really great readers/writers of standard notation, though I’m getting better at the age of 60!

  • January 4, 2016 @ 7:19 pm

    Don’t study film scores, study works like Ravel’s “Daphnis Et Chloe” for this. That is where great film composers learned this stuff.

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