COMPUTER MUSIC the myth and the reality

Discussion in 'Articles and Interviews' started by TIMBONE, Mar 7, 2006.


    TIMBONE Active Member

    COMPUTER MUSIC the myth and the reality
    Tim Paton
    "A lot more people are writing music for brass band now because it is easier, they do not need to know as much". "You just play a tune onto the computer, and it does the rest for you". These are not my comments, they are an example of the kind of thing that I hear being said by other people. I will attempt to address these typical comments shortly. Before I do that however, let me be clear about what I am referring to when I say computer music. I do not mean the kind of music heard on machines in an amusement arcade for example, I am speaking of music created with the help of the computer as a tool, where the screen becomes the paper, and the keyboard and mouse become the pen.

    I will start with the second comment, "You just play a tune onto the computer……." I remember back in the 1980’s, when I first discovered the use of MIDI, (musical instrument digital interface). I was amazed by software like Notator and Cubase. Yes, you literally could play your synthesiser into the computer, and it not only recorded the notes, it also placed them on a musical stave. I remember hearing of the professional desktop publishing tool Finale, and not long after that Sibelius. It is true that these and many other pieces of software can also be set to harmonise a melody for you, as the rest of the comment says, "……..and it does the rest for you". Does it?

    It does not take a lot of thought to realise that letting a piece of computer software harmonise a melody for you is a long way from creating and scoring a composition or arrangement for brass band, whether it be a test piece or a simple pop song. Before I elaborate on this a little more, let me remind you of some of the first comment, "……………they do not need to know as much" It is true that the software does lighten the task for you, and the brass band template is already there on your screen, but what is this about not having to know as much? Lets take the idea of letting the computer harmonise your melody as a starting point. You will get the basic chords and rhythms that the software is programmed to, it will not introduce interesting, original harmonic structures, counter subjects, obligato and so on. What about the transposition and range of the various instruments, the template may have already transposed the notes for you, but you will not get very far without understanding the transposition in the first place. What about interesting rhythmic sequences? Of course, there are lots of other things to consider also, like scoring, tone colour and balance. What about expression and dynamics. I think I have said enough!

    "A lot more people are writing music for brass band now because it is easier".
    I do not like the word ‘easier’, it is certainly far less tedious. You do however, still have to have the knowledge and experience required to write music. Let me give you a comparison. I am at present writing this article on a word processor, a lot less tedious. However, it will not do it for me. I still have to be able to read and write, have a plan and a structure, understand spelling and grammar.

    It is true that a lot more people are now making their music available to brass bands. These people however, were not created by computers, they have always been there. Before the days of music notation software and the internet, composers and arrangers relied on the publishing houses. It was not commercially viable for them to publish every piece of music submitted to them, however good it was. For every writer fortunate enough to be published, there were many others who were unpublished. There were one or two brave people who did very neat handwritten copies, then invested a large amount of money into photocopying, advertising and distribution. In the 21st Century, it is true that "a lot more people are writing music for brass band", but this is not because writing the music is easier, it is because the music publishing software and the internet have made it possible for them to make their music available and get it played.
  2. Dave Payn

    Dave Payn Active Member

    This is so true. I now have Sibelius 3 (a gift from my lovely partner). However, before that, everything I arranged was on good old fashioned manuscript. I say 'arranged' deliberately. Until last week, I'd never attempted anything much in the way of composition.

    I have to admit that having the Sibelius software, coupled with a 'words and music' project here on Arran, made me take the plunge and attempt to write something, based on the reminiscences of a local, regarding a character by the name of 'Pook'... 'he had very bent legs, was regularly p***ed and did the most wonderful bird impersonations.' Given that we have a professional flautist on the island, added to the fact we have two brass bands and a brass quintet here, I hit upon the idea of small brass ensemble (some muted throughout) with flute (doing the bird impersonations as well as other bits and bobs).

    Yes, the software plays it back to you. But it doesn't really know what 'you' are thinking as a writer/arranger. I 'heard' things in my head and put them down on the software. I only used the techncial advantage to correct things I thought I'd heard right but hadn't quite come out as planned.

    I'm hoping that the errors Sibelius 'pointed out' from what I heard in my head will make me (to some degree) realise my faults in harmonic structure etc. but it cannot and will not substitute being taught the basics of harmonic progression and effective part writing.

    I'm pleased to say that 'Pook' was very well received when first heard by the others involved in the aforementioned project, but make no mistake, I have a LONG way to go before I consider myself a 'composer'. Having a computerised music notation software programme has encouraged me to brush up on my harmonic skills by myself, in order to better myself as an arranger and hopefully, one day progress to true composition, but it will never, ever work as a complete substitute.

    TIMBONE Active Member

    Thanks for an interesting comment Dave. I remember when a band played a few of my unpublished, handwritten arrangements, someone said, "I could never arrange without Sibelius" ... food for thought. Like you say, a computer will not do it for you - it might turn out something, but it will not be your own creation, and it certainly will not be unblemished. There are a lot of things to understand before someone can turn out a compostion or arrangememnt which does not have some crude harmony or uninspiring hallmarks. As far as using the playback facility in a software programme to hear if your original intentions have been realised is by no means a bad thing. Although I still go to the piano occasionally, this playback faciltity saves me the trouble. I know that there are some composers/arrangers from history to the present day, who are able to work totally from the head, but, as far as I know, they are a very small minority, (an extremely talented minority - Mozart for example). The Eastern European tradition, (and I am sure this applies to other places too), was to compose at the piano, in two staves, then score the finished product, (Tchaikovsky for example). Mind you, Prokofiev composed ab initio, ie onto full score, (I am sure he still went to the piano a lot to 'get a second opinion' though). Mind you, out of Eastern Europe, poor Berlioz couldn't even play the piano, he was pretty good on classical guitar though.
    Last edited: Mar 27, 2006
  4. Harold.Wells

    Harold.Wells Active Member

    I remember being amazed, seeing Tommy Sampson writing a score for Big Bands.

    Tommy (now well in his 80s I think) did a lot of work in his younger years for the BBC, including music for Benny Hill and, for those old enough to remember, all the arrangements for the Black & White Minstrel Show.

    I am fortunate to have played for Tommy on several occasions. Once, on the way to a gig in Belfast I sat next to him on the Seacat as he pulled out a wad of blank manuscript from his briefcase and proceeded to write a piece for us to play that night! He could obviously "hear" every part as he wrote the score from beginning to end - 4 Trumpet, 4 Sax, 4 Trombone, Bass, keyboard and kit parts simply flowed from his pen. The score was complete and most of the individual parts written out by the time we reached Belfast. We "ran through" the piece when we got to the concert venue, more for the players' benefit than his, as nothing had to be changed for the performance!

    I have nothing but admiration for talent such as Tommy's - I don't have the "luxury" of any modern computer software and the few arrangments that I have written have been the result of many hours scribbling by the keyboard before sitting down to score my chords for band.
    Last edited: Mar 27, 2006
  5. BeatTheSheep

    BeatTheSheep Member

    sibelius just makes things a lot quicker and saves your fingers dropping off from exhaustion. It does give you the tendency to overmark things because it plays it back like a child - i.e. with no learned style, but anything you can rustle a simple hymn arrangement score and parts in half an hour is pretty fast. major length pieces are a little harder, of course, as they should be