Tactile major scales

Photo of a D major scale in staff notation, embossed in plastic from a 3d printer.
3d-printed D major scale

A common thought experiment in studying music composition is to develop a new system of notation. Musicians generally acknowledge that our system of staff notation is imperfect, and imagining alternatives is a way of focusing on the musical parameters that you care about most, rather than the ones that are the easiest to identify in a score.

I have a student in my Theory 1 class at WSU who is blind, so I’ve been learning a lot about braille and braille music notation. She is an excellent pianist, and I’m thankful that she is comfortable with braille already. There are estimates that fewer than 10% of legally blind Americans can read braille[1]. But even though my student has no problems reading music braille, teaching theory has already been a bit of a challenge.

Music braille, it turns out, is an ongoing experiment in developing a new form of music notation. The latest edition of the standard was published just a few years ago. If you’re familiar with staff notation[2], you’ll likely be quite surprised by how sounds are represented. Here are a few highlights:

  • There is no staff.
  • It uses the same characters as written braille, just interpreted in a different way.[3]
  • Clefs are optional (used mostly to be academically faithful to the source). Notes are identified by letter name. ASA octave numbers are used to disambiguate when needed.
  • There are different versions of letter name characters used for different rhythm values.
  • Key signatures are often shown only by number of sharps or flats (“four sharps”).
  • Barlines are optional.
  • Beams do not exist in braille.
  • Simultaneous pitches are shown by giving one note, and then a stack of intervals from that note.
  • Music braille, like other forms of braille, usually takes a lot more space than staff notation. Because of this, supplementary annotations like measure numbers are often left out.

So much about how (royal) we teach music theory is tied to the staff notation we use to transmit it. In fact, I’m beginning to think that the way we think about how music is constructed has a bit of a heuristic bias informed by staff notation.

I still have to talk about staff notation in lectures, and use it in assignments, and as descriptive as I try to be, as demonstrative as I try to be singing or playing piano, there are inevitably things that get lost. A couple weeks ago, I was describing how and where on the staff to write accidentals, and this student raised her hand and politely asked if I could describe what sharps and flats looked like. I did my best, but I was a little stumped.

I did, however, recall hearing about the 3d-printing facilities in the library in one of the many, many, many orientation sessions from last month. I’m a nerd. While I’d never 3d-printed, but I’ve always thought it sounded like a cool thing. So after a couple of attempts, I figured out how to make a 3d model of a tactile major scale that I could hand my student so she would know how clefs, noteheads, and accidentals interact with the staff. She told me that the print helped her to understand things that she’d heard musicians discuss her whole life.

A few people have asked about the CAD files, and since they seemed to actually help the student, I’ll share the major scale file here. The braille is a written description, not music braille.

D major scale, treble clef, quarter notes

The object was printed on a Makerbot Replicator Z18 at the C-Space in Wichita State University’s Ablah Library.

If anyone is curious about how I went about making the 3d model, I’m happy to share what I learned. Get in touch. Maybe I’ll do another post. I’m a total n00b, but I figured it out. In the meanwhile, let me know if you use the file above and how it goes.

  1. To be clear, this population includes those who can see well enough to read print and screens, but the National Federation of the Blind still describes this as part of a larger literacy crisis  ↩
  2. “Staff notation” is the name I̵7;ve settled on for the kind of notation I grew up reading. “Visual notation” doesn’t seem specific enough, and the staff is more descriptive of what it actually is, rather than how it’s read.  ↩
  3. This is also true of letters and numbers. Special characters can precede a string indicating that it should be read as letters, numbers, or music.  ↩

Sibelius: The Next Generation

Philip Rothman at Scoring Notes:

Today Avid released Sibelius 2018.4, announcing it at their Avid Connect event in Las Vegas, Nevada. This update, the second of the year and using the new year-dot-month version number introduced with 2018.1, is another broad release with many new features and some longstanding requests addressed. Areas of improvement include multi-edits for text, a new note spacing rule affecting multiple voices and other cases, deleting and adding bars at the beginning of the score, smarter ties, and many more other enhancements.

Avid also announced a new naming strategy in their product lines so that each line has the same three tiers: a very basic free entry-level version denoted by the “First” suffix; a consumer or student level with no suffix; and a pro-level version called “Ultimate”.

This new update sounds great, but the new name, “Sibelius Ultimate” is really, really dumb. The introductory product assuming the name of the former professional product is also going to be really, really confusing. I’m no marketing pro, but this seems like a change that will cause a lot of problems for no apparent benefit.

Even ignoring the fact that the name “Sibelius” has identified a different product for thirty years, “Ultimate” looks very dated to me.

Make Cleveland Great Again

Philip de Oliveira, writing for Cleveland Scene:

The vaunted centennial season turns out to be a disappointing continuation of the status quo. Of the nearly 40 composers represented, every last one is a white man. Only four of those white men are still alive. Of those four, only one is American-born. Last season, all but one composer (composer-in-residence Anthony Cheung) were white, only four had a pulse, and a lone concerto by Augusta Read Thomas kept the Cleveland Orchestra off of the Women’s Philharmonic Advocacy’s list of top orchestras that didn’t include a single female composer in the 2016-17 season. The Cleveland Orchestra is far from alone in this regard. An analysis by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra found female composers accounted for just 1.3 percent of all music performed by 85 American orchestras. How much longer will “America’s best orchestra,” as Cleveland was recently dubbed by The New York Times, set a worse example than its peers?

Scathing and earned. Programming like this needs to be dunked on loudly and often.

Philip de Oliveira: “After 100 years, the Cleveland Orchestra Continues to Ignore Women, Minorities and Living Composers”

Front matter in Dorico

I’m a fan of beautiful scores, and part of any beautiful score is sharp, clean front matter: the cover, title page, and information pages. For years, I have used Microsoft Word, Apple Pages, and even Adobe InDesign for doing the text-heavy parts of scores and parts. Of course, Sibelius added text and layout tools for this several versions ago, but they were terrible and frustrating to use. Just last week, I wrote in a checklist on Scoring Notes “Do not try to do this in your scoring app! It will almost certainly end in tears.” I’m pleased to be reconsidering this advice so soon after publishing it!

After a discussion on document layouts on the always-interesting Music Engraving Tips, Steinberg’s John Barron offered to show how Dorico can be used to handle document layout. In this week’s Discover Dorico live stream, John used my piece, Linear Geometry, as an example of how to work with front matter. For fellow survivors of publishing tools like InDesign, you’ll find some delightfully familiar frame tools that you can use right inside your score file.

direct link

Thanks to John for showing me a new thing and using my work as the example, and thanks to the Dorico team for making such a delightful and powerful tool. I’m looking forward to trying this out in future projects.

If you’re a Dorico user, or just Dorico-curious, I can’t recommend John’s Discover Dorico series highly enough.

(Side note: The font John was trying to emulate in my front matter is Museo Slab, a slab serif in the Adobe TypeKit library. Guess I’ll need to find a substitute for that. )

Castbot and access

A few years ago I was in a conversation about audience access to classical music. We weren’t talking about accessibility in the stylistic way, but in a more literal way. Who can afford to be in the room when a performance is given, thereby experiencing a work as intended? In popular music the “primary document” is usually a recording, which is pretty widely accessible, especially today, as it can likely be streamed for free or purchased as a download. In comparison, my music is among the least accessible music to most people around the world. Even though a recording of a performance might be widely distributed, that’s far from the same thing as being in a room for its performance.

On a continuum of audience access to audio media, my acoustic compositions are near one extreme. Another audio genre that I care deeply about is podcasts. I’ve been listening to podcasts since I got my first iPod1 around 2004, and I started making and publishing podcasts in 2011. Castbot is the first in what may become a series of electroacoustic works that are created expressly for the podcast format.

I first created Castbot in 2016, and it has been running on-and-off since then. It has gone through a number of iterations, and I’m pretty happy with its simple yet compelling output in the current version. Each night2, my little bot generates a new episode of the piece based on a narrowly defined set of conditions in the software, uploads it to a sever, and updates the corresponding podcast feed.

In each episode of Castbot, a small ecosystem of virtual “audio creatures” is created and runs its course. For some reason, I think of them as birds. They fly back and forth in the stereo field, playing a stuttering rhythm on a repeating pitch. Each time they cross the center, they change pitch within the defined scale. Eventually, the birds fly off the edge of the environment and do not return. The episode ends when all the birds have flown off. To set up each episode, Castbot picks the number of creatures, the scale, and the tempo. I think of this as the weather of the environment. And the piece plays out according to the whims of the drifting birds.

I mentioned that this little bot has been running since 2016, but I’ve recently submitted it to the iTunes and Google podcast directories, which means it is now much easier to find and subscribe to. If you’re podcast-inclined, give it a listen and let me know what you think.

Links: Castbot in my portfolio, in iTunes, in Google Play, it’s own feed page.

  1. It’s been so many years since I’ve looked at the word “iPod” in print that this looks wrong to me. My brain-autocorrect wants to make it into “iPad”. 
  2. Ok, “each night” is a bit of a stretch. The whole shebang runs on a Raspberry Pi 3 in my home studio, and sometimes I accidentally let it overheat. When that happens, it will stop running until I notice and reboot the little guy. Also, if you catch any episodes that aren’t posted a few seconds after midnight, that’s me running Castbot manually to test something, or just for fun. 

Score preparation and production notes

About a week ago, I put together a short but dense presentation for my composition students at UCF on score preparation. With rare exceptions, composers today are expected to not only write the music, but also prepare and produce professional-quality parts. This is something we are often not explicitly trained to do. Instead, we’re expected to pick things up as we go1.

For my presentation I made a big outline of all the things I go over when I’m preparing scores and parts, which turned out to be a bigger checklist than I’d expected. So like any child of the Internet, when I make a thing, I post it online. Philip Rothman over at Scoring Notes generously took time to add links to stories on his blog and elsewhere to go into greater detail, which turns my skeletal outline into a genuinely useful reference.

If you do any score preparation or production, I would encourage you to bookmark this post. Thanks to Philip for all the work he does to support composers.

  1. This is part of a larger untenable norm in music higher education: we often train every single student as though they will be a superstar that doesn’t need to worry about these minutiae. Sure, there are copyists, and they’re great. For most of us in concert music, we’ll rarely be in a circumstance to hire one. 

ArtsHacker: Breaking Up With Adobe

It’s not you, Adobe. It’s me.

My day-to-day responsibilities have shifted over the last couple of years, and I’m not getting the value out of the Adobe applications that I used to. It’s not that the Creative Cloud apps have gotten worse. To the contrary, they’re better than they’ve ever been: more powerful and easier to use for beginners and design dilettantes like me. And recently, I’ve started a journey to find alternatives to each of the Adobe applications I use on a regular basis. If, like me, you feel you might not be getting the full value out of your Adobe subscriptions, you might be pleasantly surprised to discover some of the tools that may serve your needs just as well, for a fee that is a little easier to justify.

Continue reading at ArtsHacker

A Midterms Exam

A study guide:

  1. What would you most want me to know about your experience?

You will never understand another person’s experience because you lack the capacity for empathy. Your lack of shameless lack of self-awareness is problematic enough. Let’s not stress your intellect by attempting to make yourself aware of another human’s experience.

  1. What can we do to help you feel safe?

Stop making and selling guns, especially military-style guns, but honestly all of them.

  1. Do you think see something say something is effective?

Not the way it’s been discussed by (mostly) you over the last few days. It stigmatizes mental illness and developmental disabilities. Ostracizing people makes problems worse, not better.

  1. resources? ideas?

Resource: my great brain. Idea: no more guns.

  1. I hear you.


We have a lot to learn

 If virtuosic perfection at least were achieved, one could—in a forgetful moment—be satisfied with that. But one cannot even claim this, since the leisurely attitude of the majority of classical players toward rhythmic accuracy is simply appalling, and would seem so to more people were it not so widespread as to be generally accepted. There is no question in my mind that the classical world can learn much about timing, rhythmic accuracy, and subtlety from jazz musicians, as jazz musicians can in dynamics, structure, and contrast from the classical musicians.

Gunther Schuller, “The Third Stream”, 13 May 1961 in The Saturday Review of Literature, as collected in Musings: The Musical Worlds of Gunther Schuller

Just the blues

What kind of music were you playing on the jobs?

Blues. I’d play the blues all night long, just playing the blues.

You were playing for adults, then?

Yes. These were blues clubs, little holes in the wall-

Is that what they wanted?

Oh, yes. That’s all they would listen to.

The reason I’m questioning you so closely is I think that in many places during the fifties popular songs were more common than the blues.

Well, all these places wanted was the blues. A lot of the popular songs were blues, however.

Do you think that perhaps a different kind of music was more common in St. Louis among blacks than in other places? I mean, would this demand for the blues have come about because St. Louis was southern and somewhat “country” and, therefore, closer to genuine folk music?

I don’t know. But I do know that all you would hear in those clubs was the blues.

Eileen Southern interviewing composer Olly Wilson in 1977.

I don’t remember exactly how, but I recently discovered Wilson’s music and have been trying to learn more about him. The more of his music I hear, the more I wish it had been covered in my education. Oh well, no time like the present.

Southern, Eileen, and Olly Wilson. “Olly Wilson: The Education of a Composer.” The Black Perspective in Music 5, no. 1 (1977): 90-103. doi:10.2307/1214361. JSTOR permalink