Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Classical Music for Smartphones: Composition, Part II

(Continued from Part I)

Music notation software has long been the Holy Grail for classical music app developers. Over the last five years, they have achieved considerable progress devising and implementing new interface paradigms apart from the traditional menus and buttons approach of PC software. An excellent example is Symphony Pro for iPad, by Xenon Labs ( It features a simplified interface with a bar of playback controls and simple score setup features along the top, and a bar of icons representing the current class of music symbols (notes, rest, articulations, dynamics, etc.) along the left; the rest of the screen displays the score. Users enter notes by tapping directly on the score, using a virtual keyboard or fretboard, or by connecting to a MIDI keyboard with an adapter. The user can export the score in a variety of formats, including MIDI, PDF, and MusicXML (a text format for exchanging notation between programs), using social media, iTunes File Sharing, or e-mail. While the iPad’s screen size still makes it unsuitable for large orchestral scores, I could envision using Symphony Pro for flushing out individual parts which are then exported to MusicXML and imported into PC notation software.

The intersection of technology and music has always been a dicey subject for me, especially where composition is concerned. Technology provides the potential for new timbral, sonoral, and textural possibilities that were impossible without it, but the reliance on technology can box composers in and prevent them developing well-formed ideas in ways possible with traditional notation (or no notation at all). Inexperienced composers often use the playback function on their notation software to guess and check their ideas, but this can result in using the software as a crutch. Notation apps on tablets can be particularly limiting because they have less functionality than their desktop counterparts.

I think it is better to develop the internal ear as much as possible so that ideas can be conceived as complete units to be dictated on paper or entered with into a computer. Aural feedback, whether from a piano or multi-track software, is always valuable, but it should evolve from the primary source of inspiration to a role subservient to it. Ideas should be limited only by what it feasible to communicate to performers, not what a particular notation program can represent out of the box. Then, technology can become a powerful extension of the mind, and apps such as Pianist Pro and Symphony Pro can be a powerful addition to the composer’s toolbox.

Check out all the articles in the Classical Music for Smartphones Series:

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