NotateMe – preparing scores with your finger on a mobile phone

About six weeks ago, I asked Neuratron for some technical support about their Photoscore product. Their CEO Martin Dawe, as well as sorting out my Photoscore problem, invited me to test out NotateMe, an app for Android (and now iOS) which lets you write music out with your finger on your phone’s screen, and while you’re writing it, translates your squiggles into real music. It uses, no doubt, some of the wizardry behind Photoscore, which can read music from graphics files and convert it into a format that music processing software like Sibelius can use.

Now it wasn’t very long ago that there was talk of a similar app for iOS which would let you do exactly what NotateMe now does. There was a very glossy video ‘demonstrating’ the app. Some eagle-eyed viewers noticed one or two things slightly amiss, however, and one was moved to ask if they’d had permission to use Sibelius’s fonts in their app. And then the truth began to come out, over a two-week period, that the app didn’t actually exist yet, and the video demonstrating it had been mocked up in Sibelius and other bits of software. Then followed a crowdsourcing attempt which didn’t reach its target, and people began to feel that it was a pipe dream, and that the whole idea was ridiculously far-fetched and not really achievable. The app itself meanwhile is promised for this autumn, which is now.

NotateMe

Neuratron’s NotateMe

So when, right on schedule, an app doing the same job appeared from different quarters, and familiar quarters at that, it amused me a little. But unlike the other lot, Neuratron has form, and I was more than willing to trust their handiwork and pay a discount £9.99 to beta test it.

I’m really glad I did. My head swims a little, I must admit, when I think of how wincingly complex a job translating hand-written data into music is, but NotateMe is surprisingly good at it.

To start off with, NotateMe analyses your handwriting, gradually building up a picture of your own personal way of doing it. But even while it’s still doing that, you can just start writing. You add the instruments you want to your score, change the clef and time signature if necessary from the ones supplied, and then write in your key signature with your finger, and start putting the notes in. As you write, NotateMe works out what you’re writing, and transcribes it onto another stave above the one you’re writing in.

There Is No Rose

There Is No Rose, with my index-finger-on-small-screen effort below, and NotateMe’s transcription above. (NotateMe picks up triplets even when you don’t explicitly label them, as in the first 3/4 bar here.)

It doesn’t get everything right of course, and even if it did you’d still need the facility to edit what you’ve done in case the mistake is yours. You can add more marks to make things clearer if necessary, or you can delete things, move things, copy & paste things about the score or whatever you need to do. When you’ve finished, you can export your score as MusicXML and import it from there into Sibelius or whatever you’re using.

A lot of thought has gone into using the space available on a small screen, and there’s a certain amount of compromising to be done. You can opt either to have a small input area and see more musical context around it, or have a bigger input area and not see so much context. In my experience on a 4.3 inch HTC One S, using a big input area in portrait mode is the best solution. Your mileage may vary. Also, I’ve been using my finger, but if you have a stylus, or a device with a bigger screen, you should find things even easier than I did.

In my tests, NotateMe performed well from the beginning. I found some problems, to be sure, for example NotateMe not recognising some things that to a human eye were perfectly clear, but the bug reports I sent (there’s a facility in the app that makes reporting them easy) were acted upon very quickly by Neuratron, and sometimes a new build was released, fixing the bug, on the same day. But the bits that went wrong were easily outnumbered by the bits that went right, and with each new build it got better and better.

Once I felt that I’d learnt enough about the software, and that it had learnt enough about me, and knowing that real-world testing is more useful to software developers than directionless fiddling, I decided to try to prepare a piece for publication using NotateMe for the note input phase. If it passed muster even in its beta testing period, that would be an excellent sign for the future.

Ties

NotateMe knows where your ties should end, even if you’re not careful about it.

Well, it did, and the result is David Truslove’s There Is No Rose, a 9-page piece for choir and semichorus (or solo quartet), with all eight parts written out by my index finger on a 4″ screen. After the notes had gone in I exported the score as MusicXML and imported into Sibelius to carry on (adding the text, producing the piano reduction and generally laying out the score).

This must surely make There Is No Rose pretty much the first published piece in the world to have been prepared for publication in this way, but I’m convinced there’ll be many others as the technology, already extremely promising, matures and develops. Neuratron already has plans for new features in NotateMe, including the ability to input notes by singing them into the phone!

I’m not suggesting of course that putting the notes in in NotateMe is faster than doing the same thing in Sibelius – far from it. But if you’d find it handy to be able to do your note input on the move – on a train, say, or on a beach – I can say that NotateMe is working extremely well here! Hats of to Martin Dawe and everyone at Neuratron. I am in awe, and am delighted that we’re in at the beginning of this new era in music processing technology.

Start here to try it out: http://neuratron.com/notateme.html

Posted in Music typesetting, Publications | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

A Royal Blessing – John Hosking

About ten days ago John Hosking sent me a short choral piece which he’d been inspired to write in the wake of the birth of Prince George. In view of the topical nature of the piece it seemed appropriate to drop everything to publish it. It hit the stands two days later as A Royal Blessing.

The following day John recorded the piece in St Asaph Cathedral. You can listen to the recording and view the score, as well as order copies, here.

No piece of idle sycophancy this, the words are inspired by the extraordinary media excitement that greeted Prince George as compared with the anonymity of the birth of that other prince 2,000 years ago, and by the common humanity shared by prince and pauper.

May God’s blessing be yours for ever,
may he hold you in his arms,
and embrace you with his love,
and guide you in truth and righteousness
all the days of your life.

May the Lord protect you as you journey
through all the trials of life,
keeping God within your sight;
remembering to act with wisdom
through faith in Christ Jesus.

All glory to God the Father,
and to the Son, Jesus Christ,
and to the Holy Spirit.
As it was in the beginning
is now and shall be for ever.
Amen.

Daily Post article

The paparazzi can’t get enough of our John

Well, in the last few days John himself has found himself the object of media attention, though possibly not quite in the same measure as Prince George. The Daily Post printed an article about the piece, and Heart Radio will be recording an interview with him soon. Meanwhile the piece itself is to be broadcast by BBC Radio Cornwall. Details to follow.

Once the dust has settled we’ll be sending some copies of A Royal Blessing to the royal household. We’ll see what they make of it.

Posted in Publications | Tagged | Leave a comment

Tolling Bells, Rolling Hills

This year is the 40th anniversary of the founding of the Chichester Society, a group that exists to protect the ancient form and character of the city.

They are holding a 40th birthday concert as part of the Festival of Chichester, to be given by a local string quartet called The Quillet Quartet, which was founded in 2010. I was asked if I would compose a piece for them to play at the concert.

Programme cover

Programme cover

The brief was that the piece, which should last around 8 minutes, should explore themes linked to Chichester’s history and geography, perhaps including the cathedral, the South Downs and something about Chichester’s maritime past. In discussions with the quartet’s founder and viola player Joanna Emerson, we decided to drop the maritime bit, as it would overlap with one of the programme’s other pieces. I was told that the audience would be made up mainly of rank-and-file Chichester Society members, rather than the Avant-Garde Cutting-Edge Squeaky-Gate Well-Hard Contemporary Music Appreciation Society.

So, where to start? What does Chichester Cathedral sound like, or how could I use a string quartet to make sounds that are at least reminiscent of it? And the South Downs – what do they sound like?

Chichester cathedral's tenor bell for string quartet

Chichester cathedral’s tenor bell for string quartet

Luckily, the cathedral is a musical entity anyway, with 8 bells in its bell tower and a daily sung liturgy, and the sounds it has are packed with connotation. What could be more evocative than the sound of a church bell, right up close or much further away? And the choir would immediately sound religious, even if it were to sing something utterly profane, as Howard Goodall proved with his Mr Bean theme tune Ecce homo qui est faba – Behold the man who is a bean.

The noises of the South Downs are a bit less obvious, and to help myself get a handle on the kind of music that would suggest the South Downs to a listener, I came up with a short sequence of imaginary visual and audio imagery which runs like a film inside my head, and the piece’s programme note is a commentary of this film:

Almost all the music I write is for voices. The words I’m setting dictate the form of the music, and usually the very first spark of an idea of what to write comes from the words. When I was asked write a string quartet about Chichester and its surroundings, I knew there’d be no such springboard. So to take the place of the words I decided to conjure for myself a set of vivid mental images, both visual and aural, of Chichester Cathedral and the South Downs, and use those images as a starting point for the music.

Programme note

Programme note

We’re in the cathedral as the clock chimes six. Evensong is on. We hear the Responses being sung, the Precentor’s intonations being answered by the unaccompanied choir. A sung Kyrie is followed by a Lord’s Prayer, both parts of the daily ritual of worship at the cathedral that is already many centuries old. As the service comes to an end, and the reverent hush of the congregation begins to give way, tentatively at first, to chatter, we leave the building, and travel out into the hills that surround Chichester, in the company of the cathedral’s nesting peregrine falcons, and explore the landscape from their aerial perspective. With them we witness the hills’ many moods; now boisterous, now eerie, now subdued, always pastoral.

But even this far off, the cathedral is always visible, like a tiny jewel on the vast landscape, and, at the very edge our hearing, we can still hear the bell.

The score and parts of Tolling Bells, Rolling Hills will be published after the premiere next week.

Quillet Quartet, Friday 28 June, St John’s Chapel, St John’s Street, Chichester. Tickets can be booked through the box office.

Posted in Composers, Publications | Leave a comment

Piano reductions of choral music

Piano reductions are an important facet of our unaccompanied choral music at the Chichester Music Press, just as they are in other places. Almost all of the unaccompanied pieces in our catalogue have a piano reduction, and a lot of thought has gone into them over the years.

Our approach to them is to bear in mind that piano reductions are to be played by pianists. They are there to make the business of playing the choral parts on a piano easier. Some people can read happily off four or more staves, but piano reductions are there for the benefit of people who find it easier to play from two staves. And there’s no point in going to the trouble of producing a piano reduction for such people, only to sabotage it by setting it out in a way that’s not helpful for a pianist.

Impossible stretch

Who can play this? A giant or some kind of clever dick.

It’s very easy, especially in this day and age of using computers to prepare music, to copy from the choral staves onto the piano staves, have the soprano & alto in the right hand, the tenor & bass in the left, and leave it at that, as if you’re preparing a short score for a choir, rather than a piano reduction for a pianist. It requires no effort and no thought from the typesetter, but the result is rarely the most helpful solution for the pianist who’s going to have to play it. You’re likely to get impossible stretches in one hand (see right), which could easily be played by swapping a note into the other. That’s what the pianist is going to end up doing anyway, so just cut straight to the end result. It is much more helpful to try to gather the notes together for the hands that will play them.

There’s also no need to put stems up and stems down unless the rhythms are different, and as the most practical thing to do in general is to present the notes in the simplest way, notes should share stems where they can. The music in our piano reductions is presented pianistically, rather than vocally, because it’s for a pianist rather than a singer.

Piano reductions are often printed on smaller staves than the singers are singing from. That’s not something we do at the Chichester Music Press. The one person who stands to benefit from the piano reduction – the pianist – will not be grateful for it, especially as the stave size in our choral music is already towards the lower end of the normal range for choral music across the industry.

Dynamics are normally not shown in choral reductions except for very skeletal ones, and we don’t normally don’t put them in at all. We produce our piano reductions from the assumption that the pianist will play as quietly as he can get away with to support the choir. He’s not necessarily being required to play loud bits loudly and quiet bits quietly. The piano reduction is not, in normal circumstances, intended for performance.

In setting out these thoughts, I went once again to Elaine Gould’s wonderful Behind Bars book, and will now selectively pick out a few quotations that back up our position. (Anything she says that doesn’t back us up you can go and read for yourself. It begins on page 473.)

…notate the reduction in a pianistic way…

…distribute the vocal pitches conveniently for the hands…

…reduce the notation to its simplest form…

…join as many parts as have the same note-value onto a single stem…

…reduction requires minimal dynamics…

Posted in Music typesetting | Leave a comment

Jubilate by John Hosking, featuring tonic solfa

John Hosking’s latest addition to our catalogue is his setting of Jubilate (Psalm 100). This particular setting is in Welsh, and has been produced for Trelawnyd Male Voice Choir, who’ll be giving it its first performance in October 2013. The Jubilate, I need hardly remind you, is one of the canticles used at matins in the Anglican liturgy, and begins with the words ‘O be joyful in the Lord, all ye lands’, and John’s setting is a real outburst of joy, both energetic and driven.

A feature of this edition is the tonic solfa (no relation of Oxford-based composer Solfa Carlile), included above the conventional notation. Music is very commonly notated in solfa in Wales (as it is apparently in parts of Africa). It’s possible to walk into some chapels in Wales, and find hymnals set out in SATB with not a note in them, but just page after page of solfa, and that’s all the congregation needs to be able to sing, in all four parts.

Solfa example

SATB with not a note in sight.

In principle, solfa is quite simple. You have the notes doh, rey, mi, fa, soh, la and ti, which correspond to the degrees of the major scale, and there are names for the various accidentals too, e.g. fi for a sharp fa and si for a sharp soh (mi and ti already have that i vowel, because they’re already as sharp as they can be without becoming the next degree of the scale). Then the bar is divided up into beats by colons, and if you want doh you write d at the right position of the bar. If a note carries on into the next beat, you show the continuation with a hyphen. Different octaves are shown by ticks after the note, either superscript or subscript for upper or lower octaves. Rests are shown simply by leaving gaps in the bar.

I don’t claim to know solfa well enough to be able to sing from it, but I have had to include it before in pieces I’ve typeset for other publishers (Welsh ones wrth reswm). Luckily, Sibelius has a plugin that can convert normal notation into a solfa line above the stave, which does the bulk of the work. It was written in 2000 by James Larcombe, and subsequently tinkered with by Sibelius’s Michael Eastwood and by me. James himself later worked for Sibelius, and is responsible for some of Sibelius’s more wizardlike features like Dynamic Parts. He now works for Steinberg, developing their music scoring application, and is no doubt being a wizard there as well. But I digress. The point is that Sibelius can do solfa, more or less.

The downside of using Sibelius for solfa is that you can only do it once the music is finished, or at least, if you add solfa before the music is finished and then change the music it was built from, the solfa won’t update, and you have to either fix it yourself or run the plugin again on that chunk. Another problem is that ties aren’t properly supported (they should be shown as straightforward hyphens, which show that the same note is supposed to continue, but in fact the note gets repeated when Sibelius does it). These and other little glitches mean you have to be very careful with solfa in Sibelius, especially if you don’t know solfa well enough that any mistakes are obvious.

Solfa also takes up extra space. For this reason, this Welsh version of Jubilate is produced in A4 form, which is unusual for a choral piece that only lasts 8 pages, and it has a card cover to support what would otherwise be quite flappy pages. The result is a good and practical product, and I’m proud of having been able to include solfa in this version of Jubilate. I hope it makes the music even more accessible to singers, in Wales and beyond.

My thanks go to Bob Zawalich for uncovering some solfa resources for me during the preparation of this work, Meinir Wyn Thomas and family for being willing to raid their family hymnal collection, and James Larcombe for writing the Sibelius solfa plugin.

Copies of Jubilate (the TTBB version in Welsh) by John Hosking can be ordered here.

Posted in Music typesetting, Publications, Sibelius, Steinberg | Leave a comment

Steinberg’s new blog

I’ve written before about Sibelius. It is at the very heart of everything we do at the Chichester Music Press, and as a plugin writer I can even say I’ve written bits of it. I’ve come to know the people behind it, and so was very distressed when they were shed by Avid last year.

As upset as I was then, I was delighted in the same measure when the team was taken on wholesale by Steinberg, with the specific intention of producing a competing product of their own. I was greatly relieved on a personal level, because my friends and colleagues had been spared losing their livelihoods, but also on a professional level, because they are quite simply a great team with a proven track-record in conceiving and building innovative functions into Sibelius, keeping Sibelius at the cutting edge of music scoring software, right up to the moment Avid decided it was better off without them.

Time passes. Daniel Spreadbury has now launched a blog, called Keeping Score, in which he will detail the transplanted team’s plans for their new application. Unencumbered by an increasingly ageing codebase, they are ploughing ahead building their programme from scratch. It already sounds wondrous. I got such a buzz when reading it I even used the A-word in the blog’s comments, even though it’s Lent!

I look forward to jumping ship as soon as the opportunity arises.

Posted in Sibelius, Steinberg | Leave a comment

Seasonal performances

The period around Christmas is arguably the busiest time for church musicians. Here’s a list of the performances of Chichester Music Press music we know about this Advent, Christmas and Epiphany. If you can fill in any details of any of these, or you know of a performance I’ve missed out altogether, please leave a message in the comments.

Dormi Jesu, by Victoria Larley (Previeworder.)

  • St Richard’s Church in Chichester, at their ‘Midnight Mass’ (10.30pm on Christmas Eve)
  • St Richard’s Church, either on the Feast of the Holy Family or at Epiphany, to be confirmed.
  • St John’s Chapel, Chichester on Sunday 23 December, sung by the choir of St Paul’s Church, Chichester
  • St Paul’s Church, Chichester on Christmas Day.

Missa Sancti Asaph, by John Hosking  (Previeworder.)

  • Cathedral of St Asaph, at their Midnight Mass.
  • Separate movements from the mass are being performed in the cathedral’s liturgy in the weeks leading up to Christmas.

Mass From Verbena, Neil Sands (Previeworder.)

  • Every Sunday throughout Advent at St Richard’s Church, Chichester, at 10am.

As I Lay Upon A Night, Jamie W. Hall (Previeworder.)

  • Chichester Cathedral, sung by Chantry Quire, on Sunday 9 December, at 6pm. Admission is free (it’s the St Wilfrid’s Hospice carol service).
  • St Paul’s Church, Chichester, sung by Chantry Quire, on Sunday 16 December, starting at 7pm. Admission free.

O Magnum Mysterium, Edward-Rhys Harry (Previeworder.)

  • Arundel Cathedral, at their Midnight Mass.

O Magnum Mysterium, by John Hosking. (Previeworder.)

  • Epiphany service at Chester Cathedral (sung by the Nave Choir).

Personent Hodie, by James Webb (Previeworder.)

  • Hull Collegiate School on Monday 17 December.
Posted in Performances | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment