What's wrong with music notation software
Computers have made music printing accessible to the masses, but they tend to deliver mediocre typography. Apparently, programmers have been doing a shoddy job on notation programs. To illustrate that, we had an amateur user set a piece of music in one of the most popular ‘professional’ notation programs sold today, Finale 2003. It was made with all of the default settings. The music is from the Sarabande of the 2nd Cello Suite by J. S. Bach.
(Finale is a registered trademark of MakeMusic! Inc.)
This example far surpasses the previous one when it comes to formatting errors: there are serious errors in literally every measure. The errors come in all sizes: a big one is the oddly s p a c e d   o u t last line. A smaller one is the flat in measure 13, which is covered by the note preceding it. Here is a magnification of that measure:
The errors go down to the teensy details: below is a blowup of the beam in that measure. Of course, in proper typography the beam should not stick out to the right of the stem, and the ribbles provide a telling glimpse into Coda Music Technology programmers' aptness (or lack thereof) with the underlying PostScript technology.
Now, one could refute that Finale has a graphical interface, and it lets you easily move about elements to correct errors, or use plug-ins to do so. This is certainly true: in fact, good professional engravers that use Finale typically spend the majority of their time correcting all the errors that Finale routinely makes. But do you want to spend your time on correcting all glaring errors? For the spaced out line, it is doable, but imagine that you have to correct each and every beam that sticks out of the stems.... by hand?
There is a less obvious reason why correcting things by hand is a bad idea. Consider again measure 13 reproduced above. The misplaced flat is pretty obvious, but did you notice that repeat bar? Its lines are too far apart. Did you notice that the eighth rest is too far down? Did it occur to you that the stem of the last eighth note is too long?
Unless you are an expert, typographical errors will irk you without being obvious. Many of them will go uncorrected and will still be in the final print.
This example may seem contrived, but in fact, it's not. All major producers of notation software claim to follow engraving standards, but we have not seen any that gets the basics right; all of them make systematic mistakes. If you want to assess the output of your favorite program, then buy a decent hand-made score from a respectable publisher, and try to reproduce one page of it. Then compare them:
- How does the page layout compare? Typically, computer scores are more widely spaced so they take up more pages, meaning more annoying page turns.
- How does the spacing compare? Is it as lively and flowing as the hand-made score? If in doubt, try measuring both with a ruler.
- Put both on a music stand, 1 meter away; that is not uncommon when performing. Can you read both pages? Almost all computer scores have an anemic look: they use lines which are too thin, and symbols which are too light. That makes them hard to read from a distance. If in doubt, measure the difference with a magnifying glass.
Next: How not to design software,
or: modeling music notation.