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Topic: Paper vs. Piano vs. Piano Roll

  1. #1

    Paper vs. Piano vs. Piano Roll

    I've been composing music for nearly 30 years, but recently I've really had a paradigm shift in the way I write music, especially for medium and large ensembles. I was wondering who among this group might be going through something similar.

    I've always composed on paper and/or sitting at a piano or keyboard. I either sketched out ideas on paper then checked and refined them on piano, or sketched on the piano, and wrote down my ideas after I had worked them out. Usually it was a mixture of the two.

    While scoring a film, I discovered it was much quicker to write directly to the "piano roll" view in my sequencer. At first it was a direct translation in my brain from working at the piano, to a rotated version on my screen. But then something strange started to happen... I began to leave the piano part of my brain out of the equation, and just looking at the piano roll as a large pallette on which to write. I find it easier to free myself from the confines of my theory training when not looking directly at a piano. Sure, I still know what all the notes are, and what harmonies they make up, but there is something very compelling to me about pulling the little notes up and down, shifting things about, and trying new things. There is a sense of immediacy in the process, in that I can allow myself just to try a lot of things very quickly, and see what sparks my ears interest.

    One of the thing that I have carried over from my old habits is to examine every mistake I make to see if it has value. While writing at the piano, that meant if I accidentally hit a note I hadn't intended, I go back and listen to that mistake again, and consider allowing it to pull me in a new direction. For the piano roll, "wrong notes" happen all the time when dragging note bars up and down, or just clicking on the wrong space.

    Sometimes have the melodic shape of a phrase in my head, but don't yet have the exact notes. I just throw down notes on the piano roll in the general shape I want, then go back and pull individual notes up and down until it works for me in the context of the current texture.

    Yesterday I decided to write a new "serious" piece for large orchestra. Something I hadn't done in a number of years (View of Mt. Fuji from Edo was actually written in 1992... just recently GPOized). I set up multiple GPO instances with the instruments I needed, and just started writing like crazy on that piano roll. Incredibly, the piece is starting to flesh out at a rapid pace, and is turning into something I never would have come up with using "traditional" composition means.

    Actually hearing the orchestra immediately at each change is the most rewarding type of feedback. I began wondering what the masters could have achieved if they had had such a tool. I'm certain that at least some of them would have found new and exciting ways to write, and probably have had the time to finish a few more pieces to boot!
    - Jamie Kowalski

    All Hands Music - Kowalski on the web
    The Ear Is Always Correct - Writings on composition

  2. #2

    Re: Paper vs. Piano vs. Piano Roll


    I think this is a fascinating thread. I haven't become that comfy yet with the piano roll to feel confident enough to just compose with it. I have used it a LOT to edit things - and only a few times to create in it. Perhaps it is more of a matter of adjusting my way of thinking. I am still in the paper / notation sketching out first and then doing the other. (or just playing into things)

    I am not sure what the Masters would have done with a tool like this. I doubt it would have really changed their musical styles or their "voice". But a visual representation of notes and values OTHER than traditional notation would have certainly changed the way they approached composition. Would it have made things easier? faster? I am sure that depends upon a lot of things.

    It took me a long time just to get used to the piano-roll. But I do like it.

    Thanks for this insight into your creativity!

    Jerry Wickham
    MacBook Pro Intel Core 2 Duo 2.5ghz 4GB Ram OSX 10.5.8
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    T3, Logic 9, DP7, K2, GPO4, Strad, Gofriller, C&MB, Finale 2010

    My Website!
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  3. #3
    Senior Member newmewzikboy's Avatar
    Join Date
    May 2005
    San Francisco Bay Area

    Re: Paper vs. Piano vs. Piano Roll

    I, also am going through a paradigm shift in the way I work. I wouldn't say that it is a complete flip. For my more serious legitimate work, I still work with Finale and a pad of orchestration paper. I also have a musical journal that I use to develop precompositional material for my works, and am always writing in. Because I use a lot of theoretics, a lot of specialized transformations, and my harmony is not always derived from strict diatonic materials, I need paper to visualize these kinds of pieces. It sounds all left brained, but it's not. But this kind of writing gives me a very controlled and clear vision and extremely well written work. =)

    For FS, I used to use paper and Finale, also writing in a click track and calculating hit points and tempo changes based on spotting session materials. Then I would export my score to Cubase to do any mockups for musicians.

    As I became more proficient at Cubase, I used to enter in the hit points and tempo changes, and then export that to Finale as a click track. And write the score in Finale sans above.

    Lately though, for some pieces, I am looking for LESS control and LESS perfection. For these kind of works, I improvise sketch material into Cubase, maybe based on a motif or rhythm or musical object...or maybe not. I may do 50 tracks up front, some similar, some different. I then selectively review what I found, pick what I think is interesting material, correct, combine, orchestrate, etc...

    One thing I wanted to try was to become more physically connected to my composition, something I couldn't get from writing on paper and my previous modus. Also, because of time constraints this seems to work best. My legit pieces can take a year or more to write. I don't have that kind of luxury on FS and 2-4 minutes per day.

  4. #4

    Talking Re: Paper vs. Piano vs. Piano Roll

    Apropos the piano roll thing, what it does bring home, to me at least, is that any given notated piece is only one possible visual realisation of the underlying music. The piano roll makes basic editing and correction much easier. It might even make the underlying "shape" of a musical phrase easier to comprehend and understand, i.e., there is a sort of topology to a piece of music which the piano roll can bring out clearer than traditional notation.

    Cheers, CD

    Musical inspiration is only 10% of the work.

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