Font of Every Blessing

Awhile back my Australian composer friend Andrian Pertout – I should say, one of my multitudinous Australian composer friends – e-mailed me a font for Ben Johnston’s microtonal pitch notation. I’m not very good at this kind of technological challenge, and we had been down this road before, so I filed it away to deal with later. But being in between compositions this week and without any particular idea in my head, I tried it out and got it to work! What this means is that now, for the first time, I can notate my microtonal music on the computer with the correct notation. Until now, all my microtonal pieces have had to be hand-written scores, or else with some jerry-rigged notation showing cents sharp or flat, and so on. But I got inspired – or rather, remained uninspired, and thus in need of some mind-numbing busywork project – and renotated my piece The Day Revisited in Ben’s beautiful notation. I’m very excited about it.

It took me something like 14 hours to place all the accidentals in a 13-minute quintet. You can see a sample here:


And if you want, you can download the entire score here. The little sevens in Ben’s notation lower notes to make them 7th harmonics, and the upside-down sevens raise them the same amount. The upward arrows (which I hope you can see at least on the PDF; they’re undeniably faint here) raise a pitch a quarter-tone to make it an 11th harmonic, and down-arrows lower the same amount. The pluses correct for the syntonic comma, and if that’s Greek to you, well, sonny, you’ll understand when you get older. But enough about that. The important thing is that now I have a downloadable copy of The Day Revisited which, even if you don’t understand the notation, reveals much more about how the piece works than the old cents-sharp-or-flat score does. And if it took 14 hours, that’s a shorter job, and a less exhausting one, than it would have been to copy the score by hand, which I once assayed to do and gave up.

Andrian uses Finale; I use Sibelius. (O when, o when, will these Finale users see the light and bend to the inevitable?) He says the font is more convenient in Finale, where it can be programmed to punch in next to a note like a regular accidental. In Sibelius, I had to treat it like text (apple-T) and painstakingly drag each accidental next to the note. But I’m impressed with the way it looks, at least on my print-out; I’d be curious to hear others’ results. He’s not quite ready to go public with the font yet. Meanwhile, a recording of The Day Revisited, which will be released in September on my CD Private Dances from New Albion, is still on my web site for now, where you can listen to it here and compare it with the score, if that kind of thing appeals to you. I think, and have been told, that it’s my most ear-opening microtonal work yet.

I fantasize that, on my deathbed, someone is going to run in with the news that a new software has been developed that will not only notate Ben’s pitch notation with seamless ease, but play it back in incredible acoustic fidelity. Someone like Alex Ross, or Michael Gordon, or one of those guys (they’ll all be there) will turn to me and jeer, “Seems you were born at precisely the wrong time, Gann: late enough to find just intonation irresistible, but too early to find it feasible!” The pained expression with which I depart this vale of tears will have nothing to do with my final illness, I assure you.


  1. says

    The Finale vs. Sibelius thing strikes me as akin to the Mac vs PC wars. I admit it—I’m a Finale user and even a beta tester. It definitely has its shortcomings, but from what I’ve heard, Sibelius can’t do some of the things I take for granted with Finale. On the other hand, I’m told that Sibelius is easier to use. Long term it will be interesting to see how both applications play out. Perhaps it isn’t so much like the Mac vs. PC thing but more like the coke vs pepsi thing. Coke and Pepsi (I’m a Pepsi person, incidentally—it goes with being a Mac Finale user I suspect) actually do better by going head to head as they do.
    KG replies: Even more impressive than Sibelius’s ease is its incredible speed. I can copy in a student’s piece far faster than I could copy it in pencil.

  2. says

    As a performer of contemporary music, it doesn’t really matter to me whether a score is Finale or Sibelius, as long as it is professionally presented and facilitates efficient reading.
    And as a pianist I don’t generally need to worry about microtones, unless the piano is pre-tuned or the composer asks for pitch-bending inside the piano.

  3. Gabor says

    You might be much happier using the “HEWM” or saggital notation instead of the Johnston.
    With the Johnston, not all intervals with the same combination of microtonal accidentals have the same intonation (C G and D A+ are both intoned as 3:2; C D and D E+ are both 9:8; C E and Bb D- are both 5:4 in Johnston), making it tricky for players who want to be able to read the music at sight. HEWM and Saggital are based on the pythagorean series of fifths, and each accidental modifies this series consistantly(so that C G and D A are 3:2, C D and D E are 9:8, C E- and D F#- are 5:4, pythagorean thirds narrowed by a comma).
    Also a more philosopical point is that with Johnston you must know what is the tonal center of the notation, with HEWM or Saggital, this is not necessary.
    KG replies: I would not be happier using HEWM notation, whose shortcomings I have addressed elsewhere. But I will allow your commercial for it.

  4. Joe says

    A problem though with Johnston’s notation, is that for example the 5ths C-G & D-A are notated differently, as opposed to a notation like the JI one in scala (based on Eitz, pythagorean with comma offsets).

  5. Gabor says

    Could you give a URL for your “shortcomings” of HEWM?
    KG replies: Here we go again. I don’t know whether I’ve ever devoted a specific article to HEWM vs. Johnston, but I’ve argued the issue with people on the tuning lists over the years. Here are my points:
    1. I came to JI via minimalism, not high modernism, and I don’t mind the pitch universe having a center: CEG. HEWM is based on the Pythagorean scale, a bland, unharmonious scale I would never compose with for any reason. Johnston is centered on subdominant, tonic, and dominant triads, phenomena I use all the time.
    2. You find it inconvenient that, in Johnston notation, D-A is not a perfect fifth. I find it equally inconvenient that, in HEWM notation, CEG is not a major triad. I do a lot of going back and forth between major and minor, and the idea of needing three accidental shifts to do so – from C E- G to C Eb+ G – is bothersome. Same distance from D F#- A to D F+ A, rather than D F#+ A+ to D F+ A+. When I learned Johnston notation some 23 years ago, D-to-A not being a true fifth really bothered me for, oh, a day and a half, and then I accepted it and moved on. Now I’m so used to it, D-to-A looks wrong. But not as wrong as C E- G.
    3. A Johnston sharp has a value of 25/24; a HEWM sharp is 2187/2048. I’d need to compose with a calculator in hand.
    4. Basically, I think HEWM appeals to those with a more atonal orientation, who want everything to transpose consistently. Johnston appeals to those more based in tonality and triads. (Transposability as an ideal does not appeal to me, as I discuss at .) So ultimately it’s a simple matter of preference based on one’s philosophical orientation. Add to that level playing field that Ben Johnston’s music has been composed in Johnston notation, and much of Harry Partch’s music has been transcribed into it. Therefore, those who can read Johnston’s music, and the Partch transcriptions, can also read my music. If I switch to HEWM, what names of well-known composers shall I substitute into that sentence?
    5. I grew up in the evangelical Southern Baptist Church, which instilled in me a permanent distrust of people who try to get me to “join their camp.” I *never* urge anyone to use Johnston notation, but the moment I mention Johnston notation publicly, the HEWM people rush up to try to convert me. Why is that? You HEWM advocates are obviously so proud of the conceptual consistency you’ve achieved, but I have never gotten the feeling that you’ve seriously considered that your notation may “normalize” certain harmonic tendencies that others of us don’t share.

  6. Gabor says

    I won’t try to convert you, but your readers should not have the misperception that HEWM is inherently atonal; I use it for tonal music and everyone I know who uses it also write tonal music; in fact, no one I know using HEWM modulates as much as Johnston himself does, making his scores a nightmare to read. It’s just consistant, so that every structure you might use harmonic or melodic is spelled consistantly regardless of key. Johnston isn’t more tonal, it’s more C-major-centered, and centered on a tuning of C major that not necessarily everyone agrees with. Tonic, Dominant, Subdominant chords in Johnston are spelled one way in C major, but get more and more unusual spellings as you move beyond C. Talk about “normalizing” harmonic tendencies!
    As for Partch transcriptions, Adam Silverman and Daniel Wolf have between them transcribed all of the scores into HEWM style notation, and it makes Partch’s harmonies much more clear as all the Overtonal and Undertonal chords are spelled transparently. In addition to Partch transcriptions, there are whole volumes of transcriptions by students of Prof. Vogel into the same notation style (from Mozart to the Beatles). Contemporary composers using HEWM style notation include Wolfgang von Schweinitz (just appointed to Tenney’s chair at CalArts), Marc Sabat, Silverman and others.
    KG replies: Well, that’s certainly not true of many of Ben’s scores. Many of them are quite clear and simple, and not “nightmares” at all. His Sixth Quartet admittedly uses more than 100 pitches because it’s microtonally 12-tone, but of the pieces of his that I can think of as modulating (Suite for Microtonal Piano, Demon Lover’s Double, Fifth and Ninth String Quartets), it’s often within a single scale. And other pieces (Fourth Quartet) don’t modulate at all. I really can’t see what you’re talking about in terms of Ben.
    You are correct, though, that Johnston notation normalizes certain tendencies – they happen to be ones that my compositional style is based on. And that’s exactly the point. HEWM will work better for some, Johnston for others – but I tire of being proselytized by those who believe they’ve “fixed” Ben’s “flawed” notation.

  7. says

    Adressing what in my opinion wrong with HEWM notation is going to take a somewhat cubist approach…
    Kyle Gann wrote
    “I came to JI via minimalism, not high modernism, and I don’t mind the pitch universe having a center: CEG.”

    Why shouldn’t every composer have their own pitch center of choice? It’s certainly the most “classical” approach,
    in the great scheme of things. Carnatic singers set their own “sa”: who would be provincial and foolhardy enough
    to flaunt the pedigree of 12-tET in the face of that kind of antiquity and refinement?
    Kyle Gann wrote:
    “HEWM is based on the Pythagorean scale, a bland, unharmonious scale I would never compose with for any reason.”
    “Johnston is centered on subdominant, tonic, and dominant triads, phenomena I use all the time.”

    Aka, centered on the first handful of partials and their interrelationships. It’s not the “only” approach, but
    it simply cannot be discounted as utterly reasonable. (And backwards and forwards compatible with
    practical musical theory for, lessee, billions of people).
    Kyle Gann wrote:
    ” Basically, I think HEWM appeals to those with a more atonal orientation, who want everything to transpose
    Transposability as an ideal does not appeal to me, as I discuss at .)”

    Basically, I feel, with great sadness, that the majority of “microtonal” theory I’ve come across is on one hand
    chained by an inability to escape from an ingrained pseudo-tonal 12-tET mentality, on the other hand based on what
    is actually numerology, and on the third hand (or on whichever extremity tickles your fancy), largely
    unsubstatiated by music worth listening to.
    One huge fraud in music theory in general, swallowed by “microtonalists”, is that modulation and chromaticism
    are somehow equated with equal temperaments, whereas “mutually exclusive” would be closer to the truth.
    Other egregious bogosities are ideas like “prime limit”, when divorced from what’s actually going on in the audible
    spectrum. I stayed out of the recent chuckling over Johnston’s descriptions of the characters of the different
    primes for the simple reason that we can sit down for a few hours in my nice electronic studio and clearly
    demonstrate with additive synthesis that emphasizing certain partials has very distinct (subjective of course)
    effects on timbre, and show with spectrograms that rational intonation can significantly and methodically
    increase the amplitude of specific regions in the overall audible spectrum, therefore affecting the timbre,
    therefore the “feeling”.
    Discussing the 7th partial in JI is not numerology, it’s listening, but the “prime limit” nonsense incorporated
    into HEWM is Oujaworth, especially in light of the whole concept of “approximation of just intervals” which is
    central to so much internet tuning theory. Take for example… just rendering the first interval that grabs my
    eye on the HEWM page… 256/243. Lessee, it’s supposedly a “3-limit” interval, due to the fact that 3 is its
    largest prime. Now this Pythagorean crap is just that, for in the real world where we actually listen to these
    things and are able to distinguish adjective from noun (3 is an adjective, the 3rd partial is a noun), 256/243
    doesn’t have f**k-all to do with “3” itself- the third partial beats wildly against the corresponding partial in
    the 1/1 (“critical band interactions”).
    Let’s say we do take “approximating Just intervals” truly seriously. What, then, is 256/243? Why, it’s so close
    to 19/18 that you can do nifty phase tricks with the two if your ax is sharp enough. I don’t remember if any of
    the numerous ludicrous “approximations” in Paul Ehrlich’s 22-tone thingy are less than 3 cents away from their
    purported identities, and yet we have this clearly 19/18 (or better 20/19, 256/243 basically splits the difference)
    interval of 256/243 being referred to as “3-limit” for no audible reason whatsoever. (Don’t anybody strut their
    “F” in Logic 101 by pleading tradition, wife-beating is a tradition too).
    Again, as you said…
    Kyle Gann wrote:
    “HEWM is based on the Pythagorean scale, a bland, unharmonious scale I would never compose with for any reason.”

    12-tET is also Pythagorean; it is in fact the ultimate evolution of the Pythagorean, being nothing BUT a cycle
    of damn near perfect fifths (and little else, from the viewpoint of interactions between partials in the audible
    range). 12-tET, or 12-EDO, has its own voulez-vous, let it be. Why in heaven’s name should a myriad of other
    tuning possibilities be tormentented on the Procrustean bed of Pythagoras?
    Eh… don’t get me started.

  8. Joe says

    I’m not trying to convert you either. Your notation certainly seems to work for you. A notation where all the chords look the same is nice for me though, for scale building. I think of major chords looking like:

    C E\ G
    F A\ C
    G B\ D

    and minor:

    E\ G B\
    A\ C E\

    (This is the notation Scala calls ‘JI’.)

    So if I want a scale with those chords I can input the note names:

    C D E\ F G A\ B\ C.1

    (The tonic has to be first, and the C.1 adds the octave.)

    If I wanted a D minor, I know I’d have to add a D\, but then I’d know I’d have 2 D’s.

  9. Mark S says

    Coming in a little late here, but I thought I’d mention that for a natural horn piece I did earlier his year, I ended up hacking one of the default finale fonts (engraver) so that I could use the johnston notation. It actually worked out quite nicely as I just replaced the double sharp, double flat, both quarter tone accidentals, and another character I would never use, and it enabled me to use them like regular accidentals in finale.
    That combined with sending the MIDI to Kontakt 2 (with a great orchestral sound library), which was running a kontakt script to apply my tuning, and I must say, it was quite close to the deathbed scenario you describe.