The Psychology of Script

This was inevitable, but it hadn’t happened to me before. We now have a student composing both string quartets and jazz tunes using Sibelius notation software. I found it amusing that he prints the string quartets in Sibelius’s “normal” notation and the jazz pieces in its “inkpen” script:

I asked him why and he shrugged and didn’t know. But it does subtly look like in the notation on the left the notes are fixed and must be played correctly, while the ones on the right are sort of just the “suggested” notes, and if you can think of something better you’re free to substitute something. 

Years ago I used to write pieces that did have optional notes, placed in brackets or parentheses. Maybe I should notate them this way.


  1. says

    I do that same thing … I just think the inkpen notation is cool. I have a set of saxophone duets, in which the first 4 movements are in normal font, and the last is inkpen because it is a jazz influenced work. I think for a saxophone player (or any musician used to alternating between jazz and classical style) it can make a big in the mindset of the player, telling them to swing the eighth notes and add jazz inflections.
    It may also come from when I used to use Finale. Their inkpen notation is called Jazz font.

  2. Ed says

    I use Finale. It also has a “Jazz” font and a “Classical” font. When you start a new document, if you pick a “Leadsheet” template you get “Jazz” font by default, but you get a “Classical” font by default if you start an orchestral score. You can change these defaults, but learning how to do so takes time. I suspect you student is just sticking with the defaults of Sibelius.
    Odd how the dots came out on the wrong end of the stems in the “Jazz” sample above.

  3. Dave MacD says

    I’ve seen experienced jazz players stumble over some parts written in fonts like the one on the left. I think it’s just what the player is more comfortable with, what they’re used to. A classical player would probably have to do a double take on the notation on the right.

  4. says

    Absolutely, notation and the psychology thereof is a fascinating subject, no doubt about it. As one who has lately spent a lot of time in the role of performer, I’ve developed some pretty strongly-held ideas about notation. Basically, the sole credible, plausible function of notation (as I see it) is that of enabling a composer to communicate his/her ideas as clearly as possible to performers. A qualification to that might be: as clearly as possible, where clarity is the desideratum – which in my experience is (or ought be) almost always the case. There may be certain cases where some degree of notational ambiguity is fine because the composer has deliberately opened a window looking toward a multiplicity of distinct interpretative possibilities; but genuine cases of this are quite rare. The whole idea that notation is more than that, is somehow a thing in itself that needs to be revered, admired, taken as Holy Writ, something that should be seen as a clear manifestation of the genius of the composer, I can’t take seriously. And I’ll add one more thought: in my experience all the best composers are willing to reconsider details of their notation in the light of working with good performers – not that they’ll totally capitulate to any damn fool suggestion a performer comes up with, but rather that they’ll exercise judgment and discernment to see how their notation can better relate to intelligent expressions of the realities of musical performance.

  5. says

    I think Dave MacD is right — there’s certainly some psychology there, but jazz musicians are much more likely to have read from the Real Book or other hand-notated sources. It’s just easier, and more appropriate.
    I do like how the font suggests style though — but there are all kinds of other visual ways of representing music (20th Century-style) that do the same thing. Nifty.

  6. says

    Dave MacD’s observation reinforces the general finding in (text) typography: people read best what they read most. The sans serif fonts we’re all comfortable with were originally considered relatively difficult, the blackletter (Fraktur) fonts that were once common are now very difficult.
    I’m pretty sure that anyone who had played from manuscript parts has also had the experience of presentation influencing expression, often unintentionally.
    And I never know what to make of the ‘conventional’ scores of Bussotti, whose compositional and notational details are chosen to make interesting pictures on the page. I don’t mean the partly-graphic scores (like this) but the ‘normal’ ones (can’t find any examples on the web, alas). The result is the purest example of Augenmusik I can think of.

  7. says

    I’m still waiting for the George Crumb font: it will make everyone think my pieces are really difficult to play and involve theatrics and ritualistic behavior. Mwah ha ha ha haaaaah!

  8. says

    I prefer the “jazz font” for jazz charts, and although I’ve never thought about it before, it does seem like it would be easier for me to swing naturally when reading the jazz font. At the same time I would really want to swing a classical chart if it was written in jazz font. It’s what I’m used to.
    I remember a friend in school who used to write study notes in different coloured pens for each class. She said it helped her to get in the mindset for that subject.
    Maybe this is a similar thing; if we usually read jazz in one font and classical in another, we’ll have a tough time doing the opposite. I still use my calligraphy pens to handwrite charts, and I don’t change the way I write for each style of music. Thanks to Sibelius, the days of copyists and hand written music are pretty much history.