Progressive Rock, The Program Notes

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On Saturday, February 13, 2016, I will join over 30 musicians in the Prog Rock Jam, an epic jam session at Steve’s Live Music in Sandy Springs, Georgia, described thusly in my Facebook post:

Come hear me tomorrow night as I sing in the most over-ambitious jam session ever attempted by thirty-odd of the best rock musicians in Atlanta! Thrill as we, live, without a net, pay tribute to Jethro Tull, Yes, Emerson Lake & Palmer, Genesis, Kansas, Rush, King Crimson, the Moody Blues, Gentle Giant and more. Twist and turn as we rip through epic, triumphant, grandiose, pompous, intricate, baroque arena-filling anthems in a cozy folk music club. Colossal musical train wrecks and widespread collateral damage are predicted. All superlative adjectives will be exhausted. If you survive, you’ll have something to tell your grandchildren about. You might even send them to us for music lessons.

At these jam events, the musicians are beginning to look to me to fill in time between the numerous set changes by telling stories about the history of the music. So I wrote the following 3,000 words, what I call the “program notes” although they aren’t going to be printed up and handed out to the audience. There will probably be very little time for me to use any of it, as we are looking at a 4-hour performance, so I thought best to post it here.

This show is focused on what is referred to as British progressive rock, a movement within rock music that spanned a rather narrow time period, circa 1968 through 1979.

The great Louis Armstrong, especially in the early days, was sometimes asked by professional journalists if he could explain what jazz is. He was said to reply, “If you have to ask, I can’t explain it to you.” Progressive rock is like that.

The most effective way to understand progressive rock is to listen to the actual music itself. More work for you, but as Billy Joel said in “It’s Still Rock and Roll To Me”: “There’s a new band in town, but you can’t get the sound from a story in a magazine.”

In a nutshell, however, it is this: In the 60s and 70s, British rock was bands appropriating American blues and rhythm and blues (“R&B”) and doing things in their own style. But there was a group of bands that came to be known as the British Progressive Rock movement, and what they were doing was this: They used the musical instruments of a rock band, but they sought to compose original music that drew on every musical influence they could muster, with the exception of American blues and R&B and rock and roll. My essay below goes into some of that, and provides a background for our concert.

What is progressive rock?

To talk about it in 2016 is a bit of an oxymoron: what we are concentrating on here is the British movement that took place in the late 1960s through the 1970s. Looking back from 40 years in the future it seems a bit strange to refer to it as progressive, but at the time, it was avant-garde. My esteemed colleague Sean Tonar, founder of the music fan forum, explains progressive rock in this fashion: There was a time in the early 70s when the music business was such that certain bands in the genre of rock were financed and enabled to create music that was experimental and non-commercial in nature; they were free to create a kind of music no one had heard before, and the record labels were willing to promote it. Some of these bands did indeed achieve worldwide commercial success. This was a unique time that was brief and would never be repeated.

However, to look at it only that way is to assume that the musicians in these bands created the music entirely on their own in a vacuum. That’s never the case. While it’s true that many of us musicians today go no further back than the original compositions by Yes, Genesis, Emerson Lake and Palmer and the like, it’s certainly not true that the musicians lacked prior influences for their songwriting. Let’s talk about that.

In the 1960s, British musicians got into “rock and roll” by blatantly copying American delta blues and Chicago blues from the earliest massed-produced recordings in the 1920s up through their period in the 1960s – the music of working-class black Americans recast for middle-class Brits, updated with the instruments they had on hand. Acts like the Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton and Led Zeppelin all owed a tremendous debt to African-American music. All through the 1960s and 70s, the dominant form of British and American rock was heavily influenced by African-American blues.

But there is a clear line between these bands and progressive rock acts, and it is this: progressive rock bands wrote music that drew on everything that they could find to listen to except for the blues. In this way they defined themselves against the mainstream of pop music. But where did they get their ideas?

The Beatles, thanks to Paul McCartney, injected a thread of British Music Hall, a kind of adaptation of big-band jazz that went all the way back to the New Orleans Dixieland jazz of the earliest part of the 20th century and flourished into its own unique style through both world wars and up until the ascendency of rock. The Beatles’ more avant-garde excursions using tape loops are due to the influence of an early style of electronic music called Musique Concrète, specifically the 1950s and 1960s recording of classical composer Karlheinz Stockhausen from Germany.

King Crimson was clearly influenced by 20th-century European classical composers such as the Hungarian Béla Bartók. Crimson seemed to be creating 20th-century classical chamber music but with amplified rock instruments at ear-splitting volume.

Yes started out with an infatuation for the American vocally-oriented pop of bands like the Association, the Beach Boys and Simon and Garfunkel, but throughout the 70s they strove to create an orchestral, symphonic sound using the instruments of a small rock band. Jon Anderson listened to the symphonies and tone-poems of 20th-century composers like Finland’s Jean Sibelius and the ballet music of Russian-French-American composer Igor Stravinsky, while guitarist Steve Howe listened to the 300-year-old chamber orchestra concertos of the Italian composer Antonio Vivaldi. Keyboardist Rick Wakeman has had a life-long love affair with the music of 20th-century Russian composer Sergei Prokofiev, whose style and sound pops up all through everything Wakeman has done.

Keith Emerson went a bit further back; he is known for adapting a monumental piano work of the 19th-century Russian composer Modest Mussorgsky, called Pictures at an Exhibition, and going from there.

It was the 20th-century European classical composers who were the first to incorporate a musical element that would prove essential to the British progressive rock sound: the use of odd time signatures and frequent changes in meter throughout a song. Ultimately these ideas came to the classical composers from the traditional folk music of Eastern Europe, Greece, Turkey and the Balkans. Writers like Tony Banks of Genesis, members of Yes and King Crimson made a careful study of how 20th-century Western composers made use of these exotic rhythmic ideas.

A core element of most of these bands was a keyboardist, and those keyboardists, almost without exception, got their musical direction from one source: being trained as an organist for worship services in the Anglican Church. The great electric bass guitarist John Wetton, a featured performer in several prog rock bands, said further, “I learned from the greatest bass player of all time, Johann Sebastian Bach. My brother was a church organist, and I would sit next to him and study Bach’s bass lines as he played the organ.” Similarly, some singers in these bands were known to have been trained as church choirboys. Chris Squire is a well-known example, but I would be remiss if I did not add that Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones was an accomplished church choirboy as well.

British folk music and British classical music played a large role. Jethro Tull is probably the best-known band with obvious British folk-music roots. Tull started out flirting with African-American blues but found exploring British folk music, going back hundreds of years, to be more fertile ground.

When Pete Townsend of The Who wrote “Pinball Wizard” from his ground-breaking rock opera Tommy, he explained that the pedal-tone bass arrangement for the song came straight out of the works of British composer Henry Purcell, from the same time as Vivaldi. Likewise, Paul McCartney explained that his guitar composition “Blackbird” was his attempt to emulate J. S. Bach’s lute music.

Gentle Giant was a band that probably went further back for ideas than all the rest. They made great use of a style of musical composition that came well before the Baroque chordal music of Purcell, Vivaldi and Bach. Gentle Giant drew upon the 500-year-old Renaissance methods of counterpoint and polyphony, which is to say writing several simultaneous independent melodies that weaved together intricately to create a whole. Some of Gentle Giant’s music sounds rather Renaissance in tone, but they adapted these compositional ideas into their own take on funky American-sounding rhythm and blues as well.

Stepping back to look at the big picture, there is another element that characterizes progressive rock, and that is the compositional idea of the suite. Most pop music, then and now, is in the format of the song, which is a short composition structured into verses and choruses. Commercial radio in the 1950s and 60s dictated that popular songs needed to be no more than three minutes in length. Progressive rock, on the other hand, used a more classical model for much longer compositions. In a suite, one piece of music is divided up into a sequence of different musical sections, played one right after the other. Each section can have its own different keys, tempos, or musical moods. Many British progressive rock compositions are thus around twelve minutes or more in length. Now the use of the suite goes back to my colleague Sean Tonar’s point about bands having the creative freedom to experiment: in many cases, these classic suites, some of which we will be performing tonight, were composed on-the-fly during monthlong stints in a recording studio, where the band would compose only eight or sixteen measures of music, then record it, then compose a few more bars, then record that, and have the engineer splice it all together to create a final long-form suite. Only then would the band address learning to actually perform the piece live. This is why it’s often said that certain bands’ live albums contained better, more cohesive performances of these long suites than can be found on the original studio recordings.

My final observation is that British progressive rock happened at a unique point in music technology. It came to use sounds that nobody had ever heard before, made by a new and rapidly-evolving kind of electronic musical instrument called the synthesizer, which first appeared on the market circa 1968. They had been around in experimental recording studios for a few decades, but it was only at the very end of the 1960s that synthesizers were designed and built that were portable and suitable for use in stage performance. Progressive rock bands were especially eager to exploit this new technology. The first synthesizers, however, in addition to being staggeringly expensive, were only capable of playing one note at a time, like a flute or a trumpet, and not chords, as on an organ or a piano. Thus the synthesizer fell naturally into the role of providing a bass line or a solo melodic instrument for the keyboardist. It was not until the late 1970s that synthesizers became available which could play full chords like on an organ or piano.

Now let’s look at some of the individual bands on our program.

The Moody Blues were founded in 1964 as a party band that simply did covers of African-American music, hence their name. But after a radical change in the lineup, they became a kind of composer’s club bent on psychedelic, consciousness-expanding music centered around a cumbersome and unreliable magnetic-tape-based keyboard instrument called the Mellotron, played by their member Mike Pinder, who happened to work for the British Mellotron factory and thus got the old employee discount. The story goes that in 1967 their record label asked the Moody Blues to make a demonstration album for a new technology that the record company wanted to market: this was called stereo. The record label hired the Moody Blues an orchestral arranger and a pick-up orchestra and asked them to make an original album of their own adaptation of the 19th-century Czech composer Antonín Dvořák’s popular orchestral work called the Symphony out of the New World. However, the Moody Blues won the orchestrator over to their side and recorded and delivered an album of all-original compositions. Fortunately the record label was forward-thinking enough to put out Days of Future Past, which became an instant classic and a best-seller. The Moody Blues were on their way to create their own progressive rock.

King Crimson is a band with a revolving door of musicians, the only constant being guitarist Robert Fripp. (Fripp grew up with and took guitar lessons from the same teacher as guitarist Andy Summers of The Police, who came to prominence more than a decade later.) With Crimson, each new album consisted of an entirely different lineup of musicians. Their sound went through many permutations, most all of them very serious, very hard, and very loud. However, tonight we are performing two rather atypical Crimson songs. The first, “I Talk to the Wind”, is a gentle acoustic piece of music that might have more to do with the Beatles that with the bone-crushing proto-heavy-metal that they included on the same debut album in 1969. The second, “Cat Food” is one of their only singles, and it’s clearly a tongue-in cheek throwback to the British blues-rock that all the proggers seemed bent on avoiding. We also must acknowledge that “Cat Food” bears a clear debt to the Beatles’ “Come Together”.

Emerson, Lake and Palmer was prog rock’s enduring “supergroup”. Keyboardist Keith Emerson, while never having been to music college, brought to bear a formidible understanding of concert classical piano and orchestration as well as bebop jazz. “Karn Evil 9” is a wide-ranging suite covering everything from psychedelic space-rock to acoustic piano jazz, and covering themes of human suffering in the face of technological oligarchy. The lyrics came from Pete Sinfield, who also worked with King Crimson. We’re doing the movement in the middle, which is a whimsical stab at carnival entertainment and a shout-out to the great American Tin Pan Alley songwriter Irving Berlin and his first hit, “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” from the year 1911.

Yes is a band that never accepted any limits on what kind of influences they could incorporate into their music. They are know for their gorgeous three-part vocal harmonies, in a close-harmony style reminiscent of the Beach Boys. But they also freely drew from American country music and jazz, psychedelic science-fiction themes, and built their lyrics on Eastern mysticism, while they strove through the keyboards and the bass to approach making a five-piece rock band sound as big as a symphony orchestra. They might be said to have the biggest arena-filling sound of all the prog bands.

Genesis started out as a cadre of friends from the same high-school, adapting British folk music to the rock idiom. Their earlier music is characterised by intricate layers of rather simple chords played on two or three twelve-string guitars. Lyrically they drew on classical Greek mythology, fairy tales and flights of science fiction. “Watcher of the Skies” is something that speaks to young men of my generation who read all they could of the “golden-age” science fiction writers like Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, and Arthur C. Clarke. Even Marvel Comics had a character called “The Watcher”, an immortal and supernatural being whose job it was to observe everything that humans did throughout the history of Planet Earth, without ever interfering. “Watcher of the Skies” is a story on a cautionary tale that was common at the time: that of Planet Earth being totally worn-out and uninhabitable, and human beings having to migrate from the planet into a new home elsewhere in space. Neil Young wrote a song called “After the Goldrush” which is on the same theme. “Squonk”, on the other hand, is based on a whimsical folk tale that they say comes from Appalachia. Sonically, Genesis was striving toward the epic sound of Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir”.

If Yes was a monolithic wall of sound, then Gentle Giant was a stainless-steel chain-link fence. Rather than huge chords sustained on organs and guitars, Gentle Giant played nimble, intricate interlocking melodies that are, let’s be honest, really hard for musicians following them to figure out how to play. That’s why you don’t hear of Gentle Giant cover bands. Yet tonight we’re attempting two songs from their 1974 album The Power and the Glory, which are meditations on the theme of political power and control. Say a prayer for us.

Jethro Tull is all about their sole songwriter and front-man: singer, flutist and acoustic guitarist Ian Anderson. He started out with the blues, but took a sharp turn into loud, powerful rock built on British folk music, with a continuous dose of whimsy, and a knack for Dickensian characters and narratives in the lyrics. Tonight we present one of their most lyrical and “pop”-sounding pieces, “Living in the Past” and one of their darkest, heaviest works, “Aqualung”.

Kansas is the sole American band on our lineup tonight. They started as friends and fellow musicians from small-town Kansas, but as soon as they broke out they relocated to Atlanta, Georgia; several members still live here although they aren’t seen around town very much as they continue to tour heavily all these years later. Kansas is one of the very few rock bands to feature a solo violin throughout its history, giving its arrangements a penchant toward orchestral sounds. Kansas was the brainchild of songwriter Kerry Livgren. His early musical inspirations came from trying to identify with the plight of Native Americans and their history; he progressed through New-Age spirituality and settled on Christianity, which became a theme that put him at odds with other members of the band. Tonight we also feature one of Kansas’ best-known pop hits, “Point of Know Return”, which was actually written by other members of the band without Kerry Livgren’s contribution.

Rush is here tonight representing Canada. Our musicians on  this jam come from two active, working Rush tribute bands here in Atlanta: The Spirit of Rush and Permanent Waves. Rush had a unique sound that nobody tried to emulate for a long time. They were a power-trio veering on heavy metal but very much into Yes and King Crimson. Somehow they managed to find tremendous commercial success, an enduring fandom composed of working-class people and not intellectuals, and just about the longest continuous career of making new music of all the bands we are paying tribute to tonight.

Copyright © 2016 by Wheat Williams, Unpublished. All rights reserved. 

Sun vs. Chess Jam with the BadAsh AllStar Team

Photo courtesy
Photo courtesy

Sorry I’ve been away from the blog — the good news is that I’ve been up on stage. Over the past four months I’ve fallen in with a motley crew of professional jazz and rock musicians who do jam sessions in jazz clubs in Atlanta, Georgia. They are called the BadAsh AllStar Team. Their jam sessions are all based on a specific theme. I’ve sung in shows paying tribute to Elton John, Pink Floyd, Steely Dan, Motown and Stax, and most recently Sun and Chess Records.

On Tuesday, February 5, 2016, I performed in the Sun vs. Chess Records Jam, which gave me the opportunity to share my 20 years of study on the subject with the audience, as well as to sing some early Elvis and Carl Perkins. I’ve published a 1,200-word article about this at a new music website called, so I’ll just give you a link and you can read my article there.

Sun vs. Chess Jam, Part I

Sun vs. Chess Jam, Part II

Looking at Band-in-a-Box in 2013 on Mac OS X

There’s an amazing piece of computer software for musicians that has been around since 1990. It’s called “Band-in-a-Box” or BiaB for short.

biab_logo_elaborateI bought a copy and played around with it about a decade ago, when I was first learning jazz guitar. But I haven’t used it in at least eight years.

So when I had a recent opportunity to sit in and sing with a very good professional jazz band that has open jam sessions in a restaurant (that’s another story), I decided to invest in an upgrade copy of Band-in-a-Box to help me generate some backing tracks so I could augment my meager rhythm guitar skills and make some practice tracks to learn to sing the songs.

My entire review refers to Band in a Box 2013 for Macintosh, on Mac OS X 10.8 Mountain Lion. I did use Band-in-a-Box on Windows many years ago, but I have not seen the 2013 Windows version, and I’m not referring to any features of the 2013 Windows version of the program in this writeup.


This is not a thorough review; I have not thoroughly learned to use every feature of this amazing program. I have not yet read the entire owners’ manual. I will say in my defense that in the late 1980s I was a music software reviewer for a well-regarded national magazine in the USA; at that time, I would not write a review without spending months using a program and investigating all of its features and shortcomings thoroughly. This is not such a review. I may say some things about this program that turn out to be erroneous because I’m ignorant of this or that function. Still, I believe I have some insights, which is why I’m taking the trouble to write this.

There are plenty of longtime loyal users of Band-in-a-Box who have long ago accustomed themselves to its notorious tremendous quirks and inconsistencies compared to the way that many other computer software programs work. Those people won’t like anything about this blog post; I’m not particularly interested in hearing from those people. I’m writing from the point of view of an outsider looking at the program with a fresh perspective, which I hope you can appreciate.

What It Does, and Does Very Well

Band-in-a-Box has one main function: You put in the chord progression and form to a song, typically but not necessarily a jazz song. You choose from one of hundreds of musical styles, adjust some parameters to taste, and BiaB miraculously generates a backing band accompaniment using a range of instrumentation: drums, guitars, piano, bass, horns, and strings. You can go further by having BiaB improvise melodies and solos according to myriad parameters. What makes all this amazing is that BiaB incorporates years and years of research into the way that jazz musicians play and arrange real live music, and distills this into computer algorithms. They have done this in conjunction and collaboration with quite a few famous living musicians, and the programmers have furthermore carefully analyzed and attempted to replicate the styles of many famous musicians who are no longer with us.

BiaB achieves amazing results, either by creating sequencer tracks in Standard MIDI File format, which it can play internally, or by using what it calls Real Tracks, which are actual audio recordings of performances by real professional studio musicians which have been chopped up, looped, and sometimes pitch- and time-shifted, so you can create playback tracks in any key and any tempo, within reason.

Search around online and find some demo videos for Band-in-a-Box. You’ll be impressed.

BiaB has a great deal of musical intelligence built-in. It will endlessly improvise different performances of a piece of music, based on the user’s input. The user can select various parameters to vary the performance throughout different sections of the song, keeping things simple for a sung verse, or more complicated for computer-improvised solos. The software can figure out and create introductions and codas, change the feel of different sections based on the structure of the song, and do more tricks than I could possibly catalog (or more than I could possibly find out and experiment with on my own).

Musicians have used BiaB for decades to study and practice jazz music and improvisation, and to make demo recordings. BiaB works great for the purposes that most of its users need it to work.

However, I have my own needs and my own desires, which I would imagine don’t mesh very well with the needs and desires of the typical BiaB user.

Now I get to the part of the blog where I nitpick over things that really bug me about this program.


The good news is the Band-in-a-Box is continually developed and improved, and major new releases come out almost annually. This is a very big deal, and one that makes me feel good about using the program.

As you might imagine, BiaB has a large cadre of loyal users who have been working with the program for most or all of its 23 years on the market. With any program of this sort, created by a small independent development company with only a couple of people doing the code writing, this all adds up to a curse. The code in BiaB is very old and has been added onto and patched endlessly. It started out as an Atari ST program, later moving to MS-DOS, then Windows, then at some point about ten years ago they made a very half-hearted port to Mac OS X. (it’s gotten a bit better on the Mac since then). Today they continue to develop the software for Windows and Mac OS X. The other curse is the users. Even though this program can do some amazing modern tricks, like creating arrangements with the Real Tracks using phrases played by real studio musicians, the program still looks and acts and feels more or less just like it did in the early 1990s. In the early 1990s, BiaB did not pay attention to many of the conventions and guidelines for user interface being promoted by the Microsoft Windows developer initiatives. Today, it still doesn’t. Let’s not mention Mac OS X just yet, but we will.

I’ve seen a lot of pieces of small-niche-market software over the years that have this problem: The program is an accretion of the cruft of 23 years, which makes it very hard for the program to be revised, revamped, or made modern. Furthermore, all those users who’ve been on board for 20 years like that cruft, they are accustomed to that cruft, and if the BiaB developers tried to modernize anything, the old user base would howl in protest.

However, I think it’s worth my pointing out some of the crufty problems, because as amazing as this program is, I fear it’s basically been left behind, and it’s so crufty that BiaB is going to have a hard time selling itself to new users in 2013.

When you start the program up, it looks like your modern computer is suddenly running Windows 95, and then you notice that the program’s user interface, in myriad ways, isn’t even up to Windows 95 standards.

Now I have mentioned before that the program today does many things that it could certainly not do in 1995, such as working with MIDI software instruments, the 10GB and more of Real Tracks you can get as add-ons or bundle deals, and the ability to output tracks of audio performances ready to take into a DAW for further work. Let me make one last protestation: this program does amazing and useful musical things and does them well. But I think there’s a lot that’s lacking from the perspective of a user in 2013.

Crufty Problems

Band-in-a-Box 2013 for Mac’s toolbars are ugly, crowded with features that I would guess few people use. Buttons and features look like they were tacked on one after another over decades, without anybody ever stepping back and saying “Man, maybe we should reorganize things this year.”

Click to see the whole image

More alarming is that there are many remaining menu items and dialog box items that refer to features that were deprecated many years ago and have nothing to do with the operation of the current 2013 version of the program. In BiaB 2013 for Macintosh, there are feature settings for a Roland Sound Canvas MIDI module (in hardware or software) for playing back musical instrument sounds. The problem is that BiaB has not shipped with a Roland Sound Canvas software module in many years. The current 2013 edition ships with an optional IK Multimedia SampleTank module from circa 2006, and there are no integrated features within BiaB to help the user hook up and work with the SampleTank sounds; if you go looking for them, you’ll find myriad settings for the Roland Sound Canvas software module (along with references to an obsolete Yamaha General MIDI specification) which is not there anymore. The program has tons of configuration settings for some 1990s technology it hasn’t used in many years (and which is not compatible with contemporary versions of Windows or Mac OS), and no configuration settings for the current sound playback system which is itself out of date by 7 years.

Some of these features are deprecated but the menu items are still in the program years later.
Some of these features are deprecated but the menu items are still in the program years later.

Today, in 2013, computer software programs that provide playback of music triggered by MIDI data do so with internal virtual instrument engines that are integrated into the software through VST or AU plugin support. It’s usually possible to edit the virtual instrument sounds and parameters directly in the host program. This is the case with products like Notion, Sibelius, Finale, Cubase, GarageBand, Logic, and many more. However, it’s 2013 and BiaB for Mac still doesn’t have VST or AU plugin support. On the Mac, one is only able to pass MIDI data out of BiaB and through the OS X IAC Driver pipe and into the aforementioned stand-alone version of IK Multimedia SampleTank. This is particularly awkward, inflexible, and poorly documented by BiaB to boot. If course through Mac OS X’s IAC pipe, it’s possible to configure connections to other virtual instruments (although not standard VST or AU plugins, in the absence of a stand-alone host shell), but again, this kind of patchwork approach just shows how out-of-date and user-unfriendly BiaB is in crucial areas.

Leaving that issue behind, working with the myriad parameters for dealing with variations in musical styles is a mess. All the menus and dialog boxes in the program are ugly and poorly organized. I have to cut BiaB some slack here: this program has a huge range of parameters that do rather non-intuitive things, are hard to figure out how to use correctly, yet result in creating some marvelous and magical algorithmic music composition. I just wish it didn’t have to look so ugly and haphazard.

Click to see the whole image
Click to see the whole image
Click to see the whole image
Click to see the whole image

And there are so many things about using this program that have always been odd and off-putting. For instance, when you enter chord progressions into its “grid” or “spreadsheet” of a skeleton song layout, there’s a field where you type abbreviations for chord names. An abbreviation can take several characters, like “f#dim7”. Well, suppose you make a mistake while typing in one character of a chord name, and you hit the backspace key. You would expect the cursor to go back one character for each time you hit the backspace key, because the backspace key works in this fashion in every other computer program you’ve ever used in your life, on any computer platform you’ve ever worked in. But no, in BiaB for Mac, hitting the backspace key results in the entire string of characters being obliterated and your having to start typing the name of the chord over from scratch. That would have been weird in 1990, and it’s weird today.

I really want to take them to task on how they’ve implemented simple things like where the files go and where documents get saved. On BiaB for Ma, if you create a new document and go to save it, you are prompted to save the document in the BiaB folder in the Applications folder on your Mac! That’s a cardinal sin. Everybody knows that no user documents should ever be saved in the Applications folder. Documents should only be saved in the user’s home folder in either the Documents folder or the Desktop folder. It’s always been that way. It’s never been any different. Now I wonder what happens when you try to save a file on Windows.

Where to save a user document by default is very important, because it has to do with things like reliably backing up user data, and file system indexing and searching. Stow a bunch of user documents in the wrong place, and they are likely never to be backed up or indexed by the automated processes in the operating system that take care of those things for the user. If a user’s hard drive were to fail, a repair technician would not go looking in the Applications folder for data to recover for the unlucky user, and a years of important musical work could get lost.

I’m not up to date on all the details, but it’s obvious that BiaB for Mac does not take into account any of Apple’s latest developer guidelines and requirements about code signing and sandboxing, not to mention guidlines they’ve had for many years about where and how to store user preferences and configurations. BiaB just dumps a bunch of text files into various sub-folders in the Applications folder, where they clearly do not belong, and at the very least should not be visible to the user; they should be bundled inside the application’s bundle and hidden from the default Finder view. Let’s just say that the program works in spite of this, but BiaB would not be eligible to be sold in the Mac App Store without a stem-to-stern reorganization of all these items.

I fear that BiaB equally snubs Microsoft’s current guidelines and requirements for Windows 8 and going forward. I see no evidence otherwise. And I fear that there are hundreds or thousands of BiaB users still on Windows XP who wouldn’t know the difference if their system crashed and nobody in the larger computing universe could figure out where to find the lost BiaB data and documents.

Back to working within the program. The main “grid” or “spreadsheet” where you put together a chord progression seems really daunting to me. It doesn’t look or act like what you would expect to see in a jazz lead sheet or any other kind of sheet music. There is no obvious, visible way to indicate or see beginning and end repeat systems, first and second endings, different sections like intro, verse, and chorus. Why can’t you just click on a measure and put a nice industry-standard begin or end repeat bracket symbol on it? Worst of all is the fact that if you’ve got many measures of chords already entered, I can’t find any way to insert a number of blank bars in the middle of something, or shift groups of bars around in a different order. In other words, if you are composing your own music, and you want to play around with an arrangement or a chord progression, BiaB makes it very hard to do this; to make changes, you may have to write your chord progression out on paper, trash the document you are working on, and start creating a whole new one from scratch.

I have not got the knack of how BiaB wants me to label and tag different measures for things like repeats, changing sections, different endings, intros and codas. There are contextual menus with commands, and there are dialog boxes, all of which ask you to do arcane things and type in strings of this or that. Once you do each operation, there is little if anything displayed on the “grid” itself to tell you what you have actually just done, and whether or not it’s going to take effect. Why can’t the program be revised so that all this can be done with standard music notation symbols, in a user interface that looks like sheet music? You can do this in many other music programs, like Finale or Sibelius (programs which obviously serve different functions) and it seems to me this would be a better way for a literate musician to be able to work with these elements of music.

What BiaB's grid view looks like. Where are the repeats and endings? Don't know. Click to see the whole image.
What BiaB’s grid view looks like. Where are the repeats and endings? Don’t know. Click to see the whole image.
What proper musical structure looks like, and how it would be laid out in Finale or Sibelius. Click to see the whole image
What proper musical structure looks like, and how it would be laid out in Finale or Sibelius. Click to see the whole image

BiaB cannot have multiple documents or songs open at once, and there is certainly no convenient way to copy chords or chord progressions from one document and insert them into another. And why does BiaB quit if an open document is closed? Who wants that? These are things that I would have expected the BiaB developers to address years ago, but they have not.

These are just a couple of examples of salient quirks; there are many more. Now let’s get back to generating a performance of a chord progression.

At this point, after trying to make some changes in an existing chord progression, generating new improvised versions of an accompaniment and playing them back becomes downright buggy. Some choices and changes in the form and structure of the piece that I had entered seem not to work, the MIDI playback becomes several measures out-of-sync with the grid display, and played-back arrangements sometimes stop abruptly before they are finished. When that happens, I find it’s quickest to trash the document and start over creating a new one. Not conducive to a confident user experience.

Let’s get back to MIDI

The BiaB people would probably counter that they lost interest in MIDI sound playback when they invested in the Real Tracks system, which sounds good in many situations (and less than good in many others). But after playing around with the Real Tracks, I decided to disable all that and go back to good old MIDI data. The reason is a bit complex:

I want to use BiaB to learn about how jazz music is played and arranged. It’s quite gratifying to start with a chord progression and build up the elements of a performance and arrangement and be able to analyze what’s been created. To do that, you need the MIDI data. When BiaB creates a very convincing-sounding performance using time- and pitch-stretched loops of real musical phrases played by musicians, it doesn’t create any music notation to go along with it. When you switch off the Real Tracks and ask it to compose MIDI data instead, then BiaB can display standard notation of the notes being played. It displays notation fairly intelligently, too. It will create complex tracks of strummed jazz guitar in myriads of MIDI notes, but it will display nice orderly quarter-note chords in its Notation display for me to study, so I can learn how to finger and arrange chords on my own guitar.

Notation, notation, notation

BiaB 2013 can display sheet music notation for all the musical parts it creates in an arrangement. Seeing the full musical notation of all this musical algorithmic wizardry is extremely educational to a journeyman musician like myself; it’s the main reason I purchased the program. But the implementation for music notation is only half-done, and leaves me feeling seriously unfulfilled.

As a music copyist who has worked with Sibelius a great deal, and Finale some, I know that music notation is a very complex and arcane art. Putting all those notes in a form and shape and layout that is conducive to musicians being able to read it easily is a formidible undertaking. Applications like Finale and Sibelius have conquered this problem and provide tremendous flexibility to the user in getting things just like the user wants them. Notation files can be saved and edited later; beyond working with the program you are in, data can be exported and exchanged between many notation and music software programs by a free and cross-platform document specification called MusicXML, which is currently owned and maintained by MakeMusic, Inc., the developers of Finale.

BiaB can display standard musical notation of its algorithmic compositions and arrangements, and properly notated at that. It is particularly amazing in that it can show tablature of guitar parts in a way that would actually make sense to a guitarist who wants to learn to play those arrangements. Seriously. There are many other software programs, including the previously lauded Finale and Sibelius, that cannot do this nearly as well as BiaB can.

But the frustrating drawback is that BiaB’s screen display and controls for adjusting the appearance and layout of the music notation is so awkward, inflexible, and buggy that you would not want to use BiaB’s score display to read from in a performance or rehearsal. It has printing features, but what it prints out is so poorly organized and laid out that you would have to flip through eight pages of hard copy to see the amount of music you could conveniently display on one page of carefully-laid out music in Finale or Sibelius or the like. This won’t do for performance in concert.

What would be a godsend would be if BiaB could export its saved arrangements as music notation in MusicXML format, so that I could take these amazing arrangements and export them. I could do further work on the scores in another software program that has better tools for formatting the physical appearance of sheet music: Finale or Sibelius. I could bring a BiaB arrangement in MusicXML into Sibelius, and get really good professional-quality arrangements to print out, or view on an iPad. There is currently no way to do this.

There is a freeware open-source music notation app called MuseScore that purports to be able to open a standard BiaB document and display a chart in music notation, and thence to convert it to MusicXML But what it actually can do falls far short of what you would think. MuseScore can only import and display the simple naked chord chart from a BiaB file. It cannot read any of the actual notes in the tracks of music that BiaB has created from the saved BiaB document.

Now BiaB can export a standard MIDI file, and you can import such a standard MIDI file into programs like MuseScore, Finale or Sibelius. But if you’ve ever tried to do this sort of thing, you know that what you get in your music notation program is not proper music notation at all. It’s the programs’ attempt to parse a ton of MIDI data and display it in notation, and the results are so very messy and inaccurate that there’s almost no point in the exercise.

Back in BiaB, it has generated a very musically sophisticated and realistic arrangement in MIDI data, and within the program, it can intelligently simplify the music notation display of that data in something that makes sense in standard music notation. But BiaB cannot format that notation into something useful and practical that you could print out and read at a gig, and there is no way to get this notation out of the program and into some other program like Finale or Sibelius that is much better at that sort of thing.

How I’m Using It Now

So what I’m having to do right now is this:

  • Realize a MIDI arrangement of a jazz standard in Band in a Box
  • Format and print out the musically-accurate but horribly-wonky-looking notation that BiaB can create
  • Manually key all that music into Sibelius to create a score that I can study and work with, which seems like a great deal of redundant effort
  • Take a Standard MIDI File output from BiaB and import it into Apple GarageBand to create a project where I can record my own rhythm guitar, singing and bass guitar to learn how to perform the song.

It would be totally amazing if a company like those of the developers of Finale or Sibelius could buy out or license the BiaB technology and put it right into their modern music creation and notation environments. But I have no reason to hope that they would want to do that, or see any advantage to having that functionality. And I doubt that the BiaB developers would want to hitch their wagon to somebody else’s company or development environment anyway. BiaB has been all by itself, doing its own thing, for a very long time, quirks and all.

BiaB does so many things amazingly well, yet frequently frustrates me. I suppose I should be grateful that such a program even exists, warts and all, and is surprisingly affordable, even though it’s such a pain to work with. Making music is a tremendously difficult and arduous undertaking, with a steep learning curve all the way. But it’s rewarding.

How many Baroque musicians does it take to change a light bulb?

How many Baroque musicians does it take to change a light bulb?

1) None. The historically-informed response would be to replace the light bulb with an equivalent number of tallow candles.

2) Only one, but he must wait for several decades of historical research on period-correct illumination techniques in old castles in Europe culminating in the publication of several doctoral theses by up-and-coming musicologists.

3) Only one, but she must consult with several experts on the proper method of holding the light bulb, overhand or underhand, and spend many hours practicing the proper twisting technique of the wrist, lest the operation come off looking like a contemporary light bulb-replacement and not a historically-informed one.

4) About five-hundred, while they hold an international summer festival on Baroque and Rococo illumination and lighting design, together with seminars, the presentation of scholarly papers, various chamber concerts featuring period lighting, and dance classes.

5) Only one, but he will forever be shunned from the early music community if he replaces it with a modern compact florescent bulb rather than the traditional and far-less-energy-efficient tungsten filament bulb.

6) Two: One to screw in the light bulb, but first, another one to restore the burned-out light bulb to its original configuration by steaming open the glass globe, recalibrating it to resonate at a slightly lower voltage, reducing the angle of the fluting, lowering the bridge, installing a sheep-gut filament, re-sealing it with hide glue, and removing the chinrest — wait, was I talking about a light bulb?

These jokes are entirely original with me, Wheat Williams, but let me say thanks to Kelsey Andrew Schilling for the inspiration.

Chapter the Fifth, in which Master Williams gets a wee bit Steampunk

Once again the armchair musicologist sallies forth.

From a blog post on the New York Times web site, I learned about a fascinating crowd-sourced project of the Bodleian Library at the University of Oxford in England. The project is called What’s the Score at the Bodleian?

It seems the library has a collection of over 4,000 different pieces of sheet music, virtually all for solo piano, published in the mid-Victorian era (circa 1865). They have never been cataloged until now. They’re asking the public to volunteer, view scans of the sheet music, and fill out characteristics of each piece for a database, to facilitate cataloging and studying the music and the history behind it.

Now in the era before radio and phonographs, people at home had to make their own entertainment. There was an insatiable market for solo piano pieces that were easy for amateur musicians to play. Obviously this meant buying a piece of sheet music and performing it on the home piano or pump organ. Nothing in this collection of the Bodleian Library’s is expected to yield any major music discoveries, on the merit of the material, but think about it: here is a trove of music that has most likely never been recorded, and never performed since the Victorian era.

After I logged in and cataloged two pieces, I got curious, and downloaded the JPEG images of one four-page score. It occurred to me that I had the tools to make a recording and present it to the world, so here goes.

The piece is called “The Favorite Galop” by one E. Vincent Smith, published by Howard & Co. in London, with no date visible anywhere.

[“Galop” is a quasi-dance rhythm that comes from the word “gallop”, and it influenced a popular compositional style at the time. The best-remembered example is Rossini’s overture from his opera William Tell, also known as the theme to the US television show The Lone Ranger.]

I can’t play piano worth anything, so I took the digital approach to Victorian music, hence the steampunk reference. On my Mac, I ran the JPEGs through Lemkesoft GraphicConverter to scale and convert them to a PDF. Then I processed the PDFs with Neuratron PhotoScore to perform OCR (optical character recognition) on the sheet music.  I had to do a considerable amount of hand-editing to correct inevitable mistakes in the OCR process. Next I took Photoscore’s output into Avid Sibelius, the world’s best music notation program, and did more cleaning up and editing for phrasing, dynamics and tempos, utilizing Sibelius’ tools for musical expression in score playback to create a less-mechanical feel. I used Modartt Pianoteq Play to play back the score, using one of their physical models of a 1922 Erard grand piano.

Now of course, all this took more time and produced inferior results than what could have been achieved by a good pianist simply sight-reading the piece and playing it on a MIDI keyboard connected to a sequencing program. But what the heck, I did it my way.

So here it is, the world premiere recording of a totally forgotten piece of music, “The Favorite Galop” by E. Vincent Smith, from somewhere in the late 19th century, realised electronically by Wheat Williams, © 2012.

Here is the full score as a PDF for your reading pleasure (13MB download).

The Favorite Galop

I’ve been in contact with Martin Holmes, Curator of Music at the Bodleian. He has a really interesting project going on. Why not log in and participate?

My work for Christmas with the Georgia Boy Choir

Christmas with the Georgia Boy Choir, 2011

This season I did some music copyist work for the Georgia Boy Choir for their amazing Christmas concert at Peachtree Road United Methodist Church in Atlanta, December 16 and 17.

Director David R. White is also a solo singer, and with the orchestra and choir he wanted to close the concert by performing Alan Silvestri‘s “God Bless Us Every One” from the Disney movie A Christmas Carol (2009). The song was written for Andrea Bocelli, who belts out a high Cb at the end. David, being a fine singer but a mere mortal, needed the song in a lower key. He asked me to transpose the whole thing down for choir, orchestra, and soloist. So we bought the full set of orchestral parts, choir octavos, and conductor’s score from Hal Leonard.

David wrote his own modified arrangement for the the choral part. He gave the Hal Leonard scores to me. I replicated everything in the Sibelius music notation software program, making a few adjustments to the arrangement to accommodate the transposition and instrument ranges, and to reconcile the chord progressions between the conductor’s score,  two different published piano accompaniment arrangements, and David’s choral arrangement. I then printed up a new choral octavo, conductor’s score, and parts for the orchestra. It was a huge orchestration (on a Disney scale and budget); David performed it with a twenty-five piece orchestra and pipe organ accompaniment.

Two esteemed members of the professional orchestra told me that they all checked my charts and that they contained no errors and were easy to read. Mission accomplished.

David sang the piece, unamplified, with all of his choirs and the orchestra, the massive pipe organ, and the Bösendorfer Imperial Grand at Peachtree Road UMC. That’s his son Duane, a freshman at Covenant College, conducting in the picture above.

I can’t show you any of my scores, which will never get out of David White’s hands, because the piece is copyrighted by people who are not me and not David White. Let me state again, the Georgia Boy Choir purchased a full set of commercial, licensed scores for every part for every musician, so all copyright requirements were met, and the Georgia Boy Choir pays performance royalties as well.

Wheat sings Menotti’s opera “Amahl and the Night Visitors”

Please permit me to share with you what a great Christmas season I had. I haven’t sung a solo role in a stage production since I was in college in 1988, and I haven’t been in any kind of stage production since 1992, but this season I sang King Kaspar in Roswell Presbyterian‘s production of Gian-Carlo Menotti’s opera Amahl and the Night Visitors, with a full 23-piece professional orchestra. We performed two concerts, December 8 and 9, in front of a total paying audience of 1,100. It was a benefit for the Christian charity Music Mission Kiev in the Ukraine.

I got to work with the fabulous 26-year-old opera singer Shellee Wilson as Amahl’s Mother. I call her “the next Jessye Norman“. She’s headed to London for the next year. Ralph Griffin, a member of the church and the Board of Directors of the Atlanta Baroque Orchestra, is a retired professional operatic bass-baritone, and played King Balthazar. King Melchoir was played by Roswell Pres. music director Bruce Graham‘s son Andrew, who has a master’s in choral conducting and is a high-school choir director. Amahl was played by 13-year-old Sarah Clements, who amazingly is as much of a classical ballet dancer as she is a singer and actress. It was a professional-calibre production and the best production of Amahl you could ever hope to see in a church in this town.

I’m happy to say that vocally I held my own with the pros. We had eight weeks of two nights a week of rehearsals, which is a lot, but I took advantage of it, and got my comedic timing down well. I didn’t know if I could pull it off and make people laugh, but guess what, I did.

I’m at the age where career professional opera tenors are retiring. I have no illusions about getting many more opportunities like this one, let alone making any money at it, but it’s gratifying. Circumstances made it difficult for me to devote much energy to singing for many years. Only in the last three years have I been able to get serious about it again, and it feels good.

Photographs are by professional photographer Stanley Leary, and he holds the copyright. Prints may be purchased at this link at

“One moonstone to make you sleep.”
“Choirs of angels hover over his roof and sing him to sleep.”
“Yes, good woman. Let him come with us. We’ll take good care of him.”

Most unfortunately the photographer did not shoot any pictures of me cupping my hand to my ear and saying “Eh?”.

Merry Christmas.

I’m helping teach a class at Summer NAMM on Saturday

Hi all.

I’m at the Nashville Convention Center (Tennessee) for the Summer NAMM convention (National Association of Music Merchants). This is where musical instrument store owners and purchasing agents meet all the companies that sell musical instruments, recording studio equipment, sheet music–pretty much everything you can buy at your local Sam Ash or Guitar Center–and they meet with the representatives from all the companies that make the instruments–Roland, Yamaha, Casio, Gibson, Martin, Taylor, and everybody else. They try out the new models being released this year, and they place orders for products to sell in their stores.

Saturday is open to the general public (tickets cost around $25). My boss Doug Roberts of Roberts Creative Systems is teaching classes in a computer classroom with 20 MacBook Pros. I’m one of his assistants. His classes are in beginning home and studio recording with GarageBand, Logic and what have you. At 3:00 pm on Saturday, he’s teaching a class on music apps for the iPad, and he’s asked me to give a short presentation on apps for reading sheet music on the iPad–to use the iPad in place of, or as an augmentation to, your usual sheet music folder or stack of scores, fake books and folios. I’ve done a lot of research in this area.

More info later.

Cheap Impostor, a great desktop publishing utility

Cheap Impostor 3.2.2
Cheap Impostor 3.2.2

Recently I took it upon myself to develop a new concert program design for the Atlanta Baroque Orchestra. They needed something fresh because they had used the same design, done in Microsoft Word, for six years of concerts.

I engaged graphic designer Beth Beaver, who did a great job working from my suggestions and using some Baroque and Renaissance woodcuts I selected from books of reprints of old art. Beth’s new design has the appropriate “Early Music” look and feel, while being highly legible and readable, using the best modern principles of layout and typography. We worked in Adobe InDesign CS5.

The Atlanta Baroque Orchestra’s printed concert programs are US Letter size (8 1/2 by 11 inches, or 21.6 cm x 28 cm for those of you outside the United States of America), folded and stapled, and they are 8 pages or sometimes 12.

We have them printed by a professional print shop that donates their services. They print on-demand, double-sided on Tabloid paper (11 by 17 inches, or 28 cm by 43.2 cm) which are folded and stapled to make a book that is US Letter size in finished form.

The print shop requires that we submit a PDF file formatted for Tabloid size and imposed, completely ready to be printed on a laser printer, without the print shop having to do any editing. When I say imposed, that means that the order of the US Letter-sized pages presented within the Tabloid pages is re-ordered for printing double-sided and folding, to make a book. The pages have to be in a different configuration and page order from that of the order of the US Letter pages created in the desktop publishing program.

It turns out that Adobe InDesign CS5 is not entirely capable of doing this within itself. When I learned this, I went looking for a solution, and I found one, a Mac-only utility called Cheap Impostor, which costs $35.

Cheap Impostor
Cheap Impostor modifies PDF layouts for book printing

Cheap Impostor is billed as a program for individuals to print booklets of their documents on their home printers. However, for our purposes, it provides a professional printing solution as well.

Adobe InDesign CS5 can output regularly-paged PDFs, and it can also print out an imposed booklet to paper, but it does not permit the user to save an imposed booklet as a PDF file. I suppose they want you to purchase Adobe Acrobat for that purpose. But Adobe Acrobat costs hundreds of dollars. Then there are professional “pre-flight” PDF imposition programs, which provide considerable flexibility for all kinds of printing situations, but cost hundreds or even thousands of dollars. Cheap Impostor, on the other hand, does what we need for only $35, providing a perfect work-around for InDesign’s deliberate limitation. Our needs are simple, and we only print a few hundred programs a few times a year, so the pro software is way out of our league.

We create the concert programs at US Letter size in Adobe InDesign CS5, output a PDF, open the PDF in Cheap Impostor, and with only a couple of clicks, have it impose 2-up, double-sided onto Tabloid paper (11″ x 17″), output as another PDF file. The print shop takes the PDF output from Cheap Impostor and prints up 8- or 12-page folded and stapled concert programs. The professional printers are happy and so are we.

Bravo, Cheap Impostor! It’s a useful addition to any Mac-based graphic designer’s toolkit.

How Sheet Music can change: Going from the printed page to a tablet computer like the iPad

For a long time I’ve wanted to be liberated from “sheet music” on paper. I want a computer device that can show me only exactly what I need at the moment for ensemble sight-reading, rehearsal, and performance, without all the drawbacks of printed paper. There are myriad potential advantages; I’ll bring up some of them here. I want to concentrate on how a musician actually sight-reads and what they need to see, and removing the distractions of what they don’t need to see.

I want all my music notation in a device like an iPad which I can mount on a music stand or hold in my hand in the case of singing in a choir. So somebody needs to develop apps for tablet computers that facilitate this: there are many under development.

What we don’t need at all is something that displays PDF files, because ultimately PDF files are formatted like printed pages, with a height and width, with margins and page breaks. You may not have thought this through, but those concepts would be anathema to reading music notation on an electronic display device, and I’ll explain why.

Figure 1. The traditional page layout
Figure 1. The traditional page layout


Formatting a music notation document for printing on a page, such as US Letter or A4, is not going to cut it for viewing on a tablet device. We need some sort of way to easily reformat an existing score with page dimensions into something that a person can easily read on a tablet device, with a foot-controlled mechanism for advancing to the display of the next bars, ideally some sort of wireless Bluetooth foot pedal. Note that I did not use the term “page turn”; I’ll get to that later.

Kindles and iPads are really popular, but I read tons of content I purchase from the Amazon Kindle store on my 2nd generation iPod touch with its 480 x 320 resolution screen which is only about 3 inches by 2 inches (7.6 cm x 5 cm) in size. I’m very comfortable with this for the simple reason that I understand that in reading text and nothing else (with no multi-tasking going on) it is a fact that the human eye and brain don’t look at a whole page at a time. The reality is something quite different: the human eye and brain only look at groups of about three words in a single glance. So if you have a mechanism for scrolling the text easily, there’s absolutely no need to have a display of a whole page if you are only dealing with text and no illustrations or diagrams.

The appeal of the Kindle is for people who don’t realize how the eye and the brain work in the first place and have a mistaken notion that they actually need to see a whole printed page on a screen large enough to display the whole page in one go. They have this mistaken notion because they’ve been holding books in their hands all their lives and they’ve never really thought through the process of how their eye and brain work. Obviously the reason that the page in the book is the size that it is, is because of the needs of printing paper, cutting it and binding it, and making something that fits well in the hand. An electronic reader device removes all these physical restrictions.

It’s my belief that as the public becomes accustomed to the new paradigm of reading a book on an electronic device, the screens on newer models of these devices will get smaller, until the Amazon Kindle of 2021 will be the size that the iPhone is now.

Note that I’m talking about a device strictly dedicated to the purpose of reading a book that is all text with no illustrations or charts or diagrams. I’m not talking about a device that works like a desktop computer in which you want to have separate windows open and visible simultaneously, such as one window for your email, one window for your calendar, one window for your Web browser, one window for your word processor, one window for your real-time stock market ticker feed. For that, I have a desktop rig with two large wide-screen monitors that total 3360 x 1080 pixels, so I can do many things at once and have them all visible. But for reading a book that is purely text, with no distractions, my older-generation iPod touch at 480 x 320 is not only adequate, it’s ideal for me.

Now reading music in rehearsal and performance is different. In some cases you are only reading one staff, your own part, but in some cases you are reading an open score, where you need to see many staves in a whole system in parallel across the vertical dimension, if you are a conductor or choral accompanist. And as a chorister, I actually want to see the whole SATB-plus-piano-reduction-system at once, because I rely on seeing and hearing the other folks’ parts so I can find the pitch for my next entrance. Orchestral instrumentalists are accustomed to seeing a “part extraction”, only one staff and only one part, and seeing a notation symbol like a 31-bar gathered rest, and sitting through those 31 empty bars with no visual indication of what is going on in the parts playing all around them. But choristers can’t abide by that kind of notation–I know I can’t.

I hope that tablet device music notation reading applications free us from the whole concept of the “sheet” or “page” altogether. If you only need to read your own one-staff or two-stave musical line, (maybe with chord symbols on top) you should be able to toggle off all the other stuff on the page and just scroll or flip along on your part alone. There should be no need to see more than one system at a time on the display screen (no multiple systems per page) and again you should be able to turn that off, so you can zoom in on just the staff line or arbitrary system grouping of staves that you actually want to see at that instant.

Let’s look at the cognitive aspect of reading sheet music–what actually happens with your eye and brain.

When people are taught in school how to sight-read sheet music, they are encouraged to practice reading one or two measures ahead of the measure they are actually playing or singing. In other words, you learn to develop and use a mental “real-time input buffer” so that at the instant you are playing one note or chord, your eye is actually focused on the note or chord one or two measures ahead of the one you are playing. As the seconds roll by, while you play note after note, your eyes scroll across the system, and you view and anticipate what is to be played in the ensuing seconds, so on and so forth, moving forward in real time. Ideally you develop the ability to turn the page two bars before the last note in the last bar on the last system of the page, so you can see what notes you will be required to play in the first bar at the top of the next page. It’s a bad idea to wait until you play the last note on the page, and then try to snap the page turn instantly and land right on the first note of the next page. If you do that, you will probably flub the next phrase you need to play.

Hopefully you figure out every opportunity to look up from the score and look directly at the conductor, such as when you play a long held note or chord, or when you realize that your part has a four-measure rest before your next entrance. This is particularly crucial in genres like choral music where tempos change or speed up or slow down dramatically all the time, and the director of course determines this in real time, and may in fact improvise his tempo changes with each performance.

The point I am building to is this: A tablet device music notation reading system should abolish the concepts of pages, page dimensions, the system break and the page break altogether. A score played in such an app should always be in “Panorama” view and never in “Page” view, to use the metaphor used in the Sibelius music notation program.

Figure 1. The traditional page layout
Figure 1. A traditional PDF page layout, two systems on the page


A score should scroll side-to-side, with the next one or two bars ahead of the note being played being visible at all times, with never a “jump” across a “system break” or “page break” at all. And a capability like the “Focus on Staves” feature in Sibelius should always be available in any playback mode as well.


Figure 2. Panorama view in Sibelius.
Figure 2. Panorama view in Sibelius. Music scrolls left-to-right. There are no system breaks.
Figure 3. Using "Focus on Staves" to only see the Tenor line and piano reduction
Figure 3. Using "Focus on Staves" to only see the Tenor line and piano reduction

If the music notation computer document being loaded into the tablet application has formatting for pages of certain dimensions and aspect ratios, with system breaks and page breaks, the tablet application should ignore those and reformat the music on the fly. Alternately, a music notation creation program like Finale or Sibelius on the PC or Mac should have an option to output a second version of the formatted score with all the pagination and breaks removed, specifically for exporting to a tablet reading application.

I wish to remind you of a famous quote from Henry Ford, the creator of the Ford automobile. He was asked if he took what his customers desired into account in designing his products. He replied, “If I had asked my customers what they want, they would have told me ‘a faster horse.’ ” In other words, when he first started Ford Motor Company to make the Model-T, his potential customers had never seen or driven an automobile, so they couldn’t conceive of what a car was or why they could possibly want one. If asked to describe what they would like to buy in a mode of transportation, they would only think in terms of horses and carriages, not of automobiles.

Steve Jobs, and later Jonathan Ive, used exactly the same philosophy in developing the first Macintosh and the first iPod and iPhone. Apple explicitly does not use focus groups when coming up with new product categories or concepts. Instead they get visionary designers who can come up with something so unprecedented that consumers could not possibly even understand what the thing is or why they would want to use it until they actually hold the thing in their hands or sit down in front of it, at which point they say, “Aha! This is insanely great and I can’t live without it, even though I had no idea beforehand that I needed such a thing.” Well, nice work if you can get it, but that’s how product revolutions are born.

My point is that if you develop and deploy a device with a totally new paradigm in hardware and software to consumers, they might just catch on. On the other hand, you can take the conservative route and do like Amazon with the first-generation Kindle (with credit for prior art to Sony), and bet on the idea that consumers just won’t be able to deal with something at all unless it looks more or less exactly like a page in a printed paperback book, with more or less the same page layout, size, and aspect ratio. So far that’s working for Amazon.

But I contend that this page/size physical metaphor will not work for a music notation reader. Paper scores work fine; the only problem is the amount of stuff you have to carry around, and the page-turning problem. In order to convince a significant number of consumers to replace paper scores with an expensive electronic device, you have to provide something dramatically more user-friendly than paper scores. This means two things: removing the need for the player’s eyes to jump around over a large page, and removing the page-turn problem.

The player would benefit from the ability to focus their eyes on a fixed point or scan across a relatively small area horizontally only, never vertically, while the music scrolls horizontally, thus the reference to “Panorama view”.

I’ll leave you with two things to think about. First, how to handle the repeated section, first and second endings, da capo, dal segno, and coda?


Figure 4. Confusing notation we can live without
Figure 4. Confusing notation we can live without

These are all artifacts from the ink, paper and printing era, as they exist only to reduce the amount of work that the copyist/engraver needs to do to prepare the score, and to reduce the amount of paper needed to print the score. They have no benefit to the performer. They mightily increase the amount of thinking that the sight-reading performer has to contend with, increase the need for the eyes to flit hither and thither across the score, and increase the dreaded page-turn problem. They foster confusion and mistakes in rehearsal and performance. So my idea is that if you take a music notation document and open it up in a music reading app for a tablet device, that app should never display any repeats, da capo, dal segno, or coda notation. The application should simply expand the whole score as one continuous panorama with nary a need to go back any number of measures and re-play a section or visibly skip around anywhere. This especially goes for multiple verses of lyrics.


Figure 5. Multiple verse lyrics require repeat signs
Figure 5. Multiple verse lyrics require repeat signs

There should no longer be any need for “verse 1, verse 2, verse 3” displayed one under the other, under the same system of bars, with a repeat sign at the end of the verse.


Figure 6. Use Panorama side-scrolling and never use repeats
Figure 6. Instead, use Panorama side-scrolling and never use repeats

Second, how to handle the scrolling “real-time input buffer” situation? Can you set up a continuous scrolling marquee display at a certain speed, so the performer never has to tap on something to “turn a page”? I’m skeptical about this, because of the issue of tempo change, accelerando, deccelerando, ritardando, rallentando and the like from the director. It might be possible to have a foot switch array with multiple buttons to speed up or slow down scrolling, but that would be even more work for the performer, and if the scrolling display gets out of sync with the director, the performer will be lost. I suppose that a very elaborate system could be devised whereby every single performer in the ensemble has the same brand of tablet device and music notation display application, and the conductor controls and modulates the scrolling speed while all the performers’ tablet devices scroll the music notation in sync with the conductor’s tablet device. But that’s probably creating a technological train-wreck scenario if it breaks down or slips out of sync in a performance. So we may well need a display that shows a fixed number of bars that don’t move, until a performer taps a button or steps on a switch that flips ahead to the next static small group of bars.

I’d really like to get a discussion going on this post, so by all means, comment.