MP3 Lives On

“MP3 is dead” missed the real, much better story

Marco Arment has perhaps the most lucid take on the “MP3 Is Dead!” articles that sites like Engadget and Gizmodo have done over the last few days. The truth is, the expiration of software patents regarding MP3 is a good thing. It doesn’t kill the format. If anything, the patent expiration will give the format new life.

From the article:

MP3 is very old, but it’s the same age as JPEG, which has also long since been surpassed in quality by newer formats. JPEG is still ubiquitous not because Engadget forgot to declare its death, but because it’s good enough and supported everywhere, making it the most pragmatic choice most of the time.

•••

MP3 is supported by everything, everywhere, and is now patent-free. There has never been another audio format as widely supported as MP3, it’s good enough for almost anything, and now, over twenty years since it took the world by storm, it’s finally free.

 

Regarding Shaped Notes

hymnal image with shaped notes on the page

If you’ve done any congregational singing among more traditional American churches, chances are you’ve run across something like this at some point:

ShapedNotes-01

Instead of customary note heads, every pitch has a unique shape. Ironically enough, a trained musician may find this system disconcerting because they may have never encountered this method of notation in any other setting. These note shapes are based on the seven basic scale degrees, and each shape represents one of those pitches.

ShapedNotes-02

seven shapes for seven basic pitches

A Little History

The seven shape system of notation is not very old and is usually credited to Jesse Aiken. In fact, many music manuals and notation software applications refer to these notes as Aiken Note Shapes. His 1846 book The Christian Minstrel brought shaped notes to spiritual music, and, while gaining little traction overseas, the seven-shape system became very popular in the United States — particularly in southern states. Four-shape notation can be traced a few years farther back but never gained the popularity of seven-shape notation.

In their original form, shaped notes were supposed to be self-sufficient. Aiken’s books would contain simple time signatures and no clefs or key signatures. Absolute pitch was considered unnecessary when singers could easily see the relative relationship between notes through Aiken’s system. (Remember that a capella singing was more prevalent in congregations of the 1800s than today.) Today, some hymnals use a hybrid system where absolute and relative notation is combined.

ShapeNotes-03

We Shall Overcome – traditional notation

ShapeNotes-04We Shall Overcome – Aiken notation with clefs/key signature

Lowell Mason — a name that is probably familiar to many Christian musicians — would later seek to eliminate shaped notes from Christian hymnals, but they were too firmly entrenched. Some northern hymnal publishers have abandoned shaped notes in favor of traditional European notation, but Aiken notation is still popular among southern hymnals.

Shaped Notes’ Worth

I’m not a fan of shaped notation. I find it a distraction from what I already know about music. On the other hand, another member of the congregation I attend swears by it. He has limited knowledge of modern music theory, but he can sight-read almost any song with Aiken notation. So when are shaped notes appropriate to use and teach?

  • If you’re teaching in a music curriculum, vocal or instrumental, I’d avoid shape notes altogether. Most choral music does not use them, and instrumentalists rely wholly on absolute pitch. The note shapes would provide no benefit.
  • Note shapes can be useful in teaching sight singing. In the 1950s, Gerorge H. Kyrne carried out a study that Aiken notation is more effective in teaching vocal sight-reading than traditional notation.
  • If you’re writing music for professional musicians or any instrumentalists, don’t use shaped notes. They will only distract from what these musicians already know.
  • If you’re writing music for congregational singing, shaped notes may be appropriate. Individual music publishers will often have the final call, but, if you are independently writing for a single congregation, check their hymnals and use the system to which they are accustomed.

Shaped notes are an interesting footnote in American music history. The Aiken notation system is one of the very few musical innovations unique to our hemisphere. While they remained limited to a specific musical culture, they enabled whole groups of people to experience and create music they might have otherwise been too daunted to try.

Why Use C-Flat?

excerpt from Haydn's String Quartet In E-flat Major Opus 33, No. 2

Note: I’ve noticed that this post looks just fine in most browsers, but Internet Explorer may have a hard time with the flat and sharp symbols in the text.

a music staff showing enharmonic equivalents

Not misfit notes…just misunderstood.

A Little Background

To understand why C♭ is such an odd note, you have to understand a little about musical pitches, and the best way to describe this is with a keyboard. On a piano keyboard, there are black keys and white keys. The white keys are usually whole steps apart, and they get names like A, B, C, D, and so forth until you get to G. The black keys exist at half steps between those white keys; notes like G♯ and D♭ exist on the black keys.

piano key board three octaves

Notice the space between E & F and B & C, however. There are no black keys between these notes – meaning they are already half steps apart. That means an F♭ is an E, and an E♯ is an F. C♭ is B and B♯ is C. (These are called enharmonic equivalents for those of you seeking to expand your vocabulary. They produce the same tone while written differently.) The question remains, however, that if these are essentially the same notes, why bother? Continue reading “Why Use C-Flat?”

Mus2

Mus2 is a fascinating piece of software, and it’s one I have strongly considered buying from time to time. It’s not the most feature-rich application I’ve looked at, but it functions within its limitations very well. It’s specifically targeting those who want to create microtonal music (think Turkish maqam and Indonesian gamelan music), and it has several unique features targeted directly at that task.

General Usability

Of the music notation software I’ve tried for the Mac, Mus2 is easily the most eye-catching. I spend my days working in graphic design, so an application’s icon and user interface can instantly bias my opinion of the overall quality of the software. I have to admit that most notation software elicits an initial negative reaction based on looks alone.

I even like how it handles highlighting notes.
I even like how it handles highlighting notes.

Mus2 is very uncluttered, the developer accomplishes this with context specific palettes that appear and disappear as needed. If you select Note Input in the sidebar, a specific set of supporting palettes appear. If you then select Dynamic, the note palettes disappear and new one take there place. This also affect cursor interaction with the score. It was odd at first because so many music notation applications take a kitchen-sink approach to their interfaces, but I found it works very well in most cases.

Palettes change depending on the selected tool.
Palettes change depending on the selected tool.

There were times when the palette system seemed a bit cumbersome. There are certain elements you might expect to be able to edit directly but cannot touch without having the proper tool selected first. The title is a good example of this. At a glance, it looks like you should be able to just double-click on the title to change it, but that doesn’t work. Clicking the Score Info icon doesn’t do anything. Instead you have to select the Text tool from the palette and then select the Floating Text tool in the sub-palette that appears. Then you can edit the title.

Once you get used to how Mus2 thinks, clicking through the required palettes becomes second nature. It has a very intentional workflow. If you like keyboard shortcuts, you can navigate through the palettes fairly quickly. It isn’t quite as easy as Sibelius’s number pad input, but it works pretty well, and I learned the keyboard shortcuts in Mus2 faster than some of the other programs I’ve tried.

Unique Features

Mus2 is built around microtonal and notation and supports free time note input, so it should come as no surprise that you’ll find some unique aspects about working in the application. One of the most obvious things is that it doesn’t constrain the number of notes you can place in a measure based on the assigned time signature. The measure will continue to grow to accommodate as many notes as you’d like.

Mus 2 does not constrain how many notes go in a measure.
Mus 2 does not constrain how many notes go in a measure.

The other big features revolve around microtonal composing. You will see a number of different accidentals that you don’t usually see in Western music. You can import your own vector files to create custom accidentals. You can obsessively tweak the tuning of every line on the staff as absolute pitches or relative pitches. Mus2 even supports microtonal MIDI recording through its own built-in MIDI interface.

Another nice touch to help you get started with Eastern and microtonal music is that Mus2 provides access to the SymbTr collection, which comprises more than 2000 Turkish maqam music scores. That alone is a great resource for learning about a style of music that may be unfamiliar to many of my readers. I spent hours just loading one file after another and listening through while watching the score.

Playback

Mus2 only features a limited number of playback instruments, and most of these are unique to Eastern music. You won’t find saxophone or cello here, but you will find instruments like Qanun and Bendir. Violin and piano are the only Western instruments available, which might seem like limitation if you are trying to use Mus2 for compositions and arrangements outside its scope.

The selection of instruments sounded very realistic, and they did a nice job playing back the music accurately.

Picking Nits

As much as Mus2 has going for it, the application does have a few quirks:

  • The application does not have a fullscreen mode on OS X.
  • Pinch-to-zoom does not work.
  • Scrolling in general seems very rough.
  • Menus occasionally begin duplicating commands until the menu goes off the screen.
  • There is no OS X Quick Look support.
  • Interacting with notes you’ve already input can be problematic. I can’t seem to find a way to adjust the pitch of a note after placing it on the staff.
  • Mus2 has almost no predefined key signatures. You will have to define any key signature you want to use in the Tuning dialog.

Coda

Mus2 has a bit of a learning curve if you are used to applications like Sibelius or Finale that put their features in numerous toolbars and ribbons. It may not be the best choice for creating your next symphony, but its features are essential if you’re wanting to work with microtonal music. It’s best suited for writing music for a solo or for a small ensemble.

At $60, it’s abilities to record and accurately play back microtonal pitches can easily make it worth the price of entry. Mus2 is not for everybody, but if its features sound compelling to you, it’s definitely an application worthy of your consideration.

Mus2 Product Page – Go here to learn more about Mus2, download a trial version, or purchase a copy.

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