Creative Computing -Making Music
Article by Rick Leinecker, October 23, 2006

I started my working days as a musician. Many of you know me, and have heard me play and sing around Rockingham County. You also know that I have expertise in computers. For these reasons, the marriage of computers and music is very significant to me. Now I'd like to talk about how you can use your computer to unleash your musical creativity.

Expressing yourself musically is an act of self expression that very few people consider or pursue, and I encourage you to do so. It's not necessarily whether your compositions win Grammies or are played on the radio. It's that you express yourself, and possibly leave a legacy to your family.

I started writing music in the eighth grade, but it wasn't until I was a sophomore in college that I finished anything and heard it performed. I was new to the craft of music writing, so my first attempts were kind of rough.

The difficulties to writing music in those days were enormous. Before you put pen or pencil to paper, you had to spend time hearing the music in your head. Being able to do this takes a lot of training in classes known as Ear Training. It was quite a few years of training before I could effectively hear music in my head. Another challenge was writing the music so that it was legible for the performers. I remember getting special pens with permanent ink, using stencils, and using rulers to try to get as close to readable music as possible. Transcribing the music was hours and hours of tedious work. And modifications often meant a complete rewrite, especially for key changes.

Well today, it's not your daddy's music writing any more. It's easy, professional, and unbelievably supportive of the creative process. Many of the problems that I had went away with the phenomenal musical composition software that's available today. The score and parts print out just like published music. I can hear the music as I enter it, and if a note doesn't sound right I can easily change it. Also, to make a key change in a part or the entire composition is a menu choice, taking less than a minute instead of hours.

While the Ear Training is still important, it's not nearly as important since the computer functions much like my ability to hear the composition in my head. Part way through a melody, I press the play button to make sure what I've written is what I want.

I normally use the Finale 2006 program (codamusic.com) to write music. (Finale has a baby brother named Allegro that's very competent, too.) It requires that I enter each note separately. This approach makes it important to know music theory, or at the very least how melody and harmony function together. But other programs even take that necessity away. Another program I use is called Band in a Box (pgmusic.com). It let's you make a few choices and then creates an entire song for you. You can then adjust and tweak the song to your liking. So with Band in a Box you don't need to know anything about music theory.

Finale 2006 sounds like real instruments when it plays your music. Composition programs used to sound like toy music boxes when in playback mode. Not so any more. Finale 2006 sounds almost like the real thing. Some of my friends have heard recent compositions and asked where I got the musicians to make the recordings.

There's another very important step that's been taken care of. That's the editing, mixing, and production of a CD. In the old days I would have had a group of musicians in a practice room with microphones in precarious positions. Needless to say, those recordings weren't anywhere close to professional quality. Now, though, a single computer can record individual tracks one by one, and then mix them for an almost perfect recording. You can even adjust sections where a singer went flat or sharp.

I recently finished a large project in which I set fourteen poems to music. I used Finale 2006 to write the music. I played the music as I went along to make sure it sounded like what I wanted. For two songs, I used Band in a Box to create the accompaniment. I didn't use the exact accompaniment that Band in a Box created, but it was a good starting point for the final cut. When we recorded, Finale 2006 played the instrumental tracks while a singer laid down the vocal tracks. Finally, I used a program called Acid Pro (sonicfoundry.com) to mix and create the final CD tracks.

You can download and use evaluation copies of all of the software I've mentioned. So if you're unsure of whether you want to spend the money, go to the software publisher's Web site, download the evaluation software, and give it a try.

There you have it, now go and get creative.