Digital Engraving: a Fount of Inspiration


Oftentimes, the best things in life are simply stumbled upon. And these things usually present themselves in directly contrast – often in consequence to – an unfortunate series of events. Such was the case when a demo installation of Sibelius 7 seemed to break the music fonts in my installation of Finale.

That got me thinking about fonts. I thought about how the choice of font in a good book is usually noted at the back of it. How many times has this happened in a score? I haven’t seen it. There are house styles between publishers, but they aren’t noted, as though it were a detail as trivial as the stock of the paper and the size of the margins.

“Maybe it’s time to get serious about digital music fonts,” I thought. “It’s a worthwhile pursuit that will make your music that much better. It’s a part of your visual brand and mark of appeal, after all.” 

A bit of googling later, enter MuseGraph. It struck me as obvious: Digital font foundries are about as common in the design world as cat videos on youtube – why not music fonts? Sure, it’s a specialized area. But if you’re going to go all-in with digital scoring, glossing over one’s choice of font feels like a glaring omission of due process in retrospect. I am especially enamored of their Stockholm font. At first glance, it seems like it’s no different from Finale’s stock Maestro font. But like a side-by-side of Helvetica versus Helvetica Neue, the differences become striking on direct comparison. I expect to be using Stockholm on future scores.

Perhaps the coolest thing about MuseGraph at the moment is that they are acknowledging this surfeit of custom symbols by crowd-sourcing content. You can submit your own glyph here.

This being said, they are making the results free, but not open-sourcing it. I think this is fine, so long as the results remain free.

There are other ways to procure free fonts, for purposes both technical and aesthetic. For example, Faber house composer Matthew Hindson offers a bevy of choices for those hoping to elucidate on fingering for various instruments.

An excellent piece by R. Andrew Lee, via I Care if You Listen, illustrates the importance of giving digital engraving greater attention to detail.He notes that handwritten scores seem to only obfuscate legibility at first (surely), but he comes around to appreciating Ann Southam’s handiwork. It immediately brought to mind my own experience with analyzing John Beckwith’s work a few years ago. Beckwith’s ink-wrought lines humanized music that is otherwise resolutely chilly in its post-tonal learnings, to my ears.

Handwritten scores may well be the domain of contemporary composers for its ultimate notational flexibility, but it also bears the advantageous side-effect of humanizing and personalizing the score. In an age where Maestro-wielding digital natives rule the day, a score featuring an original digital font is a fresh piece of augenmusik in its own right. 

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