Noteflight as a DAW

The good people at Noteflight have started doing weekly challenges. I love constraint-based music prompts, like the ones in the Disquiet Junto, so I thought I would try this one: compose a piece of music using only four notes.

Noteflight weekly challenge

The music side of this wasn’t hard. My material tends not to use that many pitches anyway. If you really want to challenge me, tell me I can’t use any rhythmic subdivisions finer than a quarter note. Before you listen to my piece, though, let’s talk about this word, “compose.” When you write using notation, the presumption is that you’re creating a set of instructions for a human performer. However, actually getting your composition performed is a challenge, unless you have a band or ensemble at your disposal. I work in two music schools, and I would have a hard time making it happen. (When I have had my music performed, the musicians either used a prose score, learned by ear from a recording, or just improvised.) Noteflight’s target audience of kids in school are vanishingly unlikely to ever hear their work performed, or at least, performed well. Matt Mclean formed the Young Composers and Improvisers Workshop to address this problem, and he’s doing amazing work, but most Noteflight compositions will only ever exist within the computer.

Given this fact, I wanted to create a piece of music that would actually sound good when played back within Noteflight. This constraint turned out to be a significantly greater challenge than using four notes. I started with the Recycled Percussion instrument, and chose the notes B, E, F, and G, because they produce the coolest sounds. Then I layered in other sounds, chosen because they sound reasonably good. Here’s what I came up with:

Notation software was not originally intended to be a composition tool. The idea was that you’d do your composing on paper, and then transcribe your handwritten scores into the computer afterwards. All of the affordances of Finale, Sibelius and the like are informed by that assumption. For example, you have to enter the notes in each measure in order from left to right. If you’re copying from an existing score, that makes sense. If you’re composing, however, it’s a serious obstacle. I can’t speak for all composers, but I’m most likely to start at the end of the bar and work backwards. If I want to put a note on the last sixteenth note of the bar in the MIDI piano roll, I just click the mouse on that beat and I’m done. Notation software requires me to first calculate the combination of rests that’s fifteen sixteenth notes long. I’m told that Dorico has finally addressed this, and lets you place your notes wherever you want. Noteflight, however, follows the model of Finale and Sibelius.

I do most of my creative music making with Ableton Live, because it was designed for people who figure out ideas by ear as they go along. Live allows you to continually loop playback of your music while you work on it. This makes it very easy to work intuitively, because you get immediate auditory feedback whenever you make a change. Noteflight lets you loop playback too, but there are limitations. You can only loop individual bars, and there’s a bit of a pause at the beginning of each playthrough, which makes it hard to get into the flow. The biggest obstacle is that you can’t edit while the playback is running. You can write or you can listen, but not both at the same time. Maybe this is a limitation of web audio, but the native notation software that I’ve used works the same way.

As my composition grew in length and number of instruments, I started finding it difficult to keep track of the larger structure. If I zoomed all the way out and hid all the menus, I could almost fit the whole thing on my screen at once:

Noteflight score zoomed all the way out

If this looks like a chaotic mass of symbols to you, it does to me too. This is why I got to 32 measures and then stopped. The experience helps me appreciate a feature of Live and similar programs: the ability to consolidate and abstract sections of the music into color-coded chunks. Here’s how my piece looks in Live’s Arrange View. It gives you a much clearer sense of what’s going on:

Four Notes in Ableton Arrange View

You can color-code sections in Noteflight, too, but you can’t turn them into Lego-like chunks that you can move around at will. And there’s a subtler but equally important aspect of the way that Live works when you zoom in and out: the grid resolution automatically changes. In the screencap above, each grid line is one measure. If you zoom out, they appear every two measures, then every four. If you zoom in, the grid lines become half notes, then quarters, eighths, and so on. You can meaningfully edit at any time scale, from minutes to milliseconds. This is such a profound advance that it took me several years to learn to even appreciate it. Being able to attend to tiny nuances one second and large-scale form and structure the next is a power undreamt of by pre-computer composers. In Noteflight, you can only edit at the note level, and you have to just keep the large-scale form of the music in your head.

There is one way in which composing with Noteflight is easier than doing it in Live. The MIDI piano roll shows you all twelve pitch classes at all times. However, unless you’re Arnold Schoenberg, you usually don’t need or want that many. The default assumption of music notation is that you’re working in a diatonic scale, a seven-note subset of the full twelve. Notes within a given diatonic scale all sound good together, so if you limit yourself to the scale, you can’t really do anything wrong. For example, if you just mindlessly stack up notes in the staff, you get lovely chords. Also, while twelve different pitch classes is more than your working memory can keep track of at a time, seven is pretty manageable. This is one reason why performers can learn to effortlessly sight-read notation, whereas I’ve never heard of anyone who can sight-read MIDI.

It would be wonderful if you could tell Live that you only want a subset of the pitch classes to be visible in the piano roll. Live does offer you the ability to “fold” the piano roll to only show the pitches you’ve already used, and that’s super valuable. But you can’t fold an empty piano roll. Ableton recognizes the value of limiting you to specific scales–you can use MIDI effects to filter out unwanted notes, and you can play the Push controller in scale mode. But neither of those features is much help for composition on the screen.

I’ve criticized Noteflight a fair amount in this post, and I want to put that criticism in context. Noteflight is a brilliant product. The ability to do full-featured interactive notation editing in the browser is a miracle of technology. Having “Google Docs for music” has been a life changing event for a lot of music educators, including me. It’s blazingly awesome that I can just embed my score in this post for you to listen to. The Noteflight team knows that their product is a de facto production tool, and they’re continually rolling out new features that make it more DAW-like. The Recycled Percussion instrument is a case in point. Is there a percussionist out there who could read that part of my score? I doubt it, and it doesn’t matter anyway, because the Noteflight instrument sounds perfectly fine. Also, good luck finding a banjo player who reads notation.

Out there in popular culture, the distinction between composing, producing, performing, recording, mixing and editing have completely collapsed. Software makers are racing to accommodate this new reality. I wonder which we’ll get first: a notation editor that sounds as good as a DAW, or a DAW that supports harmonic thinking as well as a notation editor?