10 min read

Surface Tension

What you see and what you get.

For the past year and a half, ever since I started using iA Writer as my main writing tool, I’ve really gotten into using Markdown as a means of formatting documents, both for my website and elsewhere.

Markup, Markdown and Plain Text.

Markdown is a simple, clean, plain text format that is well suited to working with text on mobile platforms and speeds up one’s writing when using a desk/laptop. Plain text has the advantage of not being restricted to a particular platform or piece of software, is future friendly and the small file sizes make for quick and easy syncing between devices. 1


Markdown also has the added advantage of keeping you in touch with the structure of your document – an aspect that easily slips by when working solely with WYSIWYG editors. The principle of clearly understanding the structure of what you are writing as you write it makes a lot of sense in an age in which one’s texts may be read in a myriad of contexts. Karen McGrane, in her great breakdown of the topic: WYSIWTF, argues that WYSIWYG interfaces are relics from a print era in which the aim was to mimic the printed output as closely as possible. These systems work most of the time but when they inevitably break down, they break down badly. 2

In a world where we have infinite possible outputs for our content, it’s time to move beyond tools that rely on visual styling to convey semantic meaning. —Karen McGrane

The shift from viewing a text in markdown to seeing a preview of it has, for me, come to take the place that printing it out had in the old days. A subtle but distinct mental switch takes place that gives me a new way of relating to what I have just written. The availability of this, to some extent fresh set of eyes, has become a valuable part my workflow.

Surface and Structure

Markdown has also gotten me thinking about surface and structure in contexts not involving text. David Hockney in his book with Paul Joyce On Photography discusses Renaissance artists using optical equipment such as lenses as a help in achieving better qualities of depiction. At the beginning of these developments there were two main schools – the one insisting on an understanding of underlying structural elements, the other more focussed on surface. (With the great masters drawing on elements from both.) Our photographic age might in turn be seen as one in which the obsession with surface has reached a peak, software pushing a tip over into a renewed interest in structure. Cameras are no longer only an ‘eye’ – they have software ‘brains’ making sense of all the data input. On the other hand the the analysis of large amounts of data to create statistical pictures of what is going on on the internet, for example, reflects a weakening of understanding the world on the basis of cause and effect. With big data, statistics get the job done more effectively.

Writing texts for the web has forced us to think of the structure underlying them. With music notation there has been less of an impetus to think of the structure underlying the note heads we place on paper. Music notation is still very much bound to the print medium and even with its rapidly increasing digital dissemination and the use of tablets to view it, is still largely based on PDFs with implicit fixed page layouts. When it comes to (re)creating music notation with computers programs such as Finale and Sibelius take a WYSIWYG approach similar to traditional word processors – the screen reproduces the intended print output as faithfully as possible. Even more so than with word processing, surface and structure are so far removed from each other that WYS frequently leads to WTF.

Modern compositional practice however frequently throws into relief situations in which surface and structure diverge. Music notation might be one form of communicating the minimal structures of certain of Tom Johnson’s works, for example. Were it the case that musicians were equally at ease with reading numbers, these might just as well have been used. On the other hand notation might be used as a kind of camera ‘objectively’ recording musical events as they unfold regardless of their internal structure. Changes in tempo might, for example, be written out against a neutral grid in which the pulse remains the same. The ritardandi the audience hears don’t correspond to the conductor’s tempo. Surface and structure go their separate ways – a practice apparently still very much prevalent with the Darmstadt school and reminiscent of the the way in which recording technology functions. Recording devices, whether digital or analog, get the job done because they move ahead at precise set speeds, regardless of what it is they are recording. In this respect they are the aural equivalent of the camera. Notation is however not simply a ‘neutral’ recording device – it describes very particular aspects of our relation to sound.

When it comes to representing sound the waveform representations that are now a ubiquitous feature of our Digital Audio Workstations have radically changed our relation to it and placed an alternative tool at our fingertips. In Digital Audio Workstations: Notation And Engagement Reconsidered, a wonderful article on NewMusicBox, Daniel Siepmann explores how this alternative sheds new light on traditional music notation and what it has to offer. Besides opening up a discussion of the increasingly blurred line between sound and sight when it comes to waveform editing, the article highlights the ways in which waveforms and notation represent different, ultimately complimentary, aspects of sound. 3


I’ve never used Finale as a compositional tool, much preferring the malleability and flexibility of MIDI in Ableton (coupled with Max for Live) as my sketch pad. Preparing a score in Finale has for many years filled only the final step of my work flow. Prompted in part by my changed approach to texts, as described above, I felt it was time for a renewed relation with notation. To find better ways of integrating it into my workflow or otherwise perhaps consider dropping it altogether. To better understand it’s symbolic aspects. To think about how notation might reflect structure rather than using it as a neutral grid.

Hockney is very much concerned with how the body relates to space, arguing that the perspective principles implicit in viewing the world through a single lens place us outside the pictures we create. He is concerned with finding ways to depict space that place us inside it. I’ve created a number of pieces based on the speech melodies and rhythms of language, depictions of language if you like, and have been looking for ways in which to notate those shapes in a way that corresponds to their structure – The aim being to provide the musicians with a notation that enables them to play ‘from the inside’ rather than always having to relate to an external structure. Differences between the two approaches are made clear when comparing Peter Ablinger’s speech transcriptions with the score of Antjie in Berlin, for example.

Diving into the Lilypond

With all of the above in mind, and wondering how my newfound plain text workflows might be applied when creating music, I came across a wonderful article on the advantages of using plain text files in music. I had just begun exploring Lilypond, an open source notation software based on music input via plain text files, and was encouraged to push through with the learning curve it brought with it.

Notes are entered into Lilypond via text. The pitches follow the names we commonly give to them: a, b, c etc. and durations are indicated with numbers immediately following the pitch names. For example: c4 d e c | c d e c | e f g2 , to take a well know melody. Lilypond processes the text file and outputs music notation as we know it.

Using this basic procedure, scores of great complexity can be generated while at the same time maintining all the advantages of plain text files mentioned above: cross platform, versioning, future friendly, light and flexible. It also offers possibilities for integrating notation with compositional processes. Abjad, for example, is a program that wraps Lilypond in some further tools and clearly demonstrates how the structure of a piece of music might be reflected in the text files used to generate it. See, for example, their beak down of Ligeti’s Désordre on the basis of the DRY programming principle. Various tedious tasks can also be automated by directly programming LilyPond

Besides producing beautiful scores for print Lilypond also excels at generating music notation for and on the web. In addition to PDFs it can output SVG files which are, given their scalability, suitable for easy integration into websites. A wonderful example of this is Jeremy Keith’s The Session which makes use of ABC notation, a form of text notation for music similar to Lilypond’s. These formats are similar markdown in that it is possible for humans to ‘read’ the texts as they stand. In the case of The Session users can easily add melodies via this form of text input and SVG versions in traditional notation can be generated on the fly. Since Lilypond can be run on web servers similar possibilities are opened up for creating web apps such as Adam Spiers’ Scale Matcher or the LilyBin, an online notation generator. The Lilypond format is also supported by the Wikipedia with its integration into the MediaWiki .

I’m still very much at the beginning of the road when it comes to my Lilypond adventure but feel confident that this path has much to offer. I’m enjoying the overlap with my other interests – texts and web design – and looking forward to exploring the possibilities that are opening up.

An in-depth post on my experiences with setting up a Lilypond workflow will follow soon.

  1. In addition to iA Writer on the Mac Editorial has become my tool of choice when writing on the iPad. 

  2. This adds to the feeling of distance many feel from the technology the interact with on an everyday basis. One doesn’t understand why one’s document or computer is suddenly behaving weirdly.

    The best solution isn’t to build tools that hide that complexity from the user, that make them think that the styling they’re adding to the desktop site is the “real” version of the content. Instead, our goal should be to communicate the appropriate complexity of the interface, and help guide users to add the right structure and styling. —Karen McGrane

  3. MIDI, with its piano roll like representation providing another alternative less bound to the classical traditions of the west. 

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Rudiger Meyer is a composer interested in the play between traditional concert music and new media.