Some of the old-timers on this site might recognise the title’s startling similarity to the introductory article I wrote about LaTeX. I received some questions on how I created the music sheet in the previous post about my upcoming composition, Evan, and the answer is: with Lilypond.
As you’ve probably guessed already, Lilypond is a markup language, just like LaTeX. You don’t use a graphical user interface to insert your notes, rests, and whatnot, but instead just code it into a plain text file and convert it to a, let’s say PDF format when you’re ready to view it.
Music scores are complex. Much, much more complex than your word documents. You might have a good deal of fun formatting wizardry going around with LaTeX, but with music, you have notes, you have staffs, bars, stems, different symbols, different types of annotations, clusters, rests, expression markings, decoration (stuff like trills etc), and don’t even get me started on modern music. A score of a modern music piece is probably a piece of art in itself, my stemless notes, dotted barlines and lack of a time signature in my previous post being nothing compared to what’s out there. All of this has to be pieced together in a readable format, whilst still giving the composer flexibility to modify the score to put whatever they wants.
If anybody here has used the famous notation softwares out there such as Sibelius or Finale, it’s quick and easy to learn but a pain when you get to decently complex scores. You also quickly realise that the stuff you produce on there definitely looks nothing professional and mediocre at best. If you consider creating a score, for, let’s say an orchestral piece, you’d not want to continue using these traditional programs.
Take for example that score above. It’s of decent complexity and created using lilypond. Attempt something like that in other programs and you’d fail horribly.
Lilypond is like LaTeX. You tell it what your score will contain, and Lilypond will work out the best way to format it. That’s the best thing – it ensures readability, something vital in any score and a real pain to do manually. Here is a simple example, as a picture speaks a thousand words:
Lilypond is flexible. It allows you to notate very modern pieces with weird artifacts such as, in my own piece missing stems. Of course you may even have missing notes, or even stems that branch out or waving lines to symbolise a direction. (please, don’t just add these for the fun of it, you need to know why and when they should be used and more importantly how to use them)
It’s also fast. Don’t believe me if you want to, but I would honestly say that creating a score in Lilypond is faster than other software (well, LaTeX in my opinion is also faster than Word Processors). Not only can you chunk in notes as fast as you can possibly type them (and you get used to how to input notes very quickly), you can also use variables. If you have a repeating section of a piece, you can just assign it to a variable, just like in math you can say x = 5, and whenever you want to use that section, or in math, the number 5, you just dump the variable and it does it all automatically.
One other feature some might consider a plus point is that it can output the score in midi format. My personal view is that midi should be marked illegal and anybody who uses it be sent straight to prison, because it sounds like crap and effectively slaughters the beauty of the piece, but – well, it does it anyway if you tell it to.
It’s hard to fully appreciate the capabilities that Lilypond provides but I’d like to stress one: readability. Lilypond takes this very seriously. Just as music has evolved through the ages so has scorewriting, and Lilypond really adds that professional feel to whatever score you produce. If you create scores, I would recommend it.
All well and good, but how do I start using Lilypond?
Just like LaTeX it doesn’t matter if you’re on Windows, Mac or Linux. Lilypond works cross-platform and doesn’t charge a buck. First you’d want to hop over to their website, and proceed to the download page. Their website looks as though somebody ate the stylesheet, but nevertheless I can assure you that the program definitely has style. You’d then want to start reading the documentation.
You’d want to read that documentation carefully and ensure you understand what’s going on especially if you’re new to markup languages. Go through step by step – it contains many cross-links but I would recommend just doing it in the order it presents itself in. I cannot say the first score you ever produce with Lilypond will be up and running within 5 minutes, but you’ll get used to it, and when you do, you’ll be really glad you did.
Note (no pun intended): the images were shamelessly ripped off various parts of their site, but all with good promotional intention.