Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Behind Bars readthrough: Chapter 1: Stem thickness and Center line direction

Welcome back to the readthrough for Behind Bars. To get started, you can see the previous posts in the series:  Introduction and Staves, clefs and noteheads.

In this post, I cover stem thickness and single-note direction.


Thickness: Gould suggests that the stems should be thinner than a stave line, but not too thin. I believe that she is quoting Ted Ross here. However, the examples in Ross' book have (to modern eyes) quite thick stave lines. Perhaps the lines had to be scored thicker or deeper in order to stand up to the punching and smoothing process.

Stephen Powell in Music Engraving Today (Brichtmark, 2007) suggests that both stems and stave lines should be the same thickness, but to increase that thickness slightly as the size of the staff gets smaller. Sibelius puts the default thickness of both stave lines and stems at 0.1 spaces; Finale puts the default thickness of both stave lines and stems at .075 spaces.

Edward Tufte, the information display guru, suggests that stave lines are a form of "chartjunk," clutter that obscures the data in an information graphic. In Envisioning Information (Graphics Press, 1990), he recommends printing stave lines thinner and in gray. This has the effect of popping the notes off the page and making them very clear while maintaining the pitch information.

Comparison of stave line thickness
Variations in stave line thickness alter readability
To my eye, Ross' lines are too thick; they imprison the music rather than encourage easy reading. I find that Tufte's approach is very interesting, but may lack feasibility in the real world. The more delicate lines certainly have the effect of putting the notes dramatically frontmost, but care must be taken to ensure that the lines are not so light that they blend into the background or disappear altogether. Inferior reproduction and printing methods will tend to wash out the lines, rendering the music unreadable. Neither Sibelius nor Finale offers a method to easily make stave lines gray.

My recommendation is to stick with the middle ground – stems and stave lines should be the same size, or perhaps the stave lines could be a little thinner to push them into the background more. Experimentation will reveal a balance point somewhere, much like choosing lenses at an optometrist's. It's curious to note that Gould's examples all feature stems and stave lines that are exactly the same thickness, contravening her own recommendation.

Direction: For single notes, the standard convention: notes above the middle line have down-stems; below have up-stems. The middle line is where things get interesting.

Gould surprisingly recommends an option for the middle line: the direction of the stem is determined by the surrounding stems. If there's no clear-cut case for either direction, use a down-stem.

A selection of quotes on the matter:

Read (1969): "When the note is centered on the staff, ... the stem may go in either direction, although it is the more common practice to draw it down."

Stone (1980): "The old rule that the stem direction for notes on the middle line of the staff is governed by the majority of the other stems in the measure ... is rarely if ever followed any longer, at least not by today's professional engravers and autographers."

Ross (1987): "Some engravers consider the middle line neutral, and take the option of using either up- or down-stems for notes that fall on it. However, more up-to-date engraving no longer permits an option; now a down-stem is always appropriate"

Chlapik (1991): "Alle Noten, die unter der Mittellinie stehen werden hinauf-, ab dieser und darüber heruntergestrichen."/ "All notes below the middle line will be up-stemmed, on and above the middle line will be down-stemmed."

Powell (2007): "When there is one note and it is on the middle line of the staff or higher, the stem goes down."

So: why does Gould go back to the old style? I expect she feels that it just looks better: stemming the note with its neighbors assists with the flow of reading and maintains smooth phrasing. What prompted the shift away from this practice? Why is it so bad to have an up-stemmed middle line? None of my sources gives an explanation – does anyone know?

Next time: Stem length and tails!


Anonymous said...

I was a little struck by her suggestion that stems were to be thinner. I've always favored the opposite, stave lines thinner than stems, but not by much. I like the order of thickness to be (from thinnest to thickest) stave lines, stems, then barlines, with ledger lines near barline thickness (something I've observed when recreating some of the Henle Urtexts on my own).

Years ago, I use to have my stave lines quite thin, almost achieving the same result as the Tufte example you show—although, obviously not grey. When I look back on that music now, I'm not a fan AT ALL. It's way too much contrast, for my eyes.

OT—I've really enjoyed reading your posts. While I'm sure you're quite busy, I wish I could read more of them more frequently. There are so few music engraving sources on the web it seems, it's nice that there's someone out there connecting with others on this topic.



Matthew Maslanka said...

Hi there!

I'm glad you're enjoying the posts. Yes, I'm busy, but I'm also interested in exploring this material deeply. I'm working on making shorter chunks more regularly rather than hulking dissertations occasionally!

I'd be interested to see what your experiments in thin stave lines looked like -- can you post a link to a couple of PDF pages?

I certainly hear you about engraving on the web. Most discussion seems centered around making the software work rather than discussing the finer points of the craft. I look forward to hearing your thoughts in the future.

Harry said...

I've just managed to get my hands on a copy of 'behind bars' having come across it from your website. I am really enjoying your comparisons to other books and techniques. I'm going to have a look at a thinner staff line now . keep up the good work, looking forward to the next one.

Matthew Maslanka said...

Thanks for the kind words! I'm pretty slammed right now, but I'm aiming to get another post up soon. I'm glad you grabbed a copy of the book - It'll make it easier to follow along!

Harry said...

looking forward to the next one, thanks

Janek said...

> Gould suggests that the stems should be thinner than a stave line.

That's a ridiculous idea, because it makes them fall behind the staff. Thicker objects seem to be on top of thinner objects, so stems thinner than stafflines look like background.

> Stephen Powell suggests that both stems and stave lines should be the same thickness

That's another bad idea because it makes the score look like a grid. It is especially visible when it has a simple rhythm, for example mainly quarters.

> Edward Tufte recommends printing stave lines thinner and in gray.

If he recommends printing them as thin as they appear on the image, he must be crazy. When the staff is hardly visible, it's very difficult to read pitches, because eyes need some absolute reference mark. Other notes provide a relative reference mark (a note which is staff space lower is a third lower) and theoretically it should be possible to read the next note relative to the previous one, but the presence of a clear absolute reference like the staff helps very much.

Stems should be thicker than stafflines, but nut that as much as Tufte says.
How do you like this score?
(due to rasterization it looks not good on-screen, but it prints fine)

> Neither Sibelius nor Finale offers a method to easily make stave lines gray.

They really don't?? That's a shame...
If you ever need to change staff's color, try LilyPond. It's even possible to choose color individually for each staff line in LilyPond.

> What prompted the shift away from this practice?
> Why is it so bad to have an up-stemmed middle line?
> None of my sources gives an explanation – does anyone know?

I have - a risky one: when music was engraved by hand, the engraver had to make a conscious decision how and where to place each symbol, so everyhing was done as good as possible. When computers came into use, they automated some of the process, so that less consideration was given to each element; because of that many people overlooked some details or didn't bother to change them (since the program chose stem directions automatically, why put additional work in fine-tuning it's decision?). More and more scores had all middle line stems down and we get used to it.

What do you think?

Looking forward to reading more from you,

Rudi vB said...

I agree with Gould re thinner stem lines. I find the notes more readable when the stem is set to 0.0068" and the stave lines set to 0.008". The barlines at 0.014" distinguish them clearly from the stems.
The stave lines cannot be too thin lest the eye have no reference point when there are four or so ledger lines above the stave.
I agree with the point already made that the preference for mid-line stems down is purely a result of notation prgram defaults. It is possible to achieve more readable results with the stem going either way.

Harry Whalley said...

I would love to hear your views on different music fonts. their pros and cons, in different notations programs. ... I know its a sidestep from the behind bars book a little.. sorry!

bryla said...

Hey there! I just wanted to say that I really enjoy your blog. I bought a copy of Behind Bars this week after emptying amazon of notation/engraving books. I'm a newcomer to the game and I really like to consider all the details as these books and your valuable input on it gives me the opportunity to :)

bryla said...

btw: I've started to make all my staff-lines 2/3 of the stem thickness. It has really improved the image, and makes the musical information pop-up from the paper and the staves now only act as the background on which we read on and not something that is in competition with the other information for our attention.