Music · Typeset

Why I Love LilyPond: Introduction

Ever since I was in high school, I’ve used commercial engravers. And by that, I mean professional (paid) programs specifically for publishing sheet music. It started when my band teacher loaned me a copy of Finale 2002 to try out on my own. He told me if I liked it that I could buy it someday.

Luckily, I got into it, and all of a sudden I was curious about all the hard things of output. We played a big Schwantner piece that required multiple different time signatures, and I was fascinated with how to do that with Finale. It wasn’t pretty, but it managed to get the job done.

I composed music in varying meters, even tried to write un-metered music, just so I could figure out how to do it in Finale. On top of this, I was using Finale to compose. The short end of that is that it was detrimental to my own compositions.

At some point, I bought the full version, gave back the stuff to my band director, and started using it frequently to do, well, whatever I could. I got repeatedly frustrated with the “mechanics” of the program; the menus were hard to navigate, tweaks were always out of my reach, navigating the help was difficult, and on and on…

Eventually I would get frustrated, stop using it, come back to it to try to fix the problem, which would lead back to the same problem. Around one of my final(e) bouts with the blasted program I was starting out in college as a piano performance major. I ran into a fellow composer (who worked his day job in the music office) and he told me about Sibelius. I had heard about Sibelius, but not enough to know whether it was a great alternative. He told me it was.

He told me the way Sibelius worked was like glove, that a lot of Finale users have switched over because of how it works. He also told me about how beautiful everything looked with Sibelius. I believed him, so I took advantage of a promotional offer Sibelius had to “trade in” my copy of Finale.

I was hooked, and used it for most of the remainder of my time there. I even “typeset” a jury piece I played. I used it in my composition lessons for homework. The world found favor with me…

…I think.

Fast track to sometime during my Sophomore year: I’m running into more trouble with my programs. I was desperate. I was trying to typeset a piece of music for a music history course; it was historic madrigals. I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t get the music to look right. Not to mention, this problem was the tip of a more systemic issue I had be struggling with: these GUIs and interfaces worked for average jobs, but I need something that can do basically anything.

I’m online, and after about two hours of searching, I come across the word “LilyPond” in a review on some forum discussing the limitations of GUIs and programs like Finale and Sibelius. These guys were nuts, and talking about how “LilyPond is the music typesetting world’s best kept secret.” There was (and still is) no advertisement for it, but it was propagated by word of mouth. I went straight to downloading it, and then I read the Learning Manual. Crap.

I didn’t even pay attention to the fact that it was text based input. “What is this?!?” I thought. No matter, I figured I’d print out the learning manual and then get right to it. At the same time, I read the essay about “why” the world needs another piece of notation software. I saw there were clear differences between the output of “name your commercial engraver” and LilyPond. I saw that the output was superior to any other I’ve seen. I was an amateur at that point; though, I had seen a very clear difference between, let’s say, Dover reprints and G. Henle Verlag. All of this, however, was to no avail.

I failed to read the manual all the way through. I failed to grasp the basic concepts; indeed, I was too much in a rush to comprehend the syntax (which is so insanely simple and logical). I found myself going back to Sibelius, and giving up on the task of typesetting those madrigals.

I did find a liking to the typface’s “look” of LilyPond, and I found this cool program that was pretty much the same thing as Finale, just different. It’s called MuseScore. I started using that more often.

The thing about LilyPond, however, is that it has this magical touch on certain people. For me, it set a tiny seed of desire, longing even, to use it more steadily, and to get away from these commercial engravers. The most important complaint I had about commercial engravers was the price. I’m a poor-broke college student who can barely afford rent, let alone a major version upgrade every year to the tune of ~$100-150 at the most. That kind of change, for a piece of software I barely know how to navigate, never set well on my stomach.

So, over the course of many years, the desire grew, and grew, to the point where I am now, where I use it almost exclusively. I’ve even written a TheTicklishGuide to LilyPond which is almost auto-biographical in terms of where I got stuck and lost in the documentation, and what I needed to hear to make sense of what I was doing.

When I started using LilyPond, my usage was minimal, and it was mainly about defying the system. I didn’t want to spend money on any more commercial engravers, and I absolutely loathed Finale. This was free, and the opposite of Finale, and so I went with it.

But the more I spend time with LilyPond and similar paradigms (WYSIWYM), the more I find freedom in what I am doing. Every time I open up Frescobaldi (my favorite LilyPond editor) and start typing, I am thrilled to begin yet another project that will teach me something about the time-honored engraving practices of the last 200 years, the mechanics of LilyPond itself (and its documentation), and the music I’m engraving.

So, over the next several blogposts, I’ll address why I love LilyPond so much. To summarize, they are:

  1. Simplicity of Use
  2. Simplicity of Syntax
  3. Freedom
    1. Free (as in beer)
    2. Free (as in unencumbered)
    3. Free (as in freedom of knowledge, both in practice and in composition)
  4. Specialization
  5. Customization

There have been some before me who have attempted to document the differences between LilyPond and Finale/Sibelius/whatever, and though I am interested in doing that, doing that is not what I am particularly interested in expounded in this series. I will say, though, that I am starting up a project to re-engrave the Rachmaninoff 3rd Piano Concerto (Op. 30). I caught a fire re-engraving a piano prelude of his, and now, I want to make my favorite piano concerto follow suit.

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