Sunday, February 1, 2015

When a Craft Dies - Music Engraving

If you think hand tool woodworking is on it's last leg, take a look at the profession of hand engraving sheet music.  Our craft is vibrant and alive in comparison.  Sadly, I think music engraving by hand is essentially dead.  While there are undoubtedly a handful of small companies who may do it this way, they are far out of the mainstream, and surely re-evaluating their current business model.  This craft is extinct enough that I found a photograph on the internet showing someone doing it only with the greatest of difficulty.

For centuries, music was printed from a metal sheet that was carved in reverse (mirror image).  The process of constructing this negative was known as music engraving, and it was done by hand.  This takes an unimaginable amount of skill, as the layout is of utmost importance.  Here is a video that shows the process.  If you are an old-tool geek like me, you'll love this one.
What I like best about this video is the part where he is laying out the different staves on a page using dividers.

Up until the 1990s, there were still some big music publishers still producing sheet music this way.  It just looks better than anything that can be done on a computer.

What happened?

I think it just became too expensive to do it the old-fashioned way.  If music composer Joe Schmoe could print out his composition from his computer instead of paying a skilled craftsman who-knows-what the going rate is for hand engraving some parts for an orchestra to play, he can get his music out there and played.

But that's not really it, is it.  Joe Schmoe always would have written out his parts with pen and ink to save money this way.

I think the publishing companies could save a buttload of money with a few technicians doing this digitally, as opposed to paying an army of highly skilled craftsmen to do it the old fashioned way.
A music engraver at work.  Photo courtesy
What did we gain with the inexpensive digitalization of music engraving?  Plenty:
  • Professional-ish looking parts could be printed at home by any amateur.
  • Editing a piece of music and getting it back to the performers quickly as opposed to leaving the typos in the printed music for decades, printing after printing.
  • Giving composers another tool to use to listen, compose, and print their music.  This is way, WAY easier to do now than ever it was by hand.
What did we lose?
  • Proper looking sheet music.
  • Essentially, the final proofing of a piece of sheet music is left to the performer. (Imagine if a novel was published this way!)

Don't get me wrong, I am an expert with a couple of these music programs such as Finale, but most musicians are not that interested in getting good at music engraving.  Usually people just want to get good enough at it that they can print something out, no matter what it looks like.

Growing up in the '80s, I could expect to look at a sheet of music and only have to figure out how to get what I saw on the page to sound like what it was supposed to.  Today, my community orchestra can not expect anything like the quality of music engraving of a decade or two ago.  Even professionally published music has gone down incredibly in quality.

As a performer, I should be able to expect to put a piece of music on the stand, and be able to play it without making photocopies, drawing lines, or interpreting what the composer "really wants."  I should be able to expect the printed page to not get in the way of what I am trying to play.

What does all of this mean to hand tool woodworking? 

I think this is an example of how fast technology can change an industry, for better or for worse.  Not all progress is positive.  Larry Williams says he thinks the art of making moulding planes was at its highest quality in the late 18th century, and every design tweak after that point was intended to make it easier to manufacture moulding planes.

I think that music engraving was practiced enough by hand that there still are plenty of experts such as the man in the video still around, but once they are gone, this craft will be lost.  If we as woodworkers do not want to teach our children to think IKEA furniture is the only furniture that technology can create, we need to keep making furniture the way we do.  Our alternative is superior, and it still makes sense to craft one at a time the way we do.

I do not think hand-tool woodworking is in immediate danger as music engraving is.  But what will it be like in a generation or two?  It could very easily disappear. 


  1. Hey Brian,
    Thanks for a very thoughtful and interesting post.
    Of course, it's not just engraving, but even the simple act of copying music by hand, that is disappearing. I studied with a composer, Brian Ferneyhough (who spent much of his career in Germany--small world!) whose handwritten scores are calligraphic marvels, just visually stunning. So, as a diligent student, I learned to produce manuscripts that looked almost as good as engraved music. That is now a completely useless skill, and I haven't copied a score by hand since 2006.
    As you say though, there are huge benefits to using notation software. The ability to insert a couple measures in the middle of a piece, for example, something that's trivial in Finale or Sibelius, but an enormous hassle in handwritten music. There are always things lost when new technology takes over, but I've reluctantly concluded that notation software is a net positive. Medieval manuscripts are beautiful, but I'm pretty thankful for the printing press! (Kindle I'm not so sure about)
    I do think that classical music and hand-tool woodworking are in quite different situations. Classical music seems likely to keep shrinking, as the audience gets smaller and older, and people are less willing to spend money on it. Hand tool woodworking, on the other hand, seems to be growing. Thirty years ago, it was basically impossible to find a decent, newly made hand tool; just look at all the great makers there are today!
    The difference is that one is suitable as hobby, the other not so much. A 40-year old who wants to learn to make furniture by hand can do it. It's pretty tough to learn to play the violin or compose if you didn't start when you were very young.
    Anyway, thanks for the post. It's pretty interesting to see how many woodworkers are musicians, and vise-versa.
    - Steve

    1. Hi Steve, thanks for the comment!

      I always appreciated people who could write parts out in pen and ink legibly. I first took a class in music theory in 1986, and part of the grade of each assignment was what our manuscripts looked like. I never quite got the knack. I think that is the reason I first got interested in Finale. Nowadays, I like Lilypond the best. I think it produces the most beautiful scores. I think it is interesting that their standard is to try to get their scores to look as good as early 20th century hand-engraved scores as possible. Many people think the interface is too hard to learn. I think there could be a point to that, but if you really want to get good at making music look nice with any of the programs, they are all equally hard to master, with Lilypond perhaps a bit easier in this regard.

      That's all a bit off topic. I agree that overall I think notation software probably is net positive, but I do wish I didn't have such a critical eye. When a piece of published music is on my stand, I don't think that I, as a hobbyist, should be able to correct the mistakes thinking that I could do a much better job with out too much effort.

      I am not so sure that classical music is on it's way out. You'll find a lot more people who play piano than do woodworking, for instance. But, I see your point.

      I also find it interesting to find other woodworkers who are musicians, but we don't have anything on engineers!

  2. Listening to a live orchestra is an experience totally different than listening to a CD; so it is worth paying for it.
    If one music is endangered, it is organ music. Usually the organ musicians don't own such a costly instrument and it is not movable. But the biggest problem is most of the organs are in churches where they maintenance is somewhat in competition with the maintenance of the building itself. The inadequate maintenance of the building can be catastrophic for the organ if the roof is leaking or if birds can come in. Of course the way the churches are maintened will differ in various States/Countries.
    If you like organ music go listen whenever there is a concert.

  3. Have a look here:
    Raphi Giangiulio made himself a serious organ mainly in wood.

    1. Hi Sylvain, thanks for the comment.

      I have always been fascinated with pipe organs. I am amazed that someone made one for their house!

      I once had an opportunity to do a solo recital in a church with a pipe organ that was tuned with perfect temperament. What a treat! At least as long was we were in the "neighborhood of C."

      I once got to visit the cathedral in Kansas City. It is a beautiful building with a good organ, too. The problem was the stained glass windows. They were falling apart at the time, and to fix them took up many times more than was available. I am not sure what happened there, it would be nice to know.