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I just came across this terrific video of sample notation (of ABBA, no less!; here's the original) done with Bank Street Music Writer, a program released back in 1985 (!).

This is the earliest notation program I've been able to find. Was there an earlier program?

As a side question, is there a source anywhere discussing a history of music notation programs?

Edit: I know this question could also belong on a computing site, but I figured some of the older folks on here would have a more immediate answer.

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    The first music composed by a computer is generally agreed to be the en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Illiac_Suite from 1957. I don't know if there were any experiments with computer notation before that date. – user19146 Jul 28 '16 at 17:48
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There was a presentation at the 2016 MOLA (Major Orchestra Librarian's Association) conference: From http://mola-inc.org/article/2016-Conference-Agenda.pdf:

A BRIEF HISTORY OF MUSIC NOTATION TECHNOLOGIES AND THEIR IMPACT ON MUSICIANS

Daniel Spreadbury, Product Marketing Manager, Steinberg Media Technologies

Philip Rothman, Owner – NYC Music Services

Come and hear about the various technological breakthroughs that have enabled the performance of ever more sophisticated music since the 1960s, from the earliest computerized notation to digital scores performed from iPads, and everything in between. How has the development of new technologies changed the way music is performed, or indeed composed – for better or worse – and where could things go from here?

I don't know if this is publicly available anywhere (a video of at another presentation from the conference is on YouTube with the permission of the presenter), but both presenters have well-known blogs and I would expect they would give you a good response to a "serious" email inquiry.

http://www.philiprothman.com/contact.php

http://blog.steinberg.net/

The earliest musical composition by computer is generally agreed to be the Illiac Suite by Hillier and Isaacson in 1957, who published a book on their work in 1959, available here: https://archive.org/details/experimentalmusi00hill. Apparently (see page 77) the problem of producing human-readable staff notation was outside the scope of their project, but they considered converting a commercially available manually operated music typewriter to automatic control, using punched paper tape as in similar machines of the time like the Teletype.

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The generally accepted first computer scorewriter was SCORE, written by Leland Smith of Stanford University. Wikipedia dates its early development to 1967.

Composer Robert Morris published a short, engaging article on the history of music copying in his and his contemporaries lifetimes.1 In it, he traces the evolution of music copying beginning in the 1960s, when scores were primarily hand-written and professionally hand-engraved. In terms of professional work by composers and publishers, this remained generally true until the mid 1980s.

The earliest program to become widely available was the SCORE program by Leland Smith at Stanford. This involved a specification language for musical notation written in FORTRAN (also used to input music information into computer music systems), which controlled a pen plotting system ordinarily used to print out graphs and maps from a computer. One wrote input code to control the pen; these instructions were input on computer cards or on paper via Teletype terminals. The program was versatile and accurate, but required some dedication to master. (288; emphasis mine)

He notes an evolution as GUI-based computers became available and describes his own first use of electronic score-creation.

The first program I used to copy music was NoteWriter, developed by Keith Hamel in the late 1980s to be used on a Mac computer. It was basically a CAD (computer assisted design) program using music symbols. (288)

In its article on scorewriters, Wikipedia also traces their commercial origins to the 1980s, and singles out SCORE as finding some level of adoption among publishers. Wikipedia also includes a full article on the software itself, dating it to 1967.2

Another reference to SCORE as the first -- "earliest" -- scorewriter, comes from the University of California Santa Cruz.

The Granddaddy of Music Programs The earliest work on computer assisted notation was done by Leland C Smith at Stanford University (at the Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics, or CCRMA). Before precision computer printers were available, his SCORE program was creating complex music on an X-Y plotter. Music entry to SCORE was done on a teletype keyboard, and required an elaborate code for description of each element.

Leland continued to develop SCORE throughout his career, and it is now the standard program in use by the music publishing industry.3 It runs on PCs, and now features on screen graphic editing.


1 Robert Morris. "Calligraphy, Changes, Autonomy." Perspectives of New Music 52, no. 2 (2014): 284-96. Accessed December 16, 2020. doi:10.7757/persnewmusi.52.2.0284.

2 Wikipedia also includes a list of scorewriters, but without date information, and also seemingly without the earliest implementations. SCORE, for example, is not included.

3 This is likely no longer the case. Wikipedia's entry on SCORE indicates that SCORE has been "abandonware" since 2013 when its creator died.

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  • The information on the UCSC page you reference is very out of date, particularly the reference to SCORE being the standard program. – PiedPiper Dec 16 '20 at 9:18
  • @PiedPiper Do you know what music publishers are currently using? I'll update the post. – Aaron Dec 16 '20 at 9:25
  • As far as I know, Finale and Sibelius are the favorites. – PiedPiper Dec 16 '20 at 10:05
  • @PiedPiper Thanks for the tip. Turns out the software was abandoned in 2013. I've added a note to that effect, as well as additional information after finding a Wikipedia article on SCORE. – Aaron Dec 16 '20 at 10:21
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I spent some time with Music Construction Set on the Commodore 64, although it came out first in 1984 for the Apple II, according to Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Music_Construction_Set

The computer geek in me loved it, the musician not so much. The GUI was ahead of its time (on the C64 at least), but dragging and dropping notes with a joystick was slow work, and three voice polyphony was something of a limitation of course.

I guess there's bound to have been older, command based notation software, but I don't of any.

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The Fairlight CMI is older, and had the "Page R - Realtime Composer" feature, but this was composing more in terms of patterns than actually creating notation electronically and hearing the results.

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    "older" than what, the software in the question or in one of the other answers? This answer would be more useful if you could provide some dates, even an approximate year. – shoover Jul 28 '16 at 20:26
  • You can tell from the timestamp (though perhaps not always) that this answer was the first given, so "older" is in reference to the software in the question. A quick Internet search also shows that Fairlight CMI first appeared in 1979, 6 years before Bank Street Music Writer. – Richard Jul 29 '16 at 0:16
  • It was probably New England Digital who came up with the first commercial notation programme for their Synclavier, ca. 1984-1985. By that point they were evolving their synth (which also came onto the scene in the late '70s) into a full-fledged DAW. – user16935 Jul 29 '16 at 13:12

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