by Michael Kaulkin
Like many music educators, I frequently attempt to create my own teaching materials to suit the specific needs of my students. As a composer, I am used to using Sibelius software for this, and it meets most of my requirements, but it can be tricky to figure out how to do some of the basic things that we would want in a classroom, and it doesn’t integrate well with word processing.
In fact, two very basic requirements for creating teaching materials are not addressed at all by Sibelius: stick notation and keyboard diagrams. (Technically, you can do stick notation, but there are extra hoops to jump through.) I adore Sibelius, but it simply isn’t designed for this purpose.
So, steeped in my Sibelius world view, I only discovered recently that there are fonts designed specifically for music educators. It seems worthwhile to compare a few of them on the basis of price, features and ease of use. The three that I chose to look at are MusiSync, which is free; SingASign ($40) and MusicEd ($25). Each has its own set of strengths and weaknesses, and unfortunately not one of them is 100% satisfactory.
MusiSync is a free font available here and from many other online sources of free fonts. Its main advantage is that it is free, but it is limited in some ways, the most urgent of which (to me) is that it has a few time signatures represented, but, as far as I can tell, no way to build time signatures using any combination of numbers. So, if you want to illustrate something in a 7/8 meter, you’re out of luck. To be fair, most typical time signatures can be accomplished, but you have to memorize where they are – they’re not always so intuitive. For example, the letter “L” on the keyboard gives you “accel.” and shift-L gives you “3/2”. I don’t see much logic behind that.
MusiSync is free and probably ideal for situations where you might want to use a music character out of context or to present a simple rhythmic idea. The characters are clean and appealing. It is not ideal for most music education purposes. It does not include hand signs or keyboard diagrams. Time signatures and rhythms are somewhat limited, and the rhythm characters include noteheads, which I personally would prefer to do without unless there’s a staff.
SingASign is a much more powerful font aiming to address more directly the needs of Orff and Kodály teachers. It can be had from MacMusicFonts.com for $40. The font includes a full set of the hand signs that Kodály teachers are used to, including the chromatic ones. They are neatly arranged according to the “home key” positions that we learned when we studied touch typing. It’s unlikely that anyone would need to type hand signs at 90 words per minute, but the logic here is something to grab on to when trying to remember the keyboard layout.
Time signatures are also accomplished in a most flexible and logical way. Holding shift and a number inserts the top number of the time signature, and the number typed (without shift) after that is inserted below. A nice extra feature is that you can put a quarter note, half note or whole note as the bottom element instead of a number, which can be helpful when introducing time signatures.
SingASign uses keys to represent whole beats in various subdivisions. For example “H” is two stick eighth notes and shift-“H” is four sixteenth notes. “C” is three eight notes grouped together, and shift-“C” is six sixteenths, etc. The figures made available this way amount to a surprisingly unlimited palette for creating complex rhythms; however, there is no way to custom build rhythms from smaller elements.
All of the characters, including the hand signs, are elegantly drawn and easy to read, and a keyboard diagram showing C to C is created with one keystroke. Two things that are noticeably missing are clefs and quarter note triplets.
SingASign is a very powerful and useful font with little to hold against it. A more flexible solution for demonstrating the keyboard would be nice, but its main drawback is the $40 price tag. Designers may pay hundreds for just the right font, but music teachers will find this to be on the high side.
At $25.00, MusicEd, available from MusicTeacherTools.com, is perhaps the most powerful and reasonably priced music font. It may be of interest to NCAKE.org readers that the MusicEd font was developed by CSU East Bay Music Department Chair Rafael Hernandez.
MusicEd includes all of the features offered by SingASign, including some chromatic hand signs and very intuitive and flexible approaches to rhythms and time signatures. In this case, notes and rests of the same value are found on the same key: using Shift creates a rest of the same note value. As seen below, rhythms are achieved by combining characters representing fragments of rhythmic notation, meaning that absolutely any rhythm can be expressed (with one exception), and accents and ties are accommodated as well.
My favorite feature of MusicEd is that the approach to creating a keyboard diagram is the same as the approach to rhythms. There are characters representing the three variations of the white key, and one for the black key. Moreover, the Shift key produces a version of the key with a dot on it, which means you can create keyboards that are meaningful according your specific pedagogical goals.
One glaring missing feature in MusicEd is the ability to create triplets. The creators of the font acknowledge this in the FAQ on their web site. The explanation is that it was simply too difficult to accomplish without compromising all of the great flexibility in the other features.
Outside of the lack of triplets, my only quibble with MusicEd is that I’m not crazy about the way the characters look, including the rhythms and the hand signs. The end result in SingASign is much more pleasing to my eye. This, of course, is a matter of personal taste.
- Clean, clear characters
- Triplets are accommodated (eighth-note and quarter-note)
- No hand signs
- No keyboard diagrams
- Very limited time signatures
- Limited rhythmic figures
- Very extensive note value groupings
- Appealing, clear rhythm stick characters without noteheads
- Elegantly drawn hand signs logically arranged according to a comfortable touch typing position
- All chromatic hand signs represented
- Very nifty way of generating any possible time signature using the shift and number keys
- Includes a keyboard diagram
- Eighth note triplets are accommodated.
- Expensive at $40.00
- The keyboard diagram is a static octave; no ability to build custom keyboard diagrams
- No quarter note triplets
- Individual piano keys are represented, meaning you can build custom keyboard diagrams
- Reasonably priced at $25.00
- Very flexible system for building any kind of rhythm
- Similarly flexible system for building keyboard diagrams
- Logical keyboard layout. (A rest and a note of the same value are found on the same key, using Shift.)
- No ability to create triplets
- Somewhat clunky-looking characters for rhythm sticks and hand signs (I know, it’s a matter of taste.)