Nov 3, 2014

No Music Font Industry?

You may know of my involvement with designing alternative music fonts for LilyPond. Ever since I was able to get these fonts to work, I have often wondered why there aren't more music notation fonts out there. The most common seem to be:
  • Maestro (Finale)
  • Petrucci (Finale)
  • Opus (Sibelius)
  • Helsinki (Sibelius)
  • Jazz & Swing (Sigler)
  • Sonata (Adobe)
  • Bravura (Steinberg)
There are definitely others out there, but as I've looked through the various notation software, most have one, maybe two, music fonts. There is an ocean of text fonts, but not for music fonts. Why is this? I can only speculate that it is because of a couple of reasons:
  1. No common character set standard (like Unicode or ASCII). Most music fonts have followed the mnemonic approach of Sonata, like putting the treble clef in the "&" character spot, the sharp accidental in the "#" character spot, etc. Recently, Steinberg's Daniel Spreadbury has been hard at work trying to change this and create a complete music glyph standard that will support nearly any conceivable notation element, ancient and modern. This standard is called the "Standard Music Font Layout" or SMuFL. If this catches on, it could open up the door to a host of designers.
  2. A relatively small user base. Let's face it, there are more people who are going to type up a document with words in it (I'll call them "typesetters") than there are people who are going to type up a document with music in it (I'll call them "engravers"). Since the proportion of engravers to typesetters is extremely small, there doesn't appear to be the same kind of demand for original music typefaces, so high quality designers don't spend much time in it.
  3. Typeface styles/Contextual Purpose. In text, there are so many variants and they all have their own usefulness (light, book, italic, bold, black, serif, sans-serif, monospace, etc.). However, music notation has a specific utility for conveying performance instructions to musicians. The music font (as well as the rest of the score) must be clear so that the musician can play it correctly. Musicians expect this and get quite frustrated when the music is not clear. Since notational elements already vary widely in weight and shape, it is hard to find a correlation to the very many text typeface variants. In that sense, and in my experience, music fonts are MUCH easier to design because there is pretty much just the one glyph set. The only variants to be found are the text-related ones like tuplet numbers. The two main font styles that seem to exist for music fonts are "engraved" and "handwritten". The handwritten fonts tend to be associated with a "jazzy" feel, and basically everything else gets the classic engraved look. 
Well, that's all I can think of for now. Maybe the industry will change, especially as there are more and more self-publishers who may seek a less generic look for their scores. In any case, creating music fonts for LilyPond has given me a chance to contribute to the small pool of high quality music font industry. Who knows where that will lead me?

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