Composing in the DAW vs. Dorico

A contrarian’s take: great keyboard skills are necessary to play music with technically intricate things going on, like ornamentation, runs or widely spaced chords. Such skills are necessary to articulate complex music meant to be playable on the piano or a solo instrument. Of course, they are also helpful for composers who rely on improvisation to develop initial material.

However, one only needs very average keyboard skills to write for orchestra. That’s because the orchestral paradigm depends on separately composing and distributing the distinct layers of music - melody, texture(s), bass - into registers and coloring them. The piano music paradigm is the complete opposite - it depends on merging these layers together (a) on single instrument and (b) between only two hands.

With this, it’s easy to see that composing for orchestra can be organized around either notation or the DAW. Either one can support the traditional process of starting with a (potentially primitive) melody/harmony sketch, then developing it into a more elaborate particella of these functionally specific layers of music; and eventually arriving at a fully orchestrated piece.

Dorico is becoming clearly superior here with sketch staves, reduce/explode functions, multiple selections, custom layouts and tabs. I’m using it in such a workflow and it’s a delight compared to pen and paper. (Yes, with several tabs open and large number of instruments and flows it’s excruciatingly slow, but hopefully this will be solved soon). I am convinced that if the greats were alive today they’d be overjoyed to have a tool like Dorico, and they would all use it.

But even so, the ultimate challenge is not in notation vs piano roll, it’s in the workflow itself. My example of workflow requires mental focus specifically on such functional layers, analytical thinking and discipline rather than notation per se. And it does take time.

The problem of modern TV/film music is a very different one - it’s the conflict between the limits of that medium and the skills needed to express emotion within them. Media music is not meant to be consumed like concert music. Its job is to amplify and reinforce, not to be the focus in itself. This leads to formal organization and melody getting toned down. The expressive power has to come from color and harmony. But the vast amount of practical knowledge developed in the last 150 years in orchestration and harmony is barely used because it takes too long to study and master. While orchestrating with sound design can sometimes fool the ear, it’s different with harmony - often we have to make do with the yawn-inducing primitivism of the simplest kind of early baroque harmony. But with sufficient repetition, it becomes its own aesthetic and that’s where we are.


Lots of threads in this thread :slight_smile:

On the keyboard, guitar (and indirectly, orchestration) skills thread:

I am offering the theory that there is more of an effect to writing with a keyboard than speed of entry. Good or bad, conscious or not.

In my own experience, pieces come out differently when I write using a guitar. Not that they could not have also come from a keyboard, but I think it is a mind thing (and to some extent a mechanics / tuning) that colors those pieces. Even as they most often turn into solo piano or orchestrated pieces for me.

On the impact of writing from notation:

Notation is like a portal that transports me to being behind a music stand in a certain orchestra pit, stage, concert, contest, pop or jazz group… There are smells and sounds and tactile feelings - faces of friends, talents, conductors; pieces I loved and hated…

… Baroque smaroque … It becomes a living place to me. Informed by college theory yes. But it triggers what I absorbed suffering through other section’s rehearsals, conductors, choirs, directors etc. Contest pieces, half remembered sight reading pieces, playing for singers, vamping forever…

I have studied orchestration, but those that I PLAYED (Tuba, Bari Sax, Bass, Clarinet however poorly on some) I know what it feels like. It is all there just behind the “ink”.

THAT’s what I get when I write with Dorico - and why things like fonts, colors and papers have a value for me beyond what is obviously practical. OK, I have “feelings” for them. Don’t judge :slight_smile: Maybe there could be a “broken stand mode” for that real authenticity.


Yes!!! I’ve often had that thought. Instead of DAWs adding Notation Editors and Notation software adding DAW-like capabilities, wouldn’t it be an ideal solution if DAW and Notation software could ‘share’ the same information. Make a change in the DAW, immediately see it reflected in the notation; update the notation, immediately see it in the DAW. Leave the very specialized capabilities of DAW and Notation to the respective experts. “Render unto Dorico the things that are Dorico’s, and unto DAW the things that are DAW’s.” I believe Pro Tools and Sibelius were striving for something of this nature, but it never quite panned out. So today we have very clunky notation editors within DAWs and rudimentary DAW capabilities within notation software. Seems like there’s a great opportunity (albeit with significant development challenges) here to better focus on the inherent strengths of each program rather than play catch-up within the other’s domain.


I’m an amateur composer, writing for orchestra and smaller chamber groups. Like many, I grew up playing an orchestral instrument, so I’ve been reading music for much of my life. All my music theory, harmony, counterpoint, orchestration and composition books cite examples in classical notation. I don’t compose media music, I don’t have deadlines, but I do have real musicians who are occasionally kind enough to play my music. My output is principally music scores, not sounds.

Which is all to say that Dorico is undoubtedly the right tool for me because it uses a language that I know intimately and has the ability to create the outputs I need. (I do also like that it can create some reasonably representative sound mock-ups.)


Holy poop, a lot of people have already given their thoughts… Here is what I think (for context: same situation as you. I study film and game scoring at Berklee):

If whichever project you are in uses “real” instruments exclusively, stick to your workflow. Much easier to write in Dorico then import the MIDI into whichever DAW you use (we also use Cubase here at Berklee, but I’m a rebel and hate using it, so I use Studio One instead). You can easily check your score if you have any thoughts on what is being played as you program it.

If your project uses mostly synth libraries I would stick to writing in the DAW first and THEN import the midi in Dorico to produce a score (if it’s even necessary). I find it time consuming to fiddle around in Kontakt when I’m inside Dorico.

I think that goes for almost any instrument in any notation software for libraires that aren’t supported natively.

That’s part of the reason people have flocked to NotePerformer… I hate the way it sounds, personally, but it deletes a lot of potential hassle with setting up playback templates, building expression maps, etc.