To the Point: Making Music with a Pen

(This page revised October 15, 2015)

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Stylus MagazineThis article is a revised and extended version of one that first appeared in the October/November 2005 issue of Stylus magazine.

Johann Sebastian Bach wrote his music with a goose quill. But you don’t have to, and you’d be silly to deal with the hassle of a quill when you can use a music pen instead. But what the heck is a music pen, anyway, and why would you want one? Especially if you don’t write music.

Recently, there’s been a lot of noise on Internet message boards about music nibs. People buy them (usually already installed in pens), and use them, and like them, but nobody has bothered to set out what a music nib really is.

So What Is A Music Nib?

In a word, a music nib is a stub. But it’s not just any stub, it’s a special stub designed for a particular kind of usage. To write music, you need a pen that can make thin vertical strokes for the stems and flags of the notes, and fat horizontal ones — for their heads — and can do it very fast. A stub is the obvious candidate; but to make it write music, you need to hold it a little differently than you might hold a pen when you’re writing text. Note especially the high angle of elevation and the way the pen is rotated in the hand so that its narrow stroke is vertical relative to the paper. (In this photo, the clip is aligned with the nib to make the rotation easier to see.)

Writing music with a music pen

It turns out that you need more than just a stub, especially if you’re thinking an ordinary modern stub. Most manufacturers these days make a stub by softening the under surface of the tip without considering what is happening to the other areas; and the result is all too frequently sharp corners and a sharp edge where the softened surface meets the flat top surface. Although most modern stub nibs are a bit softer than this, the illustration below is a fairly accurate (and rather frightening) representation of the stubs sold on one recent model.

Commercial stubA nib like this works wonderfully — if you are careful to hold it in perfect alignment to the paper, at just the right angle of elevation. But if you allow it to rotate even a little in your hand such that the writing pad lifts off the paper, you’re left with a sharp edge that digs in. The same thing happens if you hold your pen at a higher-than-usual angle of elevation. As the photo above shows, writing music puts you in just this latter position; and you’ll gouge the paper on practically any pushing stroke. A stub shaped more nearly like a vintage stub works much better because it is softer, with rounded corners and no sharp edge. Shown below is an idealized illustration of what a nib like this looks like.

Better stubYou can allow a nib like this to rotate a little, and you don’t need to be nearly so careful about its angle of elevation. It will still write very smoothly and easily. A few modern manufacturers offer nibs with this shape, but in some cases they’re called just plain italics. Even a stub like this, though, isn’t really suited for the way a pen needs to be handled for writing music. The solution is to soften it further and add a slight amount of flexibility, and when these modifications are done right the result is a music nib.

Music nibAs the illustration shows, a music nib is softened not only on the usual surfaces but also on the top, to ensure that there is no sharp edge anywhere. A nib this soft allows pushing strokes even when held at a high angle of elevation.

If you’re a Musician

Check out Don Fluckinger’s thoughts on music nibs.

If Don makes sense to you, grab your music nib and some manuscript paper and go for it. If you have no manuscript paper at hand, you can print your own using my downloadable PDF templates for Adobe Reader (or Preview on a Macintosh):

I recommend using a good-quality paper; cheap copier paper won’t work well because it tends to bleed or feather under heavy ink flow.
Get Adobe Reader

Click this button to download a free copy of Adobe Reader.

In addition to being smooth, music nibs also write very wetly so that they can support the hasty, almost scribbled, style musicians often use. It’s a common misconception that a music nib must have three tines; two slits make it easier to ensure a nice wet line, but they’re not required. The added flex I mentioned earlier allows you to press down on a pull stroke (left to right for a right-hander), thereby broadening the line even further to make those nice fat black note heads you see in printed music.

Now that you know what a music nib really is, you’ll find that the “music nibs” being made these days often don’t live up to their billing. Many of these nibs are stiff, some of them rigid enough to nail a house together with. Their tips are often crudely shaped and totally unsuited for writing music, and they frequently have serious flow issues. To find a good music nib, you’ll need to seek out vintage pens or contact a good nib worker.

So Where Are We Going Here?

Simple. While you might not be able to write music like J. S. Bach — there could only be one, after all — you can really make your pen sing with a proper music nib. The best part is that having a music nib doesn’t mean you have to write music with it. You can write anything you like, and you’ll find that a music nib gives you nice line variation and the sweetest, smoothest ride this side of a Cadillac Coupe de Ville.

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