A brief history of music fonts

Computer software has been displaying musical symbols of various kinds since the 1960s, but the first font for musical symbols did not arrive until 1985, when Cleo Huggins designed Sonata for Adobe.1

Sonata mapped the musical symbols onto keys on the standard QWERTY keyboard, using some simple mnemonics (the treble G clef, for example, was mapped onto the & key, and the sharp sign onto #). Most music fonts developed since then, including Steve Peha’s Petrucci (the first music font for Finale, dating from 19882) and Jonathan Finn’s Opus (the first music font for Sibelius, dating from 1993), have followed Sonata’s layout.

However, since Sonata includes fewer than 200 glyphs, and even conventional music notation3 requires many more symbols than that, individual vendors have devised their own mappings for glyphs beyond Sonata’s initial set.

By 2013, for example, the Opus font family that is still Sibelius’s default font set contains no fewer than 18 fonts with more than 600 glyphs between them.

In 1998, Perry Roland of the University of Virginia drafted a proposal for a new range of musical symbols to be incorporated into the Unicode Standard4. This range of 220 characters was duly accepted into the Unicode Standard, and those symbols are found at code points U+1D100–U+1D1FF5. However, its repertoire of 220 symbols does not extend dramatically beyond the scope of the original 1985 version of Sonata, though it does add some symbols for mensural and Gregorian notation.

To date the only commercially available music font that uses the Unicode mapping is Adobe Sonata Std, and its repertoire is incomplete.

1. See http://www.identifont.com/show?12A
2. See http://www.finalemusic.com/blog/meet-steve-peha-creator-of-petrucci-finales-first-music-font/
3. A term coined by Donald Byrd, Senior Scientist and Adjunct Associate Professor of Informatics at Indiana University.
4. The original proposal is no longer available, but an archived version can be found at http://archive.is/PzkaT
5. See http://www.unicode.org/charts/PDF/U1D100.pdf