"Sotto Voce" version control for composers, Part 3, comparing and merging versions

By Bernie Zelitch

You may know the "Track Changes" feature in Microsoft Word. This highlights differences between the current document and another version from yourself or somebody else.

Music software has no built-in "Track Changes" equivalent. But within limits, music software's "layers" feature does a similar job. I will use Finale to illustrate. In this system, a change between versions would look like this snippet where I placed a yellow circle. In this case, the black notes show that the treble clef D and C changed to C and A.We were able to see the changes because we placed the compare-to version in red in layer 2. We changed stems to be up. The current version, in conventional black, was in layer 1. If there are no changes, we see red over black, which looks red. Where there are changes, the black stands out. Here is a look at isolated layers 1 and 2 in this example:

Here is how to set up this method so that the current work is in Layer 1 and the compare-to version is in Layer 2.

  1. Start, as you normally would, with the latest version, or any compare-to version, in layer 1.
  2. Click Edit / Select All.i
  3. Click Edit / Move/Copy Layers / Copy / Contents of Layer 1 into Layer 2. 
  4. In Document / Document Options / Layers / Settings For / Layer 1, make sure Freeze stems and ties is unchecked. Do the same for Layer 2.
  5. In Edit / Preferences / Display Colors, change Layer 2 color to red.

You will make your newest edits in Layer 1. You may need to click View / Select Layer / Layer 1.  If you see red from layer 2, set Document / Show Active Layer Only.

If at any time you want to track your changes, click Document / Show Active Layer Only. This toggles the view to show all layers, revealing your changes as illustrated in the first image.

This is often useful for the following:

  1. Collaboration. You send a version prepped with identical two layers. As sent, Document / Show Active Layer Only is set and the View is Layer 1. The collaborator tries to make manual changes wherever possible.
  2. Self-tracking. You are unsure of changes you are about to make. A prepped document with the pre-changed version allows you to revert any measure.

What happens when you need to compare the changes between two different documents? This would happen, for instance, when you mistakenly meant to edit the latest version but instead, edited a stale version. (See my article on how to prevent this). The copy/paste operation from an external file seems to always go to Layer 1 only. With that in mind, first put the "old" version in Layer 1, copy it to layer 2 as per above, then place the new layer 1 as appropriate.

You may have to be clever if the measures of the two different compare versions do not line up. That would happen if either added or deleted measures in different places. The obvious solution, inserting blank measures at appropriate layers, does not work. Once the layers are in place, inserting measures apply to all layers. Instead, you would need to edit blank measures in layers 1 or 2 in a separate document, then copy paste into the active document. Note that the copy process brings with it the layer as well. In other words, you can't expect to open layer 2 of the active document and paste layer 1 of another document.

Previous subjects: 

Subjects to follow:  

  • Sotto Voce version control for composers, Part 4, how often to save drafts, 11/18/19 
  • Sotto Voce version control for composers, Part 5, vendor software solutions, 11/25/19 

Bernie Zelitch is a choral composer and lyricist living in the Boston area. website email

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