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How to Improve at Writing Music by Hand

writing sheet music

With the advent of the computer, most professional scores are written with notation software like Finale or Sibelius. But there are still plenty of times where a computer might be too clunky or difficult to use quickly while composing. In these situations, it is best to first sketch out your ideas using a pencil, then worry about the software later. However, if you expect anyone — your teacher, your band, or any ensemble — to read your handwritten music, it’s important to write clearly and legibly. Here are a few tips that can help create the best score possible. And be sure to check out these 10 tips to make sure all of your music — handwritten or digital — is easily read and interpreted.

Pencil First, Then Pen

Writing music (sometimes called “engraving” or “copying”) is an art, and like any art, it’s important to get the sketch down first. Always use a pencil when composing, as you’ll find yourself editing and changing things constantly. I recommend a light pencil and a kneaded eraser, so that you can keep the music clean. Don’t be afraid to obsess over details, either.

writing music by hand

When the time comes to write the final copy, use a pen. Pencils are difficult to read, they don’t photocopy well, and they just look unprofessional. Instead, I recommend using a thin felt tip or fountain pen instead of one with a ballpoint. These pens keep all marks consistent and don’t require any redrawing. You don’t want to use a bold marker, but ideally an oblique calligraphy pen that can draw both thick and thin lines is best, even though it can take time to master.

Letters and the Fundamentals

Handwriting your music is not an excuse to skimp on your lettering. You need to write as clearly as possible — don’t use cursive. Practice writing the phrases and markings you’d use in your score, and have someone else review them for you. If they have trouble understanding anything, you can bet your musicians will as well. All letters must be written as capitals, excepting only for dynamics markings, which are typically lowercase only.

When the time comes to actually write the notes down, be careful, but with as much grace as you can muster. Noteheads must be round and just small enough to fit inside the lines. Ledger lines, stems, beams, and bar lines absolutely must be drawn with a straightedge.

You’ll also want to put a lot of practice into drawing the eighth- and sixteenth-note flags that appear when a note isn’t beamed.

Stems should always be at least an octave long. The only time a stem is longer is when writing a passage with beamed eighth-notes, when you must account for other notes that must meet the octave requirement.

+ Read more on Flypaper: “What Is a Music Engraver? (And What Does It Take to Become One?)”

Slurs and Ties

These long, curvy lines can often be the hardest part of writing music by hand, but a little practice can go a long way. Fortunately, handwritten slurs follow these three rules:

  1. If all the stems in a slur are pointed up, the slur is placed under the noteheads.
  2. If all the stems in a slur are pointed down, the slur is placed above the noteheads.
  3. If the stems are in mixed directions, the slur is placed above the noteheads.

Here are some examples to demonstrate:

slurs

Ties also have their own set of rules, but it’s a little different. Ties are drawn:

  1. Under the noteheads when stems are up, or in the case of whole notes occurring under the middle of the staff.
  2. Above the noteheads when stems are down, or when whole notes are above the middle of the staff.
  3. As close to each notehead as possible while still remaining legible.

ties

The only exception to these rules is when writing for divisi parts — In that case, ties and slurs are always up on the top part and down on the bottom part:

voices

When in Doubt, Show the Beat

The most confusing part of reading a handwritten score is the fact that music spacing and phrasing are not always considered when writing. This can make it very difficult for musicians to understand the rhythm they should be playing, so when in doubt you can show each individual beat in your writing.

In even meters like 4/4, never beam notes together between beat 2 and 3. This violates a concept known as the “invisible bar line”:

invisible barline

In odd meters, it can be more difficult to follow this rule, but you can always outline individual beats to clearly show the musician what to do:

odd meters

+ Learn more on Soundfly: It doesn’t matter how well your score is written if the musicians you work with aren’t great readers. Share our FREE course “How to Read Music” and get everyone on the same page!

Practice Makes Perfect… And Easy to Read

No skill is above practice, and this rule could not be more apparent than when writing music. Many musicians may feel that writing music is obvious — and they are often right — but just as you had to practice making letters before you could write, so too must you practice every notehead, articulation, and dynamic before giving others your scores. When you finally feel comfortable, the time will come to copy the final score in ink.

After much frustration and problem-solving, your scores will improve drastically. You also will have less trouble composing or rehearsing, as you can work quickly without getting bogged down by software or an overly-careful hand. It may be a difficult process but you’ll find that with time your music can look as graceful as anything made by a computer.

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Peter Flom
Peter Flom

Peter Flom is a Production Manager of the Repertoire Development department at MakeMusic. A graduate of the Berklee College of Music, Peter has previously worked at KMA Studios in New York City, and in MakeMusic’s Customer Support department. He now spends most of his days developing new content for the Finale and SmartMusic computer programs, and has worked with many composers from Frank Ticheli to Goordon Goodwin. He also is a freelance arranger and engraver, and plays a mean guitar when nobody's watching.

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