Everyone has lived through a terrible performance of a piece of music. Some songs are beyond help, but far too often a bad performance is a result of poor notation. Today I’d like to give you a few tips that you can use to help eliminate confusion and invoke a beautiful performance, every time. (If you need more help with the basics, check out our free course on how to read music.)
1. Use the Invisible Bar Line
In music notation, there is a concept known as the “Invisible Bar Line,” which generally occurs halfway through a measure. This invisible bar line is used by engravers to clearly show each beat in a measure. In even meters like 4/4 or 6/8, the notes on either side of the bar line can be tied together.
For odd meters it gets a little trickier, but we’ll cover that a little later.
2. Pay Attention to Phrasing
“Phrasing” refers to the number of measures in each line (or “system”) of music. In most handwritten and jazz charts, you can usually get away with using 4 measures in every system. When using a computer or writing for a classical ensemble, you often can fit many more measures in one system if your music doesn’t have a lot of intricate rhythms. However, it is generally a good idea to write your music so that the end of a system is also the end of a phrase of music. When doing this, try to limit your music to 3 or 4 measures per system, as most musicians are comfortable viewing music this way.
For example, instead of this:
You’ll also encounter some special situations, like repeat endings, where you have to get creative:
3. Articulate Your Music
One common hallmark of the amateur arranger is a lack of information. Ensembles — especially the players in the huge symphony you’re writing for — need some very specific instructions in order to play consistently. How would you play this music without any direction?
Adding accents, staccato dots, and other markings make it much easier to interpret:
4. Use Dynamics
Similar to the last tip, a lack of dynamics is an easy way to confuse your players. While it’s true that conductors and performers will “interpret” your dynamics anyway, it’s still very important to give direction. Certain passages like this can be very lackluster on their own:
The same passage is brought to life by only a few extra marks:
Make no mistake — if you don’t include dynamics, your performers will not attempt to play your piece expressively. Even the simplest background part still needs instructions for volume, and you’ll find your ensemble responds better when you are specific.
When placing dynamics in your score, single-staff instruments like strings always use the area under the staff. The only exception is vocal writing, which occasionally places dynamics above the staff to avoid collisions with the lyrics. Multi-staff instruments like a piano usually place dynamics in between both staves, unless they collide with the music itself.
5. Keep Spacing Even
This is one of the most difficult parts of writing or engraving music. You need to keep the notes far enough apart to be legible, but you can also run out of space if you aren’t careful. As accidentals, articulations and other markings take up space, you’ll find that real estate is a premium on a piece of sheet music.
When writing by hand, a great starting point is to use a pencil and evenly divide your staff paper into 4 measures per each line. If you’re familiar with the phrasing concept from Tip # 2, now would be the ideal time to phrase out your music. From there, start writing the notes and try to write within the bar lines clearly, while using more space after longer notes and less space after shorter notes. Try to keep your spacing proportional whenever possible.
6. Beam According to the Meter
Beaming eighth and sixteenth notes is a very important part of writing music well. In order to keep time all musicians must be able to clearly understand where the beat of the meter falls.
The “Invisible Bar Line” method helps with even meters like 4/4, but any music written in an odd meter requires more work:
Generally, it is best to beam notes according to the beats you’d hear from your metronome when practicing. While some engravers like to beam according to the articulation of a passage, this is extremely difficult to read without a lot of practice.
7. Writing by Hand? Use a Straightedge
It might not seem important, but if you expect other musicians to read your handwriting, you need it to be as neat as possible. Spend a lot of time practicing your lettering — slovenly text is usually ignored in a piece of music. Your noteheads, slurs, and articulations need to be legible, too — practice makes perfect!
Perhaps the most obvious sign of badly written music is stem direction, and this is where the straightedge comes in handy. Stems must be perfectly vertical, with no wavering in straightness.
8. Keep It Simple
The most obvious answer is usually the right one. You want your music to look easy to play. Otherwise, your musicians become confused, which leads to a poor performance. For example, take a look at these staccato dots:
This passage may not be technically wrong, but it isn’t very easy to read. There are a lot of extra, unnecessary markings when the part could be written differently. This is much easier:
With some common sense, you’ll find a lot of music can be written more simply. I encourage you to do this even in the early stages of composing, but it becomes imperative when making your final copies.
9. Be Specific and Conspicuous
When engraving, you must constantly ask yourself: “Could I sight-read this?” If the answer is no, you should consider notating the music differently. Anything that appears unclear or messy is unacceptable when you need other musicians to read what you write.
Enharmonics are a great example. If you’re writing a piece in the key of C# major, you’ll definitely encounter a lot of sticky situations with accidentals. It’s always best to stick with enharmonics that relate to the key, but sometimes “F” is a lot easier to read than “E#.”
Keep in mind that while horn players may prefer to see flats rather than sharps, string musicians often prefer sharps instead.
To that end, you must always write for your reader, and consider the many facets of their instrument and playing style before deciding what music is easiest for them to read on the fly.
10. Always Edit, Always Research
If your music hasn’t had its first performance or been published, then the engraving is still a working copy. Don’t be afraid to fire up your notation software again and re-write something. Pencil markings might make sense when an orchestra is trying to interpret an older piece, but if you’re writing an original, it is your responsibility to give your players the cleanest copy they can get — even if that means reprinting twenty parts just for one chord change.
If you’re unsure about how to write something, don’t guess. There are a lot of resources online and in books that cover not only the rules but also special considerations when writing music in any style. One book I recommend in particular is The Art of Music Copying by Clinton Roemer, but if you can’t find a copy (it’s out of print) then Mark McGrain’s Music Notation is another very good option. If you’re using computer software to write, crack open the manual and learn the program cold. And don’t be afraid to reach out to others as well! There are some great online communities that center around engraving as well, and I encourage you to get involved. Writing a professional score takes a lot of time and effort, but with even a few quick tips, you can start writing better today.
Have any other tips for writing great scores? Or specific notation problems you need help with? Let us know in the comments below!