Preparing music scores for screens — the challenges and opportunities


I study and perform scores from my iPad on a regular basis and have prepared scores to be read from screens. So Scoring Notes readers often ask me to provide recommendations for best practices when preparing a score with the expectation that it will be read from a screen, not paper. This is an excellent question — one whose answer today may likely change in the coming years.

Yvan Cassar leads the Opéra de Rouen in a performance using the Newzik score reading app

Listen to the podcast episode

On the Scoring Notes podcast, David MacDonald and Philip Rothman discuss the pros, cons, challenges, and opportunities in reading and preparing music on a screen, and delve into the benefits, pitfalls, and technical considerations you should know about if you want to make your music pixel-perfect. Listen now:

Scoring Notes
From score to screen: preparing your music for digital surfaces

What’s different between paper and screens

I want to start by identifying some of the key differences between paper and screens that might impact the way we would want to present a score. (For the purposes of this article, I’ll use the word “score” to include both scores and parts.) These observations will guide some of my basic layout principles.

Screens have bezels. The bezel is the part around the edge of the device that’s not screen. It’s the part that doesn’t light up when the screen is on. Different devices have different bezel sizes, and they’re particularly important for touchscreen tablets, because it’s the part we can hold without touching a touchscreen.

The black bezels serve a similar graphical purpose to page margins.

For the digital music engraver, the bezel can take on a large part of the visual work done by the margins of a document. I don’t think it’s reasonable to have notes going all the way to the edge of the document, since sometimes edges get cut off a bit, and sometimes we even need to extend some symbols into the margin a teensy bit, but margins for digital readers can be much smaller than printed work.

Page margin for comparison
The margins for the printed page are only slightly larger than the device bezels.

Page turns are easier. Turning a page in most screen readers is a quick tap or swipe. It can still be error-prone, especially for new users, but it’s a much faster action — and arguably more reliable — than turning a page of a paper document. This is all before we get to the common technology of hands-free page turning techniques, such as bluetooth pedals and camera gestures. I have a PageFlip Dragonfly, and I know lots of folks who swear by their AirTurns and iRigs for turning pages.

Some score reader apps allow users to turn pages with a face or hand gesture as well. Many readers also allow for “half” page turns, which allow a user to look ahead to the top of the next page while still reading the bottom of the current page.

Half page turns in forScore and Newzik
Half page turns in forScore (left) and Newzik (right) allow the performer to see the bottom system of one page at the same time as the top system of the next page, allowing them to read ahead more like a regular system break.

In preparing a score, or especially a part, this can allow a bit more flexibility in selecting page turn locations. This is particularly handy for smaller screen sizes (more on screen sizes below) which will result in fewer measures per page, and therefore more turns. Having said that, it still may be challenging to reach up to the device while playing certain instruments like timpani or bass, and it’s hard to say if a player will be using a pedal or not. For some instruments, an added turning pedal may not be an option, since they’re already using their feet (drumset, organ, or harp).

“Printing” is “free”. Modern tablets have some truly beautiful screen technology. The resolution of an iPad in 2020 is roughly equivalent to the resolution of a very good laser printer. High DPI displays are standard in most computers and tablets sold today, so you can have very clear materials, which are transmitted as infinitely smooth vector graphics from most notation applications.

As an extra bonus, since color is now free, another parameter for communication becomes available without the added printing costs associated with color. This could be something as simple as using color to distinguish instrumental techniques or style, or as complex as an interpretive graphical score or a photograph of a special technique. If you’re using color for a critical meaning, be aware of the impact this will have on color-blind readers. You may wish to check your score in a color blindness design checker that simulates color blindness for everyone.

Perhaps it’s not fair to say that printing is free when the cost of a new iPad, even at the entry level, is $329, and can easily extend into the price of a substantial laptop on the high end. Though it may also be unfair to ascribe the entire price of a multifunction computer to just one task. While the fact that I use my iPad for scores pushes me toward the larger end, I think I would still have an iPad if I wasn’t using it for music.

Pitfalls of preparing scores for screens

The greatest challenge of preparing a score for a screen is figuring out what page size you should use. In scoring applications, we’re used to giving page sizes in standard measurements. This could mean inches, points, or something else. Device manufacturers rarely give screen dimensions in this way, so you’ll need to do a bit of arithmetic.

My 12.9-inch iPad Pro (2018) has a resolution of 2732×2048 pixels. (I’m going to use landscape orientation here since that’s the common way manufacturers describe screens. But I’m assuming you’ll prepare your score in portrait orientation.) So I’ll just cross-multiply 2732. Wait. Where are you going?

Ok. I’m just kidding. I’ll use a screen size calculator on the web to figure this out. By entering the pixels as the aspect ratio numbers and 12.9 inches as the diagonal, I know that the display of my iPad Pro in portrait orientation is 7.7 inches across by 10.3 inches tall. In your scoring app, just set up the page size to be exactly the device size, and then you can make other decisions while thinking about sizes in roughly the same way you normally would.

The F word: Fragmentation

Everything I’ve discussed to this point has been describing setting up a score to be read from my personal iPad. Obviously, there are a lot of iPads in existence, and that’s not to mention all the non-iPad screens people may be reading from. And that, above all is why I don’t usually recommend creating special screen-specific formatting.

Just within the last few years, Apple has sold tablets at the following sizes (by diagonal) and dimensions:

  • 7.9 inches: 4.7×6.3
  • 9.7 inches: 5.8×7.8
  • 10.2 inches: 6.1×8.2
  • 10.5 inches: 8.4×6.3
  • 10.9 inches: 6.2×9.0
  • 11 inches: 6.3×9.0
  • 12.9 inches: 7.7×10.3
12.9-inch, 9.7-inch, and 7.9-inch iPads for comparison
12.9-inch, 9.7-inch, and 7.9-inch iPads for scale comparison, thanks to Apple’s device comparison tool.

These all have a roughly 4:3 aspect ratio (1.333), notably the same aspect ratio as a 9×12-inch sheet of paper, handy for those who are accustomed to working on that size. The consistency of aspect ratio means that a page laid out of these screens will scale nicely to fill any of them, but the size differences from one to the next could be a dealbreaker. A 7 mm staff on a score set up for a 12.9-inch iPad becomes less than 6mm on the 11-inch, just next device down. And this is only accounting for Apple’s tablets.

If you need to include Android or (more likely) Windows devices in your distribution, you’ll also need to account for a much wider variety of screen sizes and aspect ratios. These tend to lean a little toward the 16:9 aspect ratio of HD televisions, but can also be found with larger (21:9) ratios. You won’t find a lot of screens with a smaller aspect ratio than the iPad’s 4:3. This means that your pages may not scale evenly to take full advantage of many of these displays.

The challenge of future-proofing

As much variety as there is in paper sizes that musicians are using to print scores and parts, there is even greater variety in the screen sizes that are available to us. The difference is that when I lay out a score for a 9×12 page, I am then printing on 9×12 paper, so I don’t have to worry about someone else rendering it on a different page size.

Furthermore, the iPad sizes I listed above are those of devices that are in circulation now. These layouts are not future-proof and could age badly and quickly!

I first created an iPad-specific layout of a piece I wrote in 2015, a piece of mine that was a commission from players who I knew read all their music from iPads and used page-turn pedals. At the time, iPads had been around for five years and had been 9.7-inch screens the entire time. There were some odd system breaks and page turns, but there’s only so much you can do on a tiny screen. The first 12.9-inch iPad Pro was announced just a few months later. I upgraded, so did many musicians, and my carefully laid out 9.7-inch score looked cartoonishly large on the new display.

Consider what displays may be coming in the future and what musicians might be reading from in performances. forScore, my pick for the best iPad score reader for most people is set to become the best Mac score reader for most people in the very near future. Conductors are reading scores from larger external displays. And if you’ll forgive a bit of science fiction in your music notation article, I like to imagine musicians reading from stylish augmented reality glasses, no screen at all! How would you lay out a score for an infinitely scrollable canvas?

This Newzik prototype, with Laurent Petitgirard conducting the Orchestre Colonne, could be the future of score reading

The opportunities

Skepticism aside, there are recent developments that might make screen-specific layouts manageable, or even preferable, with a nod to some newer technologies. (Compared to paper, I guess almost everything we do here is a newer technology.)

First, I want to tip my anachronistic cap to the team at Dorico, who have done some incredible work in creating a greater separation of concerns between the content of a score an its layout. In it, it’s relatively easy to keep track of multiple layouts for the same music, which could make it much more sustainable in the long-run to maintain versions of a score for different screen sizes and aspect ratios.

Second, this entire article has been built on the mostly-but-not-entirely-solid assumption that scores will be prepared and distributed as PDF files. PDFs are a very useful technology for sending around digital representations of paper documents, and while Adobe has baked in some digital media features, the format clearly has its roots in paper.

MusicXML is a file format that encodes music in a more flexible way than a page layout. It focuses more on semantic meaning and less on graphical presentation and layout. This lets it become much more flexible in presentation. The support for the format has grown as it has standardized, through the work of the W3C’s Music Notation Community Group.

If you have used MusicXML to transfer projects between applications before, you’ll know both its utility and its limitations. Some more complex notations are not represented consistently across different applications, so some kinds of music are hard or impossible to encode. However, a lot of music (maybe even most or all of what you deal with) can be represented very faithfully represented in MusicXML.

Adaptive score layout in Newzik
This MusicXML file in Newzik can quickly adapt to different screen sizes and orientations.

Using MusicXML instead of PDF takes away some of the control that an engraver has over the final presentation of their work, but that might be a worthwhile trade in exchange for flexibility of layouts, staff size, playback sync, and future-proofing. For people like me and the people who read Scoring Notes (Hi there, reader!), it might be difficult to give up this control over every minute detail of the score, but I am willing to admit that I may be living in the past and not the future of performance materials. It would be a bit curmudgeonly (and possibly elitist?) of me to look at the work of the smart and talented people building StaffPad Reader or Newzik and not see the promise of a future of flexible, adaptable scores.


Having been burned by preparing a device specific manifestation of a score in the past, I am not planning to prepare another device-specific score layout. However, there are circumstances where you might do so.

If you know that every player in a recording session will be on a 12.9-inch iPad Pro and the score will not have a life beyond the session, go for it! It would seem silly to not take this into consideration and create the device-specific materials. Simply be aware of the limitations of those PDFs for future work.

For my own work, I plan to continue preparing my editions as though they will go to print (even if I know they won’t). Software developers have made it easy for musicians to adapt works prepared for print to their use on screens, and performers have become increasingly adept at using these tools, so I’ll surely be revisiting this plan regularly in the coming years as devices become more of a standard piece of equipment (like a music stand), and as flexible layouts with MusicXML-like technology becomes more reliable and robust.


  1. Jim

    The main reason, when I bought a tablet last year, I chose to buy a 12.9 inch iPad rather than one of the smaller, more affordable models, was that the screen is large enough as to be comparable to standard A4 paper, and that it would be conveniently able to display PDFs of A4 music at near enough to full size as to be easily legible.

    It’s kind of unfortunate that a device that large with less power (more akin to a very large iPad Air or iPad Nothing than iPad Pro) isn’t available, because the cost of that device is kind of excessive if you don’t actually need an amount of power that can rival many laptops.

    1. David MacDonald

      I totally agree, Jim. I would love an iPad with the power of the $329 iPad with the screen size of the big iPad Pro for a price somewhere in between the two. Unfortunately, I just don’t think the market for that device would really make it worth the cost of developing and producing it. This is why the hardware score readers (like GVIDO) are so costly. They’re just not able to produce them in large enough quantities to get to the economies of scale that we see with iPads.

      I live all day on my iPad Pro, especial in the before-times. I’d be all in on a 15-inch or bigger iPad as well that I’d use mostly for reading and marking scores. Unfortunately, I think I’m in the minority of iPad users there.

  2. George Litterst

    The concluding portion of the article regarding MusicXML points the conversation intriguingly toward the future. You really should check out the SuperScore Music app on the iPad. Although SuperScore files are delivered in their own, protected format, they are based on MusicXML.

    SuperScore features a “liquid music notation technology.” When you work with a SuperScore file, you can use the pinch/spread gestures to resize the score. SuperScore intelligently re-engraves the score on the fly maintaining publication-quality standards of symbol positioning, page-layout, reshaping of slurs over system breaks, etc.

    What SuperScore has shown us is that MusicXML is remarkably robust. However, most of the 300+ applications that support MusicXML fall far short when it comes to accuracy and detail. Typically, application developers have been more interested in the import side of MusicXML than the export side. For that reason, most MusicXML scores lack the detail necessary for publication-quality scores that are “liquid.”

    Considering the depth to which you cover music engraving issues, you really should look closely at SuperScore, its development, and the issues that you encounter when engraving a “liquid” score.

    1. David MacDonald

      Thanks for reading, George. SuperScore is an app that I haven’t looked at very recently, but I have tried it in the past. It’s a solid app that has some nice features for learners in particular, but I think it’s not really as powerful as the apps I mentioned in the review, particularly when it comes to organization and collaboration. It’s also not as fast to use, and it’s a little less actively developed compared to forScore and Newzik, the latter of which has pretty extensive MusicXML support. I’ll give it another look.

      I’d be a little concerned about putting so much effort into an app-specific file format. Though you’re right to observe that import has been a bigger focus than export for the big scoring apps. However, Dorico and Sibelius have both done lots of work to improve their XML export in the last year.

      The nice thing about MusicXML and PDF is that they’re really widely supported. What are the benefits of the SuperScore file format over the MusicXML format?

  3. James Gilbert

    I’ve transcribed or composed/arranged literally thousands of titles for my own use (piano or organ) on a 2nd or 3rd generation iPad (before the iPad Pro came out). I format them as though they are going to be printed using letter size paper, typical margins, 7mm staves, sometimes 6.5mm. For spacing, I lean toward wider spacing to allow for easy reading. I export them to PDF. In forScore I use the zoom feature to remove as much white space from the left/right margins as I can. I don’t worry too much about page turns. Having performed for the past 7 years or so using music formatted like that, I find this to be more than adequate. The only negative is that the app one uses must allow for zooming in on the pdf to get rid of the white space. The printed versions, although on letter size paper, are more than adequate as well.

    1. David MacDonald

      Yes. Zoom/crop is an important feature of any reader app. I’ve been really impressed with forScore’s ability to do this automatically. And I think that’s an argument for still trying to target paper, since scores can be so easily adapted to the screen with the built-in tools of the reader applications. Once you get to a 6.5mm staff size and then scale down to the iPad screen, you’re right on the edge of what might be legible—and possibly past it for some users(!)—but I also think there’s nothing wrong with having a small staff size and formatting it however you want if it’s for your own performance!

  4. Sergei

    Even when I started my transition from paper to iPad, I still realized that my main default format for creating my scores in Sibelius was and remains A4 paper, which is the most common in the world and easy to find in any office. Even my version of Sibelius offers this format by default. This paper format has remained unchanged for decades. And in case of any emergency, I can always quickly print out my scores. And for my 12.9-inch iPad, I always create a separate copy in which I simply “squeeze” staves (systems) vertically, adjusting the content to the proportions of the iPad screen. And this way I get the perfect scale for myself and fill the entire screen with an accuracy of tenths of millimeters. For example:
    Someone might think that this sheet music is cut too “aggressively”, almost close to the edges of the screen without any minimal margins. But I prefer this “aggressive” cropping to get as much scale as possible. If there was an iPad with an even bigger screen (more on this below), maybe I wouldn’t do it so tight. Although, this tight cropping does not bother me in any way.

    And if a screen aspect ratio changes a little in the future, I’ll just create a separate copy from the basic A4 version again, in which I’ll slightly change the vertical compression ratio of staves (systems).

    As for the MusicXML format, I am not too enthusiastic about it. The possibility of flexible reformatting of sheet music does not appeal to me very much, because visual memory is important for me, when I am used to the fact that some specific bars located at the end of the staves, and another bars are at the beginning of the staves. And in “this” particular place the page-turning occurs, which I am used to, and which I have rehearsed: I turn the page in “this” very place, whether it’s a printed copy or a screen version. When music notes are reformatted, it is more likely that one may get lost in the notes. That is, consistency is important to me.

    As for iPads, I keep hoping that one day Apple will introduce something like “iPad Pro¹ Max” with a screen diagonal of at least 14, and better 15 inches. Yes, the current 12.9″ iPad is already enough. But tight enough when it comes to comfortable work. For me, a diagonal of 14-15 inches would be ideal, in which I would feel free. And maybe I wouldn’t even have to create separate adapted copies based on my basic A4 versions. Therefore, it is better for me that the largest iPad screen has the proportions of the 11-inch version, which is slightly narrower, elongated. And although in all other cases I always prefer more “square” screens (16:10, 3:2) of monitors, laptops, and the like, but I find that for working with sheet music in portrait orientation, the screen of the 12.9-inch iPad is a little too “square”.

    ¹ By the way, it doesn’t have to be “Pro” at all. But, unfortunately, the largest diagonals in iPads are still offered only in “Pro” versions, which are more expensive, although we, musicians, do not need some of those “Pro” specifications which make the device more expensive. For example, powerful processor, powerful LiDAR Camera, 120 Hz ProMotion screen, four powerful speakers. The main thing for many of us is a large high-quality True Tone screen with high resolution. Unfortunately, Apple doesn’t hear us in this regard yet. I hope that I’m not the only one trying to reach them with my suggestions sometimes.

    Apple could release an iPad with an even bigger screen, and not just for musicians. After all, Apple is increasingly positioning top iPads as replacements for traditional laptops, releasing separate keyboards for them, and implementing mouse support. And for laptops, the current 12.9 screen diagonal is far from being considered large.

  5. David MacDonald

    Thanks for reading, Sergei! I totally agree with you on the largest size of iPad. I don’t think I have much use for a LiDAR sensor either, but I do love the 120Hz screen and the powerful speakers, but certainly I’m not rendering a lot of video there! Having said that, I do find myself occasionally bumping into the RAM limits on my 2018 iPad Pro somewhat frequently when I’m dealing with many scanned PDF files.

    I don’t think the flexible layouts with MusicXML would make the music arranged differently for you if you used the score on your device in the same way every time. It’s more about having it laid out in a way that’s comfortable for each user regardless of what device they are using and what their needs are.

    Regarding the aspect ratio, as I said above, the largest iPad has a nearly identical aspect ratio of the most common music paper format (which isn’t really European A4 or US Letter). I think having a bigger screen though would allow for a bit more flexibility there, since losing a little bit on the edges to get your preferred aspect ratio wouldn’t be as big of a concession if you had another inch or two on the diagonal.

    Thanks for sharing the screenshot of your iPad with a page layout. That’s pretty dense. Are you using a pedal to turn pages?

    1. Sergei

      “Are you using a pedal to turn pages?”
      Yes, this is another game changer for me. I have both popular pedals: PageFlip Firefly and AirTurn PEDpro. Once I even posted my little comparison of these pedals on a Facebook group using an anonymous account:

      1. David MacDonald

        That’s great! I have a PageFlip Dragonfly that I got on a great refurbished deal a few years ago. Not sure how stable their refurb inventory is, but anyone looking to get into digital readers should really look into one of these pedals. The AirTurn is also great. I have some close friends that love them. I think they’re similar enough that it’s mostly a matter of taste to decide from among the options.

    2. Sergei

      ” but I do love the 120Hz screen and the powerful speakers”

      I love these things too, especially quality powerful speakers. But they are on the list of why iPad Pro prices are significantly higher. :) Therefore, it would not be an easy choice. Then, of the excesses, only a more powerful processor or LiDAR sensor remains.

      In any case, if Apple releases an iPad with a 14-15-inch screen, whatever specifications it has, I’ll run for it on the same day. For me, this will be the same revolution as the first-generation iPad Pro introduced in 2015 with a 12.9-inch screen.

  6. Walter Barrett

    I play bass trombone in an 18 piece big band that plays all original compositions and arrangements from the leader, and we all use tablets in the band. One thing that I’ve noticed- With his older charts that were formatted to be printed onto paper, there are many times things like a DS al Coda, or a section of background behind a solo, that skips back (or ahead with a coda) a page. Since there’s no reason to save paper with a tablet, charts should be formatted without any backwards page turns, or complex road maps. Best is to just lay it out to be read from beginning to end, and avoid having any repeated sections that can’t fit on just one page. ForScore’s Rearrange menu comes in handy for copying and rearranging pages to avoid back turns, etc. on charts formatted for paper.

    Since I have to use both hands to play my trombone, I use an IK BlueBoard to turn pages in forScore. This has 4 buttons, and besides the usual page up, page down, I’ve programmed one of the extras to bring up the tuner, and the other button does a half page turn. I’ve gotten some of my friends with 2 button turners to reprogram their pedals so that the left button does a half page turn, instead of a page down. Think about it, if your charts are formatted properly, there’s almost no need to turn backwards with the pedal.

    1. David MacDonald

      That’s great, Walter! I think you’re right that one-way roadmaps are best for digital scores, but as you also point out, applications have ways of handling it when that’s not the case. I have a Blueboard here as well. The thing I like about it is that it lights up. The downside is that it isn’t as tactile as the PageFlip Dragonfly, which also has four buttons.

      I really like your ideas for using the other two buttons. I have never really settled on one, but I think the half-page turn solution is great since you may not want to have the half-turns on all the time.

      1. Walter Barrett

        For those times when I don’t have my pedal handy, I have half page turns set up with a 3 finger tap and hold gesture. I also tend to mark spots in the music where I want to do a half page turn, usually in a rest where I have time to look down and find the right button. That way, I can also preset just how much of the next page will show, and also make sure I’m not covering something up that I still need to play on the preceding page.

        If you or anyone else wants to delve more deeply into forScore, stop by the forScore Users Group page on Facebook, where I’m one of the admins. We’re not associated with forScore, but we have quite a few experts there who can help out with various questions and problems.

  7. Bob Zawalich

    What a wonderful, well researched, and timely post! Thanks for doing all the research so I don’t have to!

    1. David MacDonald

      Thanks, Bob!

  8. Matthew Hindson

    So, in essence, what we are advocating now is that we don’t need to prep special iPad versions of scores, because the iPads are good enough and clear enough to display parts as if they were printed on paper?

    (This wouldn’t include parts formatted for B4 paper, presumably?)

    1. David MacDonald

      Exactly. For parts on most standard sizes, the largest iPad displays are quite clear and readable. ISO sizes are a little trickier because they’re a little farther (taller) from the aspect ratio of 4:3 that most iPads have. US 9 x 12 is exactly 4:3, and 10 x 13 is still pretty close.

      The result for ISO pages is there is some amount of wasted horizontal space on the iPad screen to allow full pages to fit vertically. A4 is small enough that this isn’t a dealbreaker, but a B4-formatted part is probably too big to comfortably read for most musicians at most distances.

      Maybe there is a future of much larger iPads? But at that point, we’re like in the USD $1000+ range, which is getting to be a bit unreasonable to expect every musician to invest in anyway.

      1. Alex

        “USD $1000+”
        $800. There have been rumors that such an iPad may not be from the “Pro” line.

        In addition to the diagonal, there is an equally important aspect. And that is the aspect ratio of the screen. I know what I would want for different diagonals over 12.9″.

        1. David MacDonald

          Right. I’m imagining what the price of an even larger iPad might be. The current 12.9-inch iPad Pro with M1 processor _starts_ at $1099. And I’m not sure the rumors are to a point that I would expect them to be terribly reliable. I know some have suspected that the larger display would be branded separately from the Pro line, but branding doesn’t tend to leak to rumors sites until very late, and given some of the more recent trends in Apple Branding, it could easily be an iPad Max, Ultra, or Studio (the last of which sounds pretty good to my ear) which could end up costing _more_ than the Pro line. When it comes to predicting Apple pricing, I can only think of one or two times that the price has been _less_ than I was expecting, but maybe I’m just a pessimist.

          As far as aspect ratio, all of the current iPads are at or near a 4:3 ratio with the notable exception of the Mini, which is a little taller—even taller than ISO paper aspect ratio. I would expect bigger iPads to maintain the 4:3-ish ratio, which again, is great for adapting 9×12 scores and parts.

          1. Alex

            I read that from Ross Young (25 years experience in the display industry, CEO of Display Supply Chain Consultants (DSCC). Sharing the future of the display industry and its products).

            Here’s what he wrote in one of the threads discussing this topic:
            “Going from 10″ to 14″ is a big jump. 10″ panel prices in 2022 won’t be much different than 14″ in 2023, so could be priced low. MiniLEDs would have boosted the price alot!”.

            So I hope an even bigger iPad comes out without the “Pro” prefix first. And if it does, the price will be under $1000. I’m betting $800.

            As for my personal preference for the aspect ratio of the screen:
            12.9″ — 4:3;

            14.1″ — 10:7 (same as 11-inch iPad Pro. That’ right, the 11-inch iPad Pro has an aspect ratio of 10:7, not 4:3.);

            15″ — 3:2.

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