Jessie Montgomery’s music notation tips


Jessie Montgomery‘s music is a natural extension of her talents as a performer and educator, as well as her own personal experience. Interweaved with classical music in her compositions are elements of vernacular music, improvisation, language, and social justice.

Jessie has been named the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s Mead Composer-in-Residence through June 2024. Her music has been performed and commissioned by many of the world’s leading orchestras and ensembles, including The Sphinx Organization, Philharmonia Orchestra, New York Philharmonic, Atlanta Symphony, Dallas Symphony, Minnesota Orchestra, San Francisco Symphony, Washington Performing Arts, Southbank Centre (London), National Arts Centre (Ottawa), and the Banff Centre for the Arts.

Jessie Montgomery (Photo: Jiyang Chen)

I’ve had the pleasure of working with Jessie for nearly a decade, and over at Notation Central you’ll find the scores and parts to Jessie’s catalog for sale.

Her string quartets such as Strum are perennial favorites, and her Rhapsody No. 1 for solo violin is sought after by solo violinists. Scores to her orchestral parts are for sale as well; Starburst is one of the most-performed concert openers today by small and large orchestras alike, and we’ve just made the score and parts available to a chamber ensemble arrangement of that popular work.

As with many contemporary composers, Jessie’s music can present exciting challenges for a music copyist or engraver. I thought I’d share just a few of those and how the results were achieved. Jessie composes in Sibelius, so that’s the software used here.

Front matter

The first example isn’t even the music itself, but rather the preliminary material to her orchestral work Banner. This composition, co-commissioned by the Sphinx Organization and the Joyce Foundation, is Jessie’s attempt to answer the question: “What does an anthem for the 21st century sound like in today’s multi-cultural environment?”

In Banner, which exists in both a version for chamber orchestra and for string orchestra, Jessie has a solo string quartet representing an individual voice working both with and against the larger community of the orchestra behind them as references to the American national anthem Star Spangled Banner and other cultural anthems interact to form various textures in the music.

It was important to show the seating of the quartet as it related to the rest of the orchestra, so that Jessie’s intentions are realized. We did this in the front matter:

From the front matter of Jessie Montgomery’s Banner

In David MacDonald’s excellent blog post entitled Score preparation and production notes, he warns: “Make front matter in a regular document editor or a desktop publishing program. Do not try to do this in your scoring app! It will almost certainly end in tears.” We also talk about this in an episode of the Scoring Notes podcast.

I took this advice to heart and didn’t even attempt to try to trick this out in Sibelius; instead, I used an illustration program called Graphic. (Affinity Designer is another product that both David MacDonald and Daniel Spreadbury have independently recommended.)

Creating the shapes and dropping in the text was a piece of cake, and then I easily exported the image into Word to create the rest of the document.

If you do this sort of thing regularly, it is worth it to learn a graphic illustration program — and you don’t need to be an Illustrator genius.

Account for your bars

Relatively common in contemporary music is the use of boxes and lines to indicate indeterminate tempos or to allow for more freedom in performance compared with strictly notated music. Here is a straightforward example from the third movement, “Smoke”, of Jessie’s string quartet Break Away:

From Jessie Montgomery’s string quartet Break Away

Too often, though, I see copyists simply hide the rests here when drawing the line. It may look fine in the score, but that’s not good enough as far as Sibelius is concerned. The reason is that the default bar rest, whether hidden or not, will still cause Sibelius to combine those bars into a multirest in the part, leading to this very confusing situation:

Instead, it is better to write “real” rests corresponding to the value of the time signature (12/16 in this case) and hide each one. This way, the multirest will break and the part will reflect what was written in the score.

Mask barlines with text

Another example that comes from Break Away — this time from the fifth and final movement, also titled “Break Away” — is text that would collide with a barline:

The solution here is to use Sibelius’s Erase background property, which can be done on a case-by-case basis in the Inspector, or more broadly by creating a separate text style for the purpose, as I’ve done here, calling it Technique opaque:

Don’t worry about the red color of the text — that signifies that Magnetic Layout is enabled for this item, and that Sibelius detects a collision with the barline (of course, we already knew that). The color or border won’t print.

For the step-by-step instructions on how to do this in Sibelius, see our blog post: Use the Erase background option to mask barlines in Sibelius.

Feathered beams that look and play back correctly

We know that in Sibelius, to get feathered beams, you can simply enter the notes as ordinary 32nd notes:


Then, select the first note of the beamed group (or sub-group), switch to the third Keypad layout, and click the appropriate beam for either accelerando or rallentando (shortcut 0 and . respectively):


The result is this:


The problem is that the feathered beam, which in this case represents accelerating notes, doesn’t play back correctly, nor will it space according to speed, because Sibelius still considers all of the notes 32nd notes.

The solution, then, is to create the notes as a series of tuplets. Fortunately, we’ve already got a detailed blog post on how to do that called Feathered beams that look and play back correctly, which you can read.

So we’ll just skip to the good part and show the result, from the first oboe part to Jessie Montgomery’s orchestral work Records From a Vanishing City:


The effect is more pronounced in the score, when viewed against a steady stream of regular 32nd notes in the second clarinet:

From the score to Jessie Montgomery’s orchestral work Records From a Vanishing City

What’s satisfying about all of these examples is that the composer’s intent is more clearly expressed when you apply the principles of good music preparation combined with a few tricks in the software.

Check out all of these works by Jessie Montgomery and more at Notation Central.


  1. Chris Best

    The section on how to create expression and technique opaque was very useful. I’m wondering now how to achieve the same effect with hairpins, which regularly have to pass through bar lines. Though they use the expression font, they don’t seem to be available in the same way, i.e. from the text menu, and therefore can’t be accessed via the new expression opaque choice. Furthermore, the one off option to opaque them with the inspector is also not available (I’m using Sibelius 7. Maybe that’s why). Thanks!

    1. Chris Best

      I just found my own workaround for this, so thought it worth sharing. The way I got barlines to be hidden where the hairpins pass through is to select ‘expression opaque’ (having followed the instructions on the original post) and type any old word (but making sure it’s not something that gets read on playback like marcato). Drag it over the bar line where the hairpin is intended to go then simply hide it (show/hide button). Hey presto, the bar line stays hidden but the space is now empty. Now create your hairpin. At first it seem like it’s not going to work as the hairpin too disappears where the word is secretly hiding. But then right click on the hairpin and from the pop up menu select ‘order’ and choose ‘bring to front’. And that’s it!

      1. Philip Rothman

        Great tips, Chris! Thanks for sharing this.

      2. TLynn

        of course tastes are different, but it’s generally acceptable for hairpins to cross barlines. One small tip: if you are going to use the text method you described, I would suggest typing the text with the tilde character at the start (~). This hides it by default and it won’t be made visible by accident. (For example, making a selection and choosing ‘show in parts’.) You can also use a blank graphic to achieve the same result – just use it in place of the text placeholder.

        1. Philip Rothman

          Thanks, Tom! Good idea.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *