Behind “Behind Bars” with Elaine Gould

Scoring Notes
Scoring Notes
Behind "Behind Bars" with Elaine Gould

If there is one book that anyone working with music notation needs to have, either on their desk, or on their device — or at least in a library within walking distance of their home — it’s Behind Bars: The Definitive Guide to Music Notation. Published in 2011 by Faber Music, Elaine Gould’s 700-page volume quickly became the preeminent reference for music engravers, providing an exhaustive collection of rules, traditions, suggestions, and conventions for how to set music in the clearest way possible.

It’s those “general” conventions that take up first third of the book — starting from what Elaine calls the “ground rules” such as the appearance of the staff, clefs, noteheads, and more — and continues on for another 200 pages or so, before the book moves onto the areas of instrumentation and layout. Elaine joins Philip Rothman and David MacDonald to tell us about the new publication of that first section, Behind Bars: General Conventions, as a stand-alone edition suitable for slipping into your bookbag, where it won’t break the bank, or your back.

In this wide-ranging conversation, Elaine talks with us about her early background and how she came to the profession of music preparation and editing. We uncover the seeds that eventually became Behind Bars, and the decades-long journey from meticulous refinements to its eventual publication and virtually overnight success.

Elaine gives us her practical tips for working with composers, performers, and publishers, the realities of time pressures and budget restrictions, and the inevitable revisions that occur with new music, and tells us how she’s navigated the often-conflicting goals of the  engraving ideal and the necessity of deadline-driven production.

She also has advice for those that are just starting out in the field, and naturally, given our focus on music notation software and technology, she opines on what the computer’s strengths and weaknesses, the crucial differences between looking at music on a screen and on a page, and the progress made since Behind Bars was first published in 2011.


  1. Bob Zawalich

    This was a wonderful episode! Thanks to all.

    I own pretty much every reference on notation I could ever find, and Behind Bars is now always my first choice. One big deal for me is that it has a great index. I struggled for years with Gardner Read, my previous favorite, because I could never understand the index, and always ended up scanning the table of contents and then searching.

    The index of Behind Bars is a joy to use, and if you have the ebook edition, you can just do a search, but I rarely need to do that.

    The material itself is great and well organized, so I am always happy when I find what I was looking for. But it is interesting how much difference a good index makes.

    Thanks to Elaine for the great book, and to Philip and David for telling the story.

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