DJA’s Notes: Music preparation basics


Editor’s note: DJA’s Notes is a series inspired by Darcy James Argue‘s Facebook posts and other materials, which offer some quick, basic steps to improve the appearance of notated music, especially from a jazz/big band perspective. Here at Scoring Notes, we’ve replicated the content of Darcy’s posts. This post is adapted from a document Darcy prepared for his theory classes at The New School in New York City, and has been updated for 2023.

I have released an updated version of one of my most-requested handouts: Music Preparation Fundamentals for Jazz Composers & Arrangers. It’s available now from my website, as a free download.

With this update, I’ve added even more examples of common notational pitfalls, while trying to make the advice more broadly applicable — from those who just want their lead sheets to look a bit more presentable to those writing elaborate large ensemble arrangements.

While, as it says, this document is intended primarily for jazz writers, there is a lot in it that is helpful for anyone putting sheet music in front of other humans.

I’ve re-published the first section of that document here, along with links to recommended resources.

Why bother with music preparation?

Well-prepared lead sheets, scores, and parts are essential for good sight-reading. Good notation shows respect for the musicians reading your music, and allows them to play more musically. Bad notation causes unnecessary mistakes and eats up valuable rehearsal and recording time.

Music notation software has many advantages over traditional hand-copying, but does not eliminate the need to learn good music preparation skills. Regardless of whether you prepare music by hand or use notation software, every part you put in front of another musician needs to be prepared to a professional standard.

If you use music notation software, you will want to create a template that is configured to follow the best notation practices. Setting up a good template will save you an enormous amount of time in the long run!

Do not assume that the software’s defaults are correct.

Score and part setup

If copying music by hand

Select paper with 10 staves per page and a staff size of 8mm. Do not use staff paper with more than 10 staves per page. Do not use staff paper with excessive margins, or where the staves are crammed too close together — you need room between staves to include chord symbols, ledger lines, repeat endings, and other elements.

Write the title between the first two staves and begin the music on the third staff. Write the part name (e.g, “C Lead Sheet,”“B♭ Lead Sheet”) or instrument name (e.g. “Tenor Sax”) at top left. Write the composer’s (or composers’) name(s) at top right. If the work is an arrangement, write the arranger’s name below the composer’s.

If using notation software

Use a staff size of 7.5 mm or 8 mm for lead sheets and parts. They should generally have 8 or 9 staves on the first page, and 10 staves on subsequent pages.

Center the title 1 inch (25 mm) below the top edge of the page. Place the part name (e.g, “C Lead Sheet,”“B♭ Lead Sheet”) or instrument name (e.g. “Tenor Sax”) at top left and the the composer’s (or composers’) name(s) at top right — both go above the title — with a page margin of 0.5 inches (12.5 mm) on all sides. If the work is an arrangement, add the arranger’s name below the composer’s.

Parts must be single-sided. For parts longer than three pages, you should include time for the player to turn the page (i.e., a multimeasure rest) at the bottom of page 3, and on every subsequent odd-numbered page. Create a page break at a valid spot for a page turn – pages do not have to be full!

Multi-page parts must be taped, accordion-style, with the sticky part of the tape on the inside of the fold. To achieve this, tape pages 1-2 on the front side, tape pages 2-3 on the back side, and so on. Be extremely careful about page order when taping music. (I recommend Nexcare Gentle Paper Tape as it can be easily removed without damaging the page if you make a mistake while taping.)

Multi-page parts must also include a header at the top of page 2 and all subsequent pages. The header should include the title, instrument name, and page number. This is particularly helpful when you are laying out pages to be taped!

Scores may be bound or stapled into double-sided booklets rather than taped.

When generating PDFs, or when photocopying, scanning, or printing music, be sure not to reduce, clip, or distort the music, make it too heavy or too faint, or otherwise reduce legibility. If you are scanning music using your phone, use a dedicated mobile scanning app, like Adobe Scan. Do not use the camera app on your phone.

Use portrait orientation (not landscape) for all scores and parts. Landscape was once traditional for large-ensemble jazz scores, but is not recommended in the era of music notation software — particularly when printing to US Letter or A4 paper!

Use a double barline at the end of every phrase. Mark each phrase with a rehearsal mark: a boxed letter or boxed measure number. Rehearsal marks should be centered above the left edge of the staff, or centered above the barline when they appear mid-system.

Rehearsal marks should occur at structurally significant points, generally every 8-16 measures. They should help to make the form clear at a glance. Avoid long stretches with no rehearsal marks.

Rehearsal letters are not the same as the letters used for formal analysis. Rehearsal letters must be sequential: [A], [B], [C], [D] — not [A], [A], [B], [A]nor [A], [A2], [B], [A3], or similar. Every rehearsal letter must be unique. Never repeat rehearsal letters.

In addition to boxed rehearsal letters or numbers, every measure must be numbered. In lead sheets and parts, place measure numbers immediately below the staff, at the beginning of each measure (see example above). In large ensemble scores, center each measure number below the bottom staff of each score system. It is not sufficient to include measure numbers only at the beginning of each system.

Parts for transposing instruments (e.g., “Alto Sax in Eb,”” Trumpet in Bb”) must be transposed correctly, including key signatures and chord symbols.

Each horn player needs an individual part. Do not combine multiple horn parts onto the same page.

In general, with a simple lead sheet, rhythm section instruments (guitar, piano, bass, drums) may all read from their individual copy of your C Lead Sheet. If you have written a specific bass line, you may use a C Lead Sheet written on a grand staff: add a bass clef staff and group the two staves with a piano brace.

If the rhythm section parts are too complex to fit on a grand staff lead sheet – for instance, if you have a specific, written-out piano part and a specific, written-out bass line – you can prepare a master rhythm part to distribute to every rhythm section player. For very complex arrangements, or when writing for larger ensembles, prepare individual rhythm section parts for guitar, piano, bass, drums, etc.

In all cases, rhythm section parts should include all of the information the player needs – melody cues, for instance. Don’t just give the rhythm section players a page containing only slash notation and chord symbols, with no other information!

Your C Lead Sheet must show all of the music you have written. For example, if you write a two-horn arrangement with two independent horn parts, your C Lead Sheet must clearly show both horn parts, by combining stems-up (Horn 1) and stems-down (Horn 2) voices, in concert pitch, on a single staff. Be certain to clearly indicate which notes each instrument is playing:

(Don’t forget – combing horns on a single staff is for the C Lead Sheet only. Each horn player gets an individual part showing only the notes they play.)

If the horn parts are unclear when combined onto a single staff – for instance, if the instruments are widely separated in range, or if the texture is highly contrapuntal – in addition to the horn parts, you should prepare a full score (one staff per instrument) for reference, and a master rhythm part (or individual rhythm section parts) for the rhythm section to play from.

A full score can be written either as a concert pitch score or a transposed score. This must be clearly specified on the first page of music – never write just “Score.” (N.B. In arranging and composition classes, using a concert pitch score often makes it easier to give and receive feedback.)

Note that in a concert pitch score, instruments sometimes use clefs that are different from the clef used in the transposed part. For example, in a concert pitch score, the bari sax staff is written in bass clef. Tenor sax staves are often written in a mix of bass clef and treble clef, depending on the register.

Octave-transposing clefs should never be used, except for tenor voice. (Note that certain notation programs are configured to use octave-transposing clefs for tenor sax staves in a concert pitch score – this is a very bad default!)

Even in a concert pitch score, octave-transposing instruments (e.g., guitar, bass) are still written at transposed pitch – i.e., as they appear on the player’s part – rather than at the sounding pitch. This avoids excessive ledger lines.

Get the entire document

There’s much more! Get the entire document Music Preparation Fundamentals for Jazz Composers & Arrangers for free at Darcy James Argue’s official web site, with more valuable tips about:

  • Tempo placement
  • Good phrasing
  • Multimeasure rests
  • Repeats and jumpers
  • Key signatures
  • Time signatures
  • Beaming
  • Compound meter
  • Rhythmic clarity
  • Rests
  • Tuplets
  • Pickup measures
  • Articulations
  • Slurs and ties
  • Accidentals and enharmonics
  • Transposing instruments
  • Chord symbols
  • Slash notation, rhythmic cues, rhythmic notation, and drum parts


Recommended books

Clinton Roemer, The Art of Music Copying (Roerk Music).

The music copyist’s bible — absolutely essential for every jazz musician. Out of print, but available in most music department libraries.

Elaine Gould, Behind Bars (Faber Music). An excellent and very thorough encyclopedia of music engraving standards. Best for the advanced user of notation software looking to learn to create publisher-quality work.

Recommended music notation software

Dorico Pro is a modern music notation software package from Steinberg. Dorico is also available for iPad.

Finale, from MakeMusic, is the longest-running music notation software. (N.B. I designed the Finale Jazz Font Default, which is included with the latest Finale version and is compatible with the music preparation guidelines given above.)

Sibelius Ultimate is subscription-based music notation software from Avid. Sibelius is also available for iPad.

MuseScore is free, open-source music notation software. It has made great strides in recent years, but remains more limited than the commercial software packages listed above.

Recommended resources and forums

“But my software doesn’t do that!” is not a valid excuse. It is also almost always incorrect. If there is something you are trying to do and you don’t know how to do it, search the online knowledge base for your software, or ask your question on a software user forum, or consult with a knowledgeable peer. There are many good online music notation resources — here are some of them:

General music preparation advice




Sibelius-specific issues

If you use Sibelius, you must left-align chords and float rests, neither of which Sibelius does by default. Here are instructions on how to achieve these results:

Norfolk and Pori fonts for Sibelius

These two fonts are both improvements over the fonts that come with Sibelius. These fonts also come with a much-needed solution to create diagonally-offset slash chords in Sibelius (ASC/ASL fonts).

  • Norfolk is an engraved font based on the open-source font Bravura, which comes with Dorico but can be used with other software. I use Bravura with Finale — it’s the font used for all of the musical examples shown in this handout. Sibelius requires some compatibility adjustments in order to use Bravura, which is what Norfolk provides
  • Pori is a manuscript-style font based on the open-source font Petaluma, inspired by Sher Publishing’s The New Real Book.
The Pori font in use in Sibelius (Wayne Shorter: Ana Maria)

Scoring Express templates

NYC Music Services, a professional music preparation service, offers Scoring Express Jazz, a set of well-designed jazz templates for Dorico, Finale, and Sibelius, which I highly recommend. These templates are available for purchase at Notation Central.



  1. Nor Eddine Bahha

    Interesting material here, thanks!!

  2. Michael Koschorreck

    Thank you for this really helpful article!
    Found quite a few of longtime questions answered plus introduced me to some clarifying rules I had not been aware of.

    1. Michael Philcox

      Many thanks for the good advice and clear explanations – textual equivalents of the clarity we aim to provide in our scores.

  3. brettcephalon

    There are several errors in this post, not inclusive of the specific stands Darcy takes on style-specific choices that vary from region to region. While much of this treatise espouses obvious notation conventions, this is by no means a definitive and certainly not authoritative point of view on music notation.

    1. Waldbaer

      Hi, maybe you could specify what you call “errors in this post”? If you can share some of your insight in style-specific choices, that will be appreciated, too.

      I think it’s a nice short overview over many of the always returning topics of the subject, but it will definitely get even more valuable if a discussion hints which of these rules (they are all articulated as such) are really standard and which may be questioned.

      1. brettcephalon

        First, he’s wrong about what he calls “jumpers”. It is critical to put like instructions in like locations relative to the staff. In the example the ”Sign” and ”to Coda” live above the staff while the D.S. is below the staff.

        Second, while it’s certainly not wrong, per se, to elevate and enlarge time signatures, it’s rather heavy-handed to insist upon it, even if the context is particular to jazz ensemble. His way *may* be easier to read by a subset of musicians that are used to it, but the same can be said of many style choices. I find it arrogant to insist that choices such as these are universally right and other choices are universally wrong.

        It is common practice across all genres to interchangeably spell 4/4 with C and 2/2 with a cut C. Who gave him the god-like power to change this convention? I know some house styles prefer one over the other and that’s of course OK; follow the rules where you work. But it is by no means universal.

        His comment about parentheses on courtesy accidentals is just incorrect. Perhaps this guy has never led a band. If you don’t parenthesize courtesy accidentals, the player is left to wonder if they played the correct accidental or natural in the previous measures. Any lack of clarity will affect the quality of performance, both forward and backward. Parentheses exist for a reason. They don’t get in the way of legibility (at least with good notation software) and are valuable.

        “Short notes that fall on the beat beat should be shortened using staccato dots rather than rests.” In reality there is a difference in character between eighth notes and staccato quarter notes. Write what you want to hear. This is an obsequious ode to an obsolete formula that a staccato=1/2 the value of the articulated note.

        “Chords should be left-aligned to the beat where they land (not centered).” This is a style preference, and I prefer the opposite of this guy. Seriously, sometimes one looks better than the other. There is no reason to be absolutist about this.

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