DJA’s Notes: Music preparation basics

Tips

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.

Why bother with music preparation?

Well-prepared lead sheets, scores, and parts are essential for good sight-reading. The goal is to communicate musical intent in the most clear, familiar, and unambiguous manner.

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 rehearsal time.

Music notation software has many obvious advantages over traditional hand-copying, but it does not eliminate the need to acquire good music preparation skills. There is an art to preparing music for performance, one which takes time and experience to learn.

Whether you prepare your music by hand or use notation software, your works must be prepared to a professional standard.

The basics

The Art of Music Copying by Clinton Roemer is an important resource. This out-of-print book is available digitally on Scribd. Consult this text carefully, particularly Chapters 11, 12, 13, 17, and 18, regardless of whether you are using music notation software or copying by hand.

Traditional paper size for hand-copied music parts is 9.5” x 12.5” (or larger) with 8 staves on the title page, and 10 staves thereafter. If you are copying parts by hand, I recommend that you acquire this type of paper, which can be ordered from Judy Green Music — select M-303 – 8/10 Stave Wide Line 9.5×12.5. The staff size for this paper is 9.2 mm tall.

If you choose to use 8.5” x 11” manuscript paper, select paper with 10 staves per page and a staff size of 8mm. Do not use staff paper where the staves are cramped too close together — you need room between staves to include chord symbols and/or ledger lines.

On 10-staff manuscript paper, write the title between the first two staves and begin the music on the third stave. Write the instrument name (e.g. “Tenor Sax”) or transposition type (e.g, “C Lead Sheet,” “B♭ Instruments”) at top left. Write the composer’s name (i.e., your name) at top right. Notation software users should use similar positioning for instrument name, title, and composer.

When music notation software and printing to 8.5”x11” paper, use a staff size of 7.5 – 8 mm for lead sheets and parts.

Make sure that you are not inadvertently reducing the size when exporting to PDF, printing, or photocopying.

Use portrait orientation (not landscape) for all scores and parts.

Use double barlines to separate sections, and mark each new section with a unique rehearsal letter or rehearsal number. Enclose rehearsal letters/numbers in boxes. Note that rehearsal letters on a lead sheet are different from the letters used for formal analysis — for instance even if you have composed a piece in AABA form, use the rehearsal letters A, B, C, and D. Do not repeat rehearsal letters.

In addition to the rehearsal letters/numbers every measure must be numbered.

Multi-page parts must be taped and must include a header at the top of all subsequent pages that includes the title, instrument name, and page number — e.g., “MAIN TITLE — E♭ Instruments p.2”.

Parts for transposing instruments (e.g., Alto Sax in E♭, Trumpet in B♭) must be transposed correctly, including key signatures and chord symbols.

Prepare an appropriate part for each musician in the ensemble.

In general, the rhythm section instruments (piano, bass, drums) will read from a C Lead Sheet. If you have a specific piano, bass, or drum part that is too complex for a lead sheet, you can prepare that separately, but be sure to include all of the information the player needs (melody cues, for instance). You could also prepare a reduced score that clearly shows all of the individual parts in the most compact way possible (using stems-up and stems-down voices on a single staff to show two independent horn parts, for instance).

Tempo

Tempo markings are left-aligned to the beginning of the time signature. Indicate a metronome mark and a style or feel, e.g.:

Write the tempo using the musical symbol for the beat duration — not, e.g., “120 BPM”.

Phrasing

When talking about music preparation, “phrasing” means “how the measures are distributed on each system.” Good phrasing makes the form easy to see at a glance. Bad (lopsided) phrasing obscures the form.

Many people believe that all that is needed for good phrasing is to maintain four measures per system. This is incorrect.

A much better rule of thumb: New sections should begin either at the beginning of the system or at the midpoint of the system.

“4 measures per system” can be a useful starting point for music that is written in 4 measure phrases, but keep in mind:

  • In phrases containing an even number of measures (e.g., 8-bar phrases), odd-numbered multimeasure rests get the space of one measure, and even-numbered multimeasure rests take up half a staff system (usually two measures).
  • In phrases containing an odd number of measures (e.g., 7-bar phrases, etc.), one system will have three measures instead of four. (See Chapter 11 of The Art of Music Copying.)

  • More than 4 measures/system is okay for passages with long note values (whole notes and half notes), or slash notation (i.e., rhythm parts, solo changes, etc). Fewer than 4 measures/system may be required for busy passages (lots of eighths/sixteenths).
  • Up to four multimeasure rests per system are acceptable, regardless of how many sections are involved. Including only one multimeasure rest per system wastes space.

Repeats and jumpers (D.S., D.C., etc.).

Take care when using jumpers (D.S., D.C., Codas, etc). The measure you are jumping from must have the text “to CODA” — including the coda symbol, which should be aligned to the right barline. The measure you are jumping to — the Coda — must begin on a new, indented system, and have the text “CODA”, including the coda symbol, aligned with the start of the measure.

Articulations

Most articulations are placed on the note side, with staccato and tenuto marks placed inside the staff when appropriate. Marcato accents always appear above the staff. Staccato and tenuto marks go inside slur tips. Accents can go either inside or outside slurs. (Note that Roemer recommends placing all articulations above the notes and outside the staff. This is not recommended.

Beaming

In 4/4, four consecutive eighth notes beginning on beat 1 or beat 3 are beamed together. It is incorrect to beam these eighths in pairs — it makes the lines look discontinuous and is difficult to read.

Three eighth notes before or after an eighth rest are not beamed together. This helps to visually distinguish this figure from triplets:

Eighth note tuplets, sixteenth notes, and smaller values are always beamed to the beat. Rests inside beams should be allowed to float vertically if needed. Do not use stemlets.

2/4 should be beamed like half a measure of 4/4.

In fast 3/4, six consecutive eighths on Beat 1 (or four consecutive eighths on Beat 2) should be beamed together. In slow 3/4, beam to the beat.

Cut time is beamed the same as 4/4.

5/4 is beamed as as if it were a measure of 3/4 plus a measure of 2/4 (3+2 or 2+3).

6/4 is traditionally beamed as two measures of 3/4. 3/2 is beamed as three measures of 2/4.

7/4 is beamed as two measures of 2/4 plus one measure of 3/4 (2+2+3, 3+2+2, or 2+3+2).

It is best to avoid measures longer than 7/4. Frequent time signature changes are better than measures that are too long to take in at a glance.

Mixed meters like, e.g., 7/8, should also reflect the underlying beat structure. A measure of 7/8 that is subdivided 2+2+3 is beamed differently from one that is subdivided 3+2+2.

Compound meters

Compound meters (6/8, 9/8, 12/8) are beamed to the beat.

Rhythmic clarity

In 4/4, you should avoid writing figures that obscure the “invisible barline” that divides the bar in half (beat 3).

Exceptions are made for simple figures like the following — do not clutter these figures with needless ties.

Odd meters (5/4, 7/4, etc.) have their own “invisible barline” (see above).

Every instrument should have the same time signature, beat, and beaming pattern. Use accents, not beaming, to indicate emphasis that cuts against the meter.

Short notes that fall on the beat beat should be shortened using staccato dots rather than rests.

Rests

Rests must be grouped to clarify the beat. Rests that last more than a beat must begin on the beat. Do not use dotted rests longer than a dotted eighth rest in simple meters (e.g., 3/4, 4/4)

In compound meters (e.g., 6/8. 12/8), dotted quartet rests are used when they begin on the beat. Dotted half rests are used at the beginning of the bar, or at the midway point. For clarity, consolidate two eighth rests into one quarter rest when they occur at the beginning of a beat.

Empty measures always take a whole rest centered between the barline, regardless of the time signature.

Tuplets

In simple meter (e.g., 4/4, 3/4) tuplets must be shorter than the “normal” notes they replace, but longer than the next smallest note value. For example, quarter-note tuplets are shorter than normal quarter notes, but longer than eighth notes.

The sole exception to this rule occurs in compound meter, e.g., 6/8, 12/8), where duplets and quadruplets are longer than the “normal” notes they replace. For example, eighth note duplets are longer than than eighth notes.

Beamed tuplets take a number only, on the beam side. Tuplets included on the same beam as non-tuplets — such as three tuplet sixteenth notes followed by an eighth note — require a bracket. Stemmed or mixed tuplets also require a bracket. It is standard for tuplet brackets to appear on the stem side. (Note that Roemer recommends adding a slur for all beamed tuplets, and placing all tuplets above the staff — this is not recommended.)

Key signatures

When key signatures are used, they should appear at the beginning of every system, not just the top system.

For compositions without a key signature, the transposed parts should be transposed without using a key signature — this option is called Open Key/Atonal in Sibelius, Open Key in Dorico, and Hide Key Signature and Show All Accidentals in Finale.

Time signatures

Traditional inside-the-staff time signatures are fine for music that does not change meter, but are too small for music with many time signature changes. In multi-metric music, use oversized time signatures: the bottom time signature number should extend up to the 4th staff line, and the top time signature number should sit on the 4th staff line and extend above the staff.

Do not abbreviate 4/4 to “C”.

Pickup measures

A pickup measure is an incomplete measure that begins the piece. Pickup measures are not included in measure numbering. The end of a pickup measure must be marked with a double bar. Instruments/staves not playing in the pickup measure must have rests equivalent to the number of beats in the pickup.

Barlines and stems

Each new section must be separated by a double barline and marked with a boxed rehearsal letter or rehearsal number.

Barlines should be slightly thicker than stems. Stems should be slightly thicker than staff lines.

Other lines

Hairpins, tuplet brackets, ledger lines, ending repeat brackets, 8va lines, etc. should be drawn boldly (minimum 1 point thick).

Ending repeat brackets must be drawn above chord symbols, 8va lines, and all other above-the-staff items.

Slurs and ties

Notation programs often squash ties between closely-spaced notes, making them very difficult to read. Whether you are drawing by hand or using notation software, always make sure all ties are clearly visible.

Slurs over tied notes must extend to the final note in a chain of tied notes.

Accidentals and enharmonics

As a general rule, use the correct enharmonic spelling for the key and chord. For example, in the key of F♯, the IV chord is BMA7 and is spelled B–D♯–F♯– A♯. In the key of G♭, the IV chord is C♭MA7 and is spelled C♭–E♭–G♭–B♭.

Apart from the root, tritone substitutions are spelled as chromatically altered versions of the V7 chord they are replacing. For example, in the key of G, an A♭7(♯11) chord functioning as a subV7 would be spelled A♭–C–D–F♯ (instead of A♭–C–D–G♭) since it is replacing D7.

In highly chromatic passages and/or rapidly moving passages, enharmonic spelling rules can be relaxed for ease of reading. In particular, chord symbols should never be spelled with double-sharps or double-flats.

In general, spell perfect fourths, fifths, and octaves as perfect intervals. Avoid augmented thirds (e.g., E♭–G♯), diminished sixths (e.g., F♯–D♭), augmented sevenths (e.g., B♭–A♯), and similar.

If you enter your music in concert pitch, watch for bad enharmonic spelling for transposing instruments (especially unwanted double flats and double sharps). Always proofread the enharmonic spelling of transposed parts carefully, including chord symbols.

When you have, e.g., an F♯ in one measure, followed by an F♮ in the subsequent measure, be sure to add a courtesy natural in the part. This is especially important when the F♮ directly follows the F♯!

Accidentals carry throughout the measure, in the given octave only. A B♭ in one octave does not affect the B’s in any other octave — though it is often useful to add a courtesy accidental as a reminder.

In dense chromatic music, it is sometimes necessary to use courtesy sharps and flats within the measure as a reminder.

Do not parenthesize courtesy accidentals. Parentheses distort spacing and make the accidentals less legible.

Chord symbols

There are two main systems for spelling chords:

Choose one system and use it consistently.

Alterations should be parenthesized and spelled with sharps and flats — e.g., G7(♭9), F7(♯9) — rather than with pluses and minuses.

Chords should be left-aligned to the beat where they land (not centered).

There are two types of “slash chords” and they mean different things:

  • Chords with a diagonal slash indicate a chord inversion, or a chord with an alternate bass note.
  • Chords with a horizontal slash indicate a compound chord (i.e., two complete chords, one played above the other).

Do not use slash chords to replace common chord symbols.

For transposing instruments, chord symbols must also be transposed to the player’s key.

Recommended books

Clinton Roemer, The Art of Music Copying (Roerk Music). The music copyist’s bible. Absolutely essential for every jazz musician, and a required text for this class. This out-of-print book is available digitally on Scribd.

Steven Powell, Music Engraving Today (Brichtmark Music). The best modern introduction to music notation standards. The software-specific advice is somewhat out of date, but the general notation advice is extremely useful.

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 web sites and forums

Sibelius

Norfolk and Pori fonts for Sibelius

  • These two fonts are massive improvements over the fonts that come with Sibelius. Norfolk is an engraved font based on the open-source font Bravura, which is used for all of the musical examples in this handout. Pori is a manuscript-style font based on the open-source font Petaluma, which is inspired by the hand-copyists who prepared Sher Publishing’s The New Real Book Vol. 1. It comes with a solution to create diagonally-arranged slash chords in Sibelius.
The Pori font in use in Sibelius (Wayne Shorter: Ana Maria)

Sibelius resources and tutorials:

Finale

Dorico

All platforms

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Comments

  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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