Heads up: Page numbers and headers


In music scores and parts, page numbers and headers are some of the most underappreciated and overlooked elements of what appears on the page. When you stop to think about it, it’s no mystery why that’s the case.

In the composing and music creation process, those items are afterthoughts; no one penned a magnum opus with pagination at the forefront of their mind. And with today’s music notation software applications, we just take it for granted that such seemingly perfunctory elements will come “for free” when we finish working on the score.

But that doesn’t always happen. Then, when it comes time to print and distribute the music, that most essential information — from the perspective of the printer and distributor, that is — is incorrect, inconsistent, or sometimes just entirely absent. Without cranking the scare factor up too high, just think about the consequences if pages are missing, out of order, or assembled with music intended for another instrument: a literal showstopper, much worse than a forgotten cautionary accidental or undesirable beam groups.

For those reasons, in all instances of music preparation — concert, jazz, commercial, or otherwise — I advocate for placing this information on every page of the score and parts. I’m not alone. The oft-quoted Elaine Gould, in Behind Bars: The Definitive Guide to Music Notation, advocates the same. But I’ll admit that the crucial nuggets of this advice is scattered in multiple places in Behind Bars, so I’ll helpfully consolidate the information here.

Page numbers (pp. 483-484)

Music starts on a right-hand (recto) page, unless there is a particular reason to start on a left-hand (verso) page – e.g. to facilitate page-turns. Right-hand pages are odd-numbered, left-hand pages even. An opening right-hand page is page 1, an opening left-hand page is page 2.

In publications, the first page of music (i.e. page 1 or 2) is not usually printed with a page number. However, for manufacturing purposes it is useful to be alerted to an opening left-hand page by adding the numeral 2.

Place page numbers clear of the notation, ideally at the top outside edge of the page away from the fold or binding, where they should be aligned with the vertical edge of the printed area. Numerals should be above or at least level with the highest point of the notation: they define the upper boundary of the printed area. Especially in hand-copied manuscript, ensure that page numbers are not too close to the edge of the page or they are liable to be accidentally deleted in the manufacturing process.

Running heads (p. 501)

For works in many sections (movements, acts or scenes, songs or other numbers), headings at the top of each page help the musician to identify a particular place quickly. The most helpful references are movement, section, act or scene numbers. These headings are useful in a full score, rehearsal or vocal score and chorus part, and may be added to the running-head instrument labels in instrumental parts (see Labelling the part, p. 558).

Labeling the part (p. 558)

For subsequent pages it is good policy to label the top center of each page with instrument name and player number, in case pages become separated later (this is known as a ‘running head’).

Here’s a good example of all these practices in use:

  • Page number with odd page on the right: ✅
  • Running head with name of work and movement or section: ✅
  • Top center of page with instrument name and player number: ✅

The very practical reason for having page numbers at the top outside edge of the page is to make it easy to flip through a score or book to find the correct page.

One common and allowable deviation from the above formula is in commercial music or other music that is printed concertina or “accordion” style; that is, single-sided and folded where the entire spread is visible at once. When there are 3 or 4 pages on the stand at once, there is no real concept of even and odd pages, so the page number is placed in the center. The part name is on the left, and the movement/song is on the right, like this:

In no instance, though, should even page numbers be placed on the right and odd pages be placed on the left — or the equally heinous related error, placing page numbers on the inside edge (even if the even/odd numbers are correct). Such a scheme will, in the best case, cause a cognitive disconnect for anyone looking at the score, and in the worst case, cause printing and binding problems.

Yet this happens with considerable frequency — and I’ve seen it in scores produced in all of the major scoring applications, and by amateurs and professionals alike. When we receive music files to print at NYC Music Services, it’s one of the first things I look for, and hopefully have time to fix, if it’s done incorrectly.

It’s a common observation I make when looking at scores when I visit composer seminars, and I always try to mention it when lecturing on the topic of music preparation, like I recently did with my good friend Manly Romero for a webinar presented by the American Composers Orchestra.

Making sure that your scores and parts always contain this essential, but often neglected information, will make it all the more likely that the right music will be with the right player, in the right place, at the right time. In subsequent posts, I’ll discuss how to set this up correctly in music notation software, and also in “post-production”, when the music files aren’t available, using Adobe Acrobat Pro.



    Phil – Great article!! Please review this: “mangum” opus in your first paragraph.

    Thank you.


    1. Philip Rothman

      Thanks, Enrique, for the great eye!


        You are very welcome, Philip! :)

  2. Carole Prietto

    Very helpful!

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