Orchestra librarians want you to know about parts paper sizes


Editor’s note: This is part of a new collaboration with Orchestration Online, where we will publish their videos on Scoring Notes along with a complete transcript and links to further resources. Thank you to Thomas Goss for collaborating with us and making these terrific videos! — Philip

This post is a transcript of the video published on the YouTube channel of Orchestration Online, a resource for composers and orchestrators.

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Transcript: Orchestra librarians want you to know about parts paper sizes

Hey there, this is your orchestration tutor Thomas Goss, welcoming you back to my series about important things that orchestra librarians want you to know. My first installment covered the importance of clarity with instrument names and numbers in your scores. Now let’s talk about parts.

This is such a complex topic that I’ve divided the subject of parts across several videos. I’m not trying to turn any of my viewers into expert copyists or engravers, which would involve years of training. But I simply want you to know how you can make the job of the orchestra librarian easier, and help ensure smooth rehearsals and performances of your music.

Before I do any work on my parts, I’ll want to get one basic parameter from the librarian: the paper size their orchestra prefers for their instrument parts. Every other decision I make regarding elements like readability and page turns will ultimately rely on how much space I format for the music on the printed page. And the more you work with different orchestras, the more you’ll see that there really is no uniformity to this. North American paper sizes are in inches, while the rest of the world uses metric A and metric B sized papers.

Professional orchestras may have machines that fold, staple, and sort an orchestra’s worth of parts at the press of a button – while some community and semipro orchestras might have at best a standard office copier, or even just a computer printer. There may also be considerations of cost involved with different projects as well – costly larger paper may be a greater priority for parts to a six-week opera run than one short reading session for student composer works.

Add to this the librarian’s concern that the musicians have what is essentially a usable, complete edition of your music with the pages all in order and none missing – not in honor of your genius as a composer, but because missing pages, misplaced parts, and out-of-order sheets are the bane of the orchestra librarian’s existence. To combat this rising tide of time-wasting annoyances, there are three general strategies: taping, binding, or bookletting. Taping is exactly what it sounds like: the librarian tapes multiple sheets together in order in an accordion fold. This takes hours, but it’s sometimes the only option when dealing with just two or three sheets per part. Furthermore, it can be useful to the musician in sorting tricky page turns by unfolding an extra sheet or two from the taped part.

Binding these days is sometimes done onsite, sometimes sent out to a printer, depending on the budget and the available equipment. Usually parts won’t be bound in this way unless they contain half a dozen sheets or more.

The third option of bookletting takes us right back to the concern of paper size. Because bookletting any kind of folded edition requires paper that’s twice the size of any single sheet. This immediately raises concerns about paper cost, let alone availability; and the capacity of the librarian’s machine to handle duplex printing on large paper sizes. For the smallest allowable professional parts sizes according to the MOLA guidelines – 9 by 12 inches in North America, and A4 metric everywhere else, this shouldn’t pose too much of a problem. A4 Metric is half the size of A3, with the same ratio, and most professional office printers can handle duplexing A3. I even have a home printer that can do this. In North America, doubling 9 by 12 paper gets you a standard paper size called “ARCH B” (no relation to metric B-sized paper). The ratios aren’t the same between these two sizes, but that doesn’t matter because the focus is on bookletting – which some professional office copiers are equipped to handle.

When the size of the paper increases, the bookletting options may quickly decrease for the librarian. Some of my North American orchestra librarian contacts swear by the paper size of 10 by 13 inches, or even 11 by 14 inches for parts. If the librarian asks for these larger sizes, that’s a fantastic option – because these large sheets can help make complex scores more readable, and fit more information per page in a very long work. But never assume that every orchestra library can booklet parts formatted to that size, because many can’t. A similar situation exists for the beautiful, perfect paper size of metric B4 paper, which for our North American viewers is just a little under 10 by 14 inches. But B4 can be annoying to source sometimes, let alone trying to find its doubled size of B3, or a printer that can quickly duplex, staple, and fold a set of parts with it.

“But to what paper size would a world-class orchestra librarian ask you to format your instrument parts? Possibly SRA3 paper.” SR, which stands for “supplementary raw format” is metric paper sizing that includes an added margin to allow for bleed, cut lines, and information to be included outside the central image before a printed piece of paper is cut down to a standard size. But for us composers, this raw area can also be used to its fullest potential as a canvas for our scores and parts. SRA3 is such a universal size that it’s easily available in most big cities that use metric paper – and the dimensions are very similar to ARCH B: a little over 12 by a little under 18 inches. So bookletted parts could end up similar in size to the more generous 9 by 12 inches on each page, compared to the smaller A3 sheets bookletted to A4 pages.

For North American top professional orchestras, the equivalent paper size is a fraction larger: 13 by 19 inches, called supertabloid or Super B – once again, no relationship to metric B paper sizes, but an SR-type version of ARCH B. A quick Google search will reveal that this is a common large size for specialized copy machines and printers in the USA and Canada. I’m noticing that American publishers are renting out parts printed on supertabloid more and more these days, like these cello parts from Carl Fischer. Each page ends up at 9-and-a-half by 13 inches, which is plenty of room across which to score out each part with a nice large staff size and decent space between staves.

It’s been observed many times that the standard US Letter size of eight-and-a-half by eleven isn’t a professional paper size for instrument parts. But the truth may very well be that many of my viewers will have no other option when working with student or community orchestras very early in their careers. My advice is to see if the orchestra will at least agree to printing the parts on 9 by 12-inch paper if you buy them a ream. The ceiling on US Letter is just so low.

Of course, this brings up the whole issue of self-publishing your OWN parts and scores in these situations, and that might very well be preferred by the organizations you work with if they have zero budget for a librarian. The first conductor I ever worked with told me to use the copy machine in the university music office – and glared daggers at any of the staff who might object to me printing up hundreds of pages of parts for a reading of one of my pieces by his student orchestra. But if you really want to get serious and create a set of parts that can be used by different orchestras, there are a lot more options available working with a professional print house in terms of paper size, quality, and binding. Just make sure that the paper is a nice crisp white or off-white, that’s at least 100 GSM – around 60 pound in North American paper weight. You want paper that won’t show the image on the reverse side, or get blown around by the concert hall’s air conditioning. All the same, if a professional orchestra has commissioned you for an original work or an arrangement, and your contract says that they’ll print the parts and score for their musicians, then leave all these details to the librarian, as it’s literally their job. Or work with a music preparation service that will ensure that clean, nicely printed parts will get to the stands in shape and on time.

One more consideration about paper size, at least for do-it-yourself projects, is that musicians are starting to use tablets more and more as a tool. At least one professional orchestra has gone over to a completely digital format, with large screens replacing paper parts on their music stands – and while that may someday result in another video added to this series, for now it’s worth considering that a PDF part formatted to very large paper may end up shrunk down a tiny staff size when displayed on the average computer tablet. This won’t be an issue when working with a professional orchestra – but the musicians on the last few chamber projects I recorded used tablets to read the parts I sent them instead of printing up the sheets. That’s just one more little bit of evolution that we composers and orchestrators need to keep an eye on.

Parts paper size final checklist

  1. Always check with the orchestra librarian about preferred paper size when formatting parts for a commissioned project. Also consult MOLA guidelines.
  2. Safest/smallest allowable parts paper sizes are 9” x 12” in North America (bookletted from Arch B), and A4 metric internationally (bookletted from A3). Larger paper sizes may be difficult to source and require binding rather than bookletting.
  3. SR paper sizes may be an option: 9.5” x 13” in North America (bookletted from Supertabloid/Super B), and SRA4 (bookletted from SRA3).
  4. US Letter is not a professional parts paper size; but may be the only option with student and community orchestras. If you’re asked to supply your own parts and score, you may want to up the game with the professional sizes above.
  5. Musicians are using tablets more these days; so think about how paper sizes reduce down to readable dimensions.

A few years ago, I released an Orchestration Question video on paper sizes for full scores, and as most of the information in that video is still fairly up-to-date, I’ll let it stand – with the admission that I flubbed things a bit by not being clear enough about professional sizes for instrument parts. Hopefully this video will make amends to all my mildly outraged orchestra librarian friends across the world. See you soon for the next video in this series, all about formatting parts.

Chapters to come in this series

Orchestra Librarians Want You to Know About…

  • Format & Page Turns
  • Cues & Repeat Bars
  • Bowing & Divisi
  • Percussion Parts & Scores
  • Proofing Parts
  • The Orchestra Librarian’s Process


  1. Charles Gaskell

    Thanks for including the transcript – really useful!

  2. Mike Pacifico

    Great post and I’m very excited for the rest of the chapters in this series! Something I’d love to see included is paper size for full scores and how to bind them. Is there a proper method to tape full scores? Spiral bind? Thanks so much!

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