Preparing teaching materials in music notation software

Tutorials

If you have ever taught music lessons or classes, you have likely needed to share some small bit of music notation with your students that isn’t quite a full score or part, but still requires some amount of staff notation. Preparing this sort of document can be tricky because notation software is built around a certain set of assumptions suited for performance materials — scores and parts — which may not always serve learning materials like quizzes or scale sheets.

In this article, I’m going to cover some of the workflows, workarounds, best practices, and other considerations that I have used in preparing my own materials for the university music theory and composition courses I teach.

Handouts and reference

Some documents you prepare will be for student reference, such as a score excerpt, a group of scale examples, or a list of instrument ranges.

To start, do your future self a huge favor by giving your file names clear and descriptive names. For example, don’t just use “Homework 3”, but rather “Homework 3 – Major scales”, which will be much easier to search for a year from now. For study scores and excerpts, consider including the composer, title, movement, and measure numbers.

Speaking of measure numbers, be sure to label everything inside the document just as clearly. Number every measure individually, and if you are using an excerpt from the middle of a movement, use bar number changes to indicate the real bar number. Students may be referring to different editions or may want to refer to recordings, which means they’ll need to know what measure of what movement of what work they’re looking at.

Score excerpt viewed in Dorico
Even though this is the first measure of the handout, the measure numbering begins with 72.

Lots of documents of this sort might combine different kinds of excerpts from different works. Collections like these will want to disguise some of the usual cautionary time signature and key signature changes, since one system might not be a direct continuation from the previous system. Each application has some specific tools that may be of use here:

  • Sibelius: Section break, Gap before bar
  • MuseScore: Vertical and horizontal frames
  • Dorico: Flows
Scale excerpt in Sibelius with hidden items
Since each of these is an independent abstraction, there is no continuity between systems, so there is no cautionary clef change. (You’ll need to re-space the measure after hiding a cautionary.) Hidden symbols are shown here in gray and do not print.

These kinds of handouts are also the perfect use case for specialty fonts, such as Dan Kreider’s MusGlyphs and MusAnalysis, which make it easy to work music and analytical symbols. There’s also Florian Kretlow’s clever Figurato font for writing figured bass.

Worksheets for students to complete by hand

Sometimes you may want to prepare a document that has space for students to write in responses by hand. Completing work by hand is important to assess students’ understanding of fundamental concepts like rhythm notation, beaming, or key signatures, which are largely taken care of automatically by software.

Staff size in this sort of document will need to be slightly larger than you might normally use for other kinds of documents, especially if you are working with younger musicians. If you’re unsure, print off a copy and try writing on it yourself. Size on the screen can be misleading.

If students are going to complete an assignment by hand, they’ll need some space on the staff to write in. I usually do this by entering rests (quarter or eighth rests, usually), and then hiding them. This allows me to create a space with the correct rhythmic alignment and spacing. In most applications it is relatively simple to select any item—such as a rest—and hide it.

Hidden rests in Dorico
Entering half rests here spaces these passages appropriately to half notes. They are hidden here using the color property. The rests are orange here because they are selected, but they will be invisible when printed.

Dorico lacks an explicitly “hide” feature for notes and rests, but you can achieve a similar effect by using the Properties panel to scale a rest to 1% size or color opacity to 0%. When using this workaround, you’ll need to remember to export any PDFs or images using the “color” setting.

This process can be sped up immensely using filters. You can quickly hide all the rests in a document or section by filtering for rests and applying the hide property.

In addition to leaving space for notes, you may also need to leave space for students to write key signatures and time signature. If you’re asking for a time signature only, be sure to slide the time signature to the right a bit to leave room between it and the clef.

Consider bailing out

Much like with front matter in a score, sometimes the text or layout requirements of a handout or assignment may make it much easier to create in a word processing or desktop publishing application, such as Microsoft Word, Apple Pages, Adobe InDesign, etc.

These applications will have much nicer support for writing long blocks of text, bullet lists, tables, or other graphics, such as a flow chart, Venn diagram, circle of fifths, etc.

Page layout in Apple Pages
Multi-level ordered lists like these might be possible to achieve in notation software, it would be much more frustrating and much less flexible.

In this case, you may wish to export staves from your scoring application as graphics so that you can bring them into another application. Rather than using screenshots, use each application’s built-in graphic selection and export tools, such as Dorico’s Graphic Slices, Finale’s Graphics Tool, and Sibelius’s Select Graphic.

The best transfer format for image quality will be SVG, as it can scale infinitely, but not every application will handle SVGs equally well. If you have difficulty working with an SVG, PNG is probably your next best option. Be sure to stick to a 300 ppi (pixels per inch) resolution at minimum. 600 ppi would be even better.

One other option for exporting consistent graphics is to tweak page settings to get a very short and wide page size. This will allow you to export several graphics that all have the same dimensions and same padding around the staff.

Very small page size example in Dorico
This document includes very small pages, which makes it very easy to work with single-measure images in other applications.

Completing assignments inside the computer

Giving students the assignment to complete in their software can have many benefits. Many of my students do not have easy access to a printer, so for remote classes, hand-written assignments can be a challenge, so completing assignments digitally can simplify things. It is also an excuse to give students an excuse to get familiar with software that they may need to use in the future. In my classes, I have used Sibelius First and MuseScore.

I’ll start with a small caveat: it’s easy to get sidetracked in software troubles and lose sight of the main music lesson. Provide as much scaffolding in template files as you can and limit your use of fancy workarounds and fonts that you might use in a paper document.

These templates will likely look a little messier than the sorts of documents you might provide for a handwritten assignment or handout. For example, you might have rests in multiple voices in the interest of showing where notes need to be entered. Students who are less familiar with this software will likely be confused by the gray “ghost” rests that result from the hiding features discussed above. Similarly, you’ll want to avoid the fancy fonts, since you likely don’t want to spend time teaching your students to install and use those fonts.

In the document, include instructions on both the music related tasks as well as how to complete them in the software. For example, if you want students to analyze harmony and show chord symbols, you might also include instructions for how to create a chord symbol from the software menu or keyboard shortcut.

Assignment instructions in MuseScore
The instructions for this MuseScore-based assignment include both musical instructions and software instructions. You can download and explore the assignment template here.

All four major platforms have pretty good support for chord symbols. MuseScore and Sibelius both have Roman numeral analysis tools — I find MuseScore’s to be a little more flexible at the cost of being not quite as pretty. And MuseScore, Sibelius, and Dorico all have built-in figured bass support.

For assessing student work, there are two main options: you can collect exported PDFs and mark them up as any other document, or you can collect notation project files and use the markup and commenting tools. I have used a combination of the note color tools and the “sticky note” style comment tools to provide feedback.

There will likely be a familiarization period the first few times you ask students to work in notation software, and you may be called upon to provide technical support for fonts or audio setups. You might want to look for some video tutorials on YouTube that cover the basics. Despite a handful of startup challenges, I think my students have gotten a lot out of the opportunity to experiment with these tools.

Conclusions

While the software that we use to write, arrange, and prepare scores and parts may not always lend itself as easily to preparing learning materials, it can be an important tool for teachers and students. If you have any questions or if I’ve left out your favorite workaround or workflow, please leave a comment below! I’d love to hear more about what you’re doing.

For further discussion about these topics, please listen to our Scoring Notes podcast episodes.

Creating worksheets that score top marks

Worksheets are that quintessential element of music instruction that appears in everything from homework assignments to quizzes. On the Scoring Notes podcast, David MacDonald and Philip Rothman discuss how to work with music notation software to create documents that are worthy of top marks. Listen now:

Scoring Notes
Scoring Notes
Creating worksheets that score top marks
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Completing teaching assignments within music notation software

Creating teaching materials to be completed directly in music notation software can help students learn both the theory and practical technological skills that are essential to a modern music education. On the Scoring Notes podcast, David MacDonald and Philip Rothman provide a curriculum to follow when doing this in your classroom. Listen now:

Scoring Notes
Scoring Notes
Completing teaching assignments within music notation software
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