Music Notation Questions Answered

This is a list of questions about music notation and its use. You may find it of interest if you do music copying or music typesetting, whether professionally or as a hobby. The answers are obtained from music professionals whenever possible, and all answers are attributed. If you have a question which is not on this list, or an answer you would like to submit, please e-mail us.

Layout Issues

What is the reason for the 'Broadway' layout style of four bars on a line?

A Broadway show is a work in progress and room must be left for last minute changes, corrections, additions, etc. If music were laid out in a normal, tight format, there would be no room for such changes, which must be physically pasted onto the parts. Although the computer would allow you to reprint the parts, that is usually not an option because they have been marked up by the players. This style also improves sight-readability, since the rule is not strictly four bars on line, but rather that phrases must start at the beginning of a line. (Petrosky)

Should the open (left-hand) repeat of a repeated section be placed at the beginning of a line?

Yes, if at all possible. This makes it much easier to find the beginning of the repeat when sight reading. The goal of all such notational devices is to make it as easy as possible to read through the music correctly the first time. (Petrosky)

Note Value and Rhythm

Should a composer use a small meter like 3/32 or 1/4?

Small meters like 3/32 should be avoided if at all possible. The same music can be notated in larger meters with larger note values, and will be much easier to read. Remember, the easier the music is to read, the better the performance. (Proto)

What is the correct note value of a dotted eighth note duplet (two eighths in the space of three eighths)?

There is considerable controversy over the correct way to notate this duplet. The technically correct way is according to the same rule as other tuplets, which says that a note can only be shortened, never lengthened. This implies that, for instance, 3 notes in a quarter are eighths, but 5 in a quarter are 16ths. This rule implies that 2 notes in a dotted quarter are quarters. This system is consistent, sensible, and is recommended by Stone, Roemer, and Rosenthal.

However, common practice is to notate 2 in 3/8 as eighth notes. One possible explanation is that the player's eye is used to seeing a quarter divided into eighths, regardless of whether it has a dot. (Sewell) This method is recommended by Read and Ross. The most serious problem with this is that a given note value (say, a dotted half) can be divided into 2 quarters or 4 quarters. This seems to me to be wrong by definition, not to mention confusing. (Talbot)

Pitch, Key, and Transposition

What is the proper symbol for "play two octaves higher?"

15ma or 15: the Italian abbreviation of quindicesima, indicating the interval of a fifteenth (i.e. the double octave). It is used only above the treble staff to indicate that the notes are to be played two octaves higher than written. 16va and 16ma are often mistakenly used, but a two-octave interval is a fifteenth and should be correctly abbreviated 15ma. (Sewell)

If I am creating a transposed score (or extracting transposed parts) of an atonal piece which is notated without key signatures, should transposing instruments have key signatures (which put them into concert C)?

No. Such parts, whether in a score or individual, should be notated transposed but without a key signature. The presence of a key would at best be misleading since the piece is not actually in a particular key. (Proto)

Should a copyist or typesetter editorialize by adding courtesy accidentals that do not appear in the composer's manuscript?

Yes. It is the role of a good copyist to prepare parts that are as easy to sight read as possible. When used correctly, courtesy accidentals greatly improve readability. (Petrosky)

Scores and Parts

Should I use a bracket or brace on systems containing only a single staff?

No. When using a single staff for vocal or instrumental parts, no barline, bracket or brace should be used at the left end of the staff. The staff lines should remain open with the clef being the leftmost symbol. This rule holds even in score situations where only one part is playing and all but one staff have been omitted to save space. (Sewell)

Specific Notations

Where do you notate 'mute off' (senza sordino) when the muted passage is followed by bars rest?

Always place the 'mute off' indication immediately after the muted passage (at the start of the first bar rest). It should also be paced at the start of the next passage if it is offset by a physically long distance from the end of the muted passage, such as when a page turn or cues fall in between. (Proto)


Petrosky, Ted

Ted Petrosky worked for five years as an independent copyist in New York City. He studied performance at Juilliard, and studied copying under Arnold Arnstein for seven years. He now owns a small chamber music publisher, Symphony Reproductions.

Proto, Frank

Frank Proto is a composer affiliated with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra whose compositions are performed regularly by major US orchestras. He has graduate degrees in performance and music education from Manhattan School of Music, and has been playing professionally since 1955. He owns Liben Music Publishers and has been publishing music since 1966.

Sewell, Gregg

Gregg Sewell is an expert on computerized music preparation. He has a degree in theory and composition from Samford University. He has been a music editor since 1977, and a full time professional engraver since 1980. He is currently Executive Editor of Triune Music, Inc. and editor of The Organist magazine.

Talbot, Alan

Alan Talbot is an industry expert on music typesetting technology, and has been developing music typesetting software since 1981. He has a degree in computer science from Dartmouth College. He is the author of the Synclavier Music Engraving System and Music Press, and has served on the ANSI committee for music representation standards.


Read, Gardner
Music Notation, A Manual of Modern Practice, 2nd Ed.
New York: Taplinger Publishing Company, 1979.
Roemer, Clinton
The Art of Music Copying
Sherman Oaks: Roerick Music Co., 1973.
Rosenthal, Carl A.
A Practical Guide to Music Notation for Composers, Arrangers and Editors
New York: MCA Music, 1967.
Ross, Ted
The Art of Music Engraving and Processing
Miami: Hansen Books, 1970.
Stone, Kurt
Music Notation in the Twentieth Century, a Practical Guidebook
New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1980.

| Home | Music Press | Support | Graphire |

Copyright © 1997-2000 Graphire Corporation - All rights reserved.

All information is subject to change without notice. Music Press, Graphire, and the Graphire "g" logo are trademarks of Graphire Corporation. All other trademark names are the trademarks of their respective holders.