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I'm writing a fairly simple piano piece which has a repeated pattern which crosses staves/hands. I think it looks clearer musically to write it with cross-staff beaming as in the first bar below, but I suspect that others, particularly those less confident reading music, might prefer the staves to be written separately as in the second bar. enter image description here

Are there any rules/guidelines for the use of cross-staff beaming? I guess it's partly a matter of opinion, but I do want it to be as clear as possible for a wide range of readers, and as it's a fairly easy piece I don't want to put off less experienced players. If anyone can point me to any hard and fast rules, or something from a grade syllabus, that'd be great. I don't recall being taught about cross-staff beaming myself, but I think it might have confused me as a beginner.

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    In my opinion these 'e' notes shouldn't even be cross-staff. Ledger lines exist for exactly this reason: to avoid spurious staff switches that hinder more than they help. – Kilian Foth Sep 10 at 7:55
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    Those two bars aren't really the same musically. Bar 2 doesn't only change beaming, it changes the rhythm and puts the E4 into the treble voice. – Michael Curtis Sep 10 at 14:05
  • @Kilian Foth That sounds like something an online textbook might say, but common practice doesn't reflect that view. The first bar above seems to me the clearest way to write the notes. It really wouldn't hinder anyone. Which of the alternatives (see my answer below) would you advocate? – Old Brixtonian Sep 10 at 14:10
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The notation helps you to see to which voices the notes belong to.

The first measure clearly suggest there are two voices, the top one moving in half-notes and the bottom one playing eight-note arpeggios.

In the second measure you have dotted rhythm melody in right hand and arpeggios consisting of three notes in the left hand. Notice that even the note lengths are different (is the first G in the violin clef supposed to be a half note, or dotted quarter-note?) That's quite different music, isn't it?

See also:

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  • I had to make it a half note for the example to stop musescore showing the rest (you can hide rests for export but it still shows as greyed-out on screen). It should be dotted-quarter really. – Bob says reinstate Monica Sep 9 at 22:58
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    @BobsaysreinstateMonica: Even if the upper note is changed to a dotted-quarter in both versions, still a good player would play the two slightly differently, using the articulation and dynamics to make the E sound either like part of the figuration voice with the arpeggio below, or else part of a melody with the G above. – PLL Sep 10 at 13:23
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    @Bob Musescore is actually giving you the answer. – Andrew Leach Sep 10 at 19:45
  • @AndrewLeach how do you mean? – Bob says reinstate Monica Sep 11 at 13:10
  • @Bob Musescore wouldn't allow you to do what you wanted to do. Therefore what you wanted to do was at best unconventional. – Andrew Leach Sep 11 at 13:45
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I think the two alternatives to consider are...

enter image description here

...cross staff versus ledger lines.

I think using ledger lines is the modern way to do it.

It seems to me that cross staff beaming is found in older scores. This beaming...

enter image description here

...also seems to be an old practice.

Personally, I like those old methods, but it's probably better to follow the modern practice.


EDIT

It seems unclear in the posts on this question how to regard the hands in cross staff beaming. My understanding is the same as this quote from Berklee Contemporary Music Notation, although I didn't learn it from that particular book...

enter image description here

...cross staff beaming is used to make clear phrasing and using a single hand.

Also, it seem worth noting that textbook example uses cross beam to avoid three ledger lines. The OP would avoid only two ledger lines.

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  • That's interesting. I've often seen cross-staff beaming used to indicate the precise oppostie: that a single voice is split between hands. This was my intention, so maybe I need to rethink. – Bob says reinstate Monica Sep 10 at 17:08
  • Edit: just googled "cross-staff beaming" to see if I could find anyone agreeing/disagreeing with Berklee and this question was the top result! The rest is just a sea of how-tos for finale/sibelius/etc. so not very helpful. – Bob says reinstate Monica Sep 10 at 17:11
  • yes, I was frustrated by the same searching, and felt a bit of confirmation bias in the Berklee book! Behind Bars seems to be one of the most important reference books about notation. Personally, I don't own a copy, but it seems like it's the kind of thing you need. – Michael Curtis Sep 10 at 17:28
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These two do not sound the same. The E in the left hand (first example) sounds against the RH G; in the second example, the E stands alone (like a piece of cheese).

Whether one uses cross-staff beaming as in the first example or just writ it with two ledger notes doesn't much matter I slightly prefer the ledger lines above the bass clef as it keeps the RH voicing pattern visually separate. The second example places the E as part of the RH pattern.

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    Your first version will naturally lead a pianist to play the E with the RH. If you put the E on a ledger line in the bass clef as suggested some people will expect to play it with the LH. This may be a useful teaching point. Neither is wrong; it depends what you want. – Peter Sep 10 at 3:37
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Some standard ways to write the same thing: (The "OR"s are just alternative beamings.) enter image description here I agree with you, Bob: the first bar, which was your original, looks clearest. It's odd how, without any expression marks or slurs, bars one and four look the most legato and bar two the least. In fact it looks choppy. Bar three seems to emphasize four beats to the bar, while the other bars sound as if they could be in 2/2.

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    I think you are missing an important alternative which is putting the E4 in the bass using two ledger lines. – Michael Curtis Sep 10 at 14:07
  • @Michael Curtis It wouldn't be played by the left hand without a reason. It could be an exercise (as someone has suggested). Or it could be that the right hand is about to play higher up the keyboard or the left hand is changing its position in preparation for what comes next. BUT as the right hand doesn't move higher, and the left hand doesn't change position - they simply repeat the figure - there is no reason to put that E on a ledger line. – Old Brixtonian Sep 10 at 14:24
  • I'm confused by your point about the hands. The cross staff beaming seems to me to mean the figure is played all left hand. The other three look like one voice LH and two voices RH. – Michael Curtis Sep 10 at 14:36
  • e’ in lower stave on ledger lines would have been my answer too. – Albrecht Hügli Sep 10 at 15:45
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On keyboard instruments, the upper staff is, in the absence of markings to the contrary, used to indicate notes played by the right hand and the lower staff for notes to be played by the left hand. The normal purpose of cross-staff beaming would be to show that a rhythmic figure includes some notes which are played by each hand. The first measure in the original question would suggest that the E should be played by the right hand. If the E had instead been written as a ledger line on the bass clef, that would suggest that it should be played by the left hand.

An alternative way of notating the music to show that the right hand should play the E without using cross-staff beaming would be to place the E on a cleff ledger line, but include an L-shaped bracket with the notation "R.H." to the left of the note, with the horizontal part of the bracket just below it.

Some people may find the music easier to read using ledger lines and an explicit R.H. notation, while others may find it easier to read if all right-hand notes were placed on the upper staff. Which approach is better would likely depend upon factors like the relative skill of the person who will be reading the music, whether it would likely be performed by someone who was sight reading, etc. People should be familiar with the different ways of notating such constructs, but that doesn't mean they would be equally adept at reading all of them.

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