Is there any official or at least widely recognized source that documents the visual parameters of music symbols? Something that says things like: "The note head shall be an ellipse with the proportion of the larger radius to the smaller radius of 51:35". Etc.

  • I think this question is a bit borderline in terms of the rules of the site. I believe it is an important and valuable question, and at the same time it is a "resource request", which are generally frowned upon. You could see if there are any votes to close before making any changes, or you could proactively re-word it. One way to reword it would be to specifically ask about notehead size and also say that you would like citations from an authoritative source. Then my answer could stand as it is and your question would definitely be on-topic. Mar 14, 2021 at 14:38
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    Check out this youtube video which talks about music font design: youtube.com/watch?v=XGo4PJd1lng Mar 14, 2021 at 15:12
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    @ToddWilcox - I understand. Thank you for answering it! In my defense, asking about every possible little thing would explode in hundreds of questions, which would quickly become burdensome for everyone. And also, I didn't ask for just any resource. I asked for The One And Only resource to rule them all; blessed by ISO, ECMA, IETF, the Catholic Church and the Nine Muses. To which a fair answer would be "No, sorry, there isn't one". And then, if you're feeling generous, also a little asterisk: "* But everyone uses this book over there which is the next best thing". :)
    – Vilx-
    Mar 14, 2021 at 16:33
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    @Vilx- is there a standard distance for the dot on top of an "i", and is the standard dot a circle or an ellipse? Obviously there's no absolute answer: notation (similarly to text) follows the rules of typography, which has no standard sizes or ratios. A good font is not just "beautiful", but has readability requirements which, for notation, are even more important: a good text font ensures fast reading "flow", but if "decoding" a bad text font is not a big issue, for notation it is, because when you read music your focus should be on how to play a note, not understand what note that is. Mar 14, 2021 at 17:10
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    @guidot - Funny enough, I'm not any of them. I just wanted to draw a few separate notes for a little computer program I'm making and have them be pretty and proper. :) I tried searching the web but could not find all the things I needed, so resolved to create my own. Thus this question was born. But, yes, in general I agree. The audience for this question is pretty narrow. Then again... I'm sure there are other questions here with similarly narrow audiences, like for some more exotic instruments or obscure theory points etc. Still, if you feel the need to close-vote - go for it!
    – Vilx-
    Mar 14, 2021 at 22:09

2 Answers 2


Yes. One of the most widely respected and utilized sources (at least in American universities and professional circles) for the precise parameters of standard notation is the book Behind Bars by Elaine Gould.

Many universities in the US have that book in their music libraries and several professional organizations, such as ASMAC, refer to that book as one of the standard texts on notation.

In the book, Gould does go into detail about the shapes and relative and absolute sizes for all of the most common musical symbols. It is a comprehensive text.

Excerpts related to your example:

The size of every notational symbol is measured in proportion to the stave size.

page 5

Table 2 on page 483 lists the traditional "rastral sizes" for staves for various uses. The sizes are the distance from the top line of a single stave to the bottom line. For piano music that is not for education (which is often printed larger), recommended staff size is between 6mm and 7.4mm. Note that piano parts written into a full orchestral score will usually use a staff size smaller than 6mm.


These are oval-shaped and placed on the stave with a diagonal slant away from the stem.

page 9

The height of the stave-space determines the size of all noteheads, which is crucial to ease of reading.


The notehead fills the space, touching the stave-line on each side of it, but without extending beyond either line.

page 10

Interestingly, Gould does not seem to detail the proportions of the "oval" for noteheads, so the specific example you asked about is not answered the book. It is clarified that the shape of a semibreve (whole note) is a wider oval than that of the minim (half note), which is in turn slightly wider than the black noteheads.

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    "Many universities in the US have that book as required reading"— for what programs? Mar 15, 2021 at 0:16
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    @ElizaWilson I came across it originally in reading lists for more than one composition program but now I can't find those sources. I've edited the answer since I can't support my prior understanding. Mar 15, 2021 at 15:36
  • Huh, I don't think I'd ever noticed the difference in width between note-heads, but on a quick spot-check of some of my books, it does appear to be true most of the time. Mostly only noticeable between whole/half notes and black note-heads. Only difference I noticed between whole and half note-heads is that half notes are slanted like black note-heads, while whole notes are pretty much straight, and the line thickness variation is flipped around - half notes are thicker on top-left/bottom-right, while whole notes are thicker on top-right/bottom-left. Consistent across multiple publishers. Mar 15, 2021 at 15:43

The Music Publishers Association published a style guide: "Standard Music Notation Practice". It does not address notehead size, but it does address other visual parameters. For example

Placement of note heads and accidentals: (a) Many musical symbols slant up from left to right at a uniform angle.

various music symbols demonstrating upward tilt

It also addresses issues such as stem lengths; beam thickness, placement, and angle; duration-based horizontal spacing; and relative placement of symbols like lyrics, dynamic markings, and other instructions.

  • This is a good reference to a more digestible summary of notation conventions - the Gould book is over 1000 pages! Mar 15, 2021 at 15:45

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