I'm looking for books or articles on typesetting (western) music. Basically the musical equivalent for traditional typesetting, i.e. rules for spacing of symbols, justification, page layout, etc. I'm also interested in music-specific practices like staff positions, grouping notes, and adding an "empty" bar at the end of a line showing the new key signature starting in the next line.

Note: I'm not actually looking for explanations of what these notations actually mean, the history of these notations (unless important for the typesetting) or different notational systems in general.

1 Answer 1


Quick list of the most used ones:

  • Music Notation: Theory and Technique for Music Notation (Berklee Guide by Mark McGrain, 1990): very comprehensive, more directed for those also looking for some background on the music theory behind notation

  • Music Notation: A Manual of Modern Practice (by Gardner Read, 2nd edition, 1979): This acclaimed manual is very thorough and authoritative, adopted by many schools as main reference.

  • Behind Bars: The Definitive Guide to Music Notation (by Elaine Gould, 2011): massive reference on everything you could imagine on music notation. I wish to put my hands on one of these as soon as I have some spare $$$. It makes justice to the term "Definitive".

  • Music Notation in the Twentieth Century: A Practical Guidebook (by Kurt Stone, 1980): focused on most modern/contemporary practices and challenges for musical notation. Also delightful for those more keen on professional/serious engraving. I always have this one handy for those hairy notational questions.

There are plenty of other nice pieces out there. It is up to you to have a look into these options and decide which one best fits your needs. I would personally recommend you to not take them as "bibles". You can use as many reference you need, so don't be shy to stick to two or three different books at a given time. Some "bibliographical promiscuity" won't hurt you at all ;)

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    It's worth noting that the Finale music notation software program came out around 1987-1989. This marked the turning point when various methods of hand-engraved music publishing were rapidly overtaken by computer-generated notation. You can see from the publication dates that only Elaine Gould's book is new enough to take computer software for music notation into account.
    – user1044
    Oct 23, 2013 at 3:56
  • @WheatWilliams great remark on the date issue! however, sticking to sane defaults is still a compelling subject for a lot of meaningful work. Many of said standards come from way before any automated process for printing music. This serves as base, for instance, for the work of LilyPond's developers (please refer to the essay for insight). This way, even resources directed into more handmade engraving can provide timeless reference on music notation (think of the link between a guide of typographic style and the use of LaTeX).
    – SeuMenezes
    Oct 23, 2013 at 21:49
  • another thing: we had notation software (remember SCORE and Amiga/Atari stuff?) before Finale. SCORE is still used and widely regarded for offering overwhelming freedom for achieving mostly anything in terms of typesetting and notational standards (ancient or new), at the notorious cost of a ludicrously steep learning curve.
    – SeuMenezes
    Oct 23, 2013 at 21:56
  • Wow, great list, thank you! "Behind Bars" does indeed look awesome, but it costs as much as the other three combined. Oct 24, 2013 at 19:56

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