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I have a section in a vocal piece where I want singers to hum. I'm going to include "mmm" in my music notation, but is there a good way to more clearly express the intent to hum in the notation?

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    Very seriously, what difference do you make between humming and uttering an m sound? (because I personally don't make any as of now)
    – J B
    Aug 31, 2015 at 18:58
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    @JB I don't, but I just want to know what the conventions are for expressing humming. I want my music to appear professional as opposed to amateur. Sep 8, 2015 at 23:51

3 Answers 3

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Elaine Gould's excellent book Behind Bars includes a section on humming which gives three options for notation:

Humming is indicated by a verbal instruction hum or bocca chiusa, abbrev: b.c. (Italian, 'mouth closed'). It is important to place the instruction above the stave, so that the singer does not articulate it as if it were sung text (a). Where there is frequent alternation with text, two other methods of prescribing humming are useful. To give mm in place of text requires no instruction and is immediately conspicuous (b). Alternatively, the closed-mouth symbol '+' may be substituted, placed above the stave; this symbol should be defined at its first appearance (c).

I've created some short snippets to illustrate these three options.

Example (a):

Figure A

Example (b):

Figure B

Example (c):

Figure C

In my personal experience, I think I've seen option (b) most often, but all three should be clear to the singer as to what is intended.

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  • As an amateur singer, I'd find option (b) far easier to read: it doesn't need a glance away from the line of text, it can be sung directly without having to interpret an instruction, and it's the same way that ‘aah’ and ‘ooh’ and other non-word sounds are indicated. — It's also by far the most common; in fact, I can't recall ever seeing a ‘hum’ instruction in the middle of a line of text.
    – gidds
    Mar 5 at 0:22
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I guess, I'd just write "(hummed)" instead of (or in addition to) the "mmm" ... That should be clear.

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In Music Notation - A Manual of Modern Practice by Gardner Read, 2nd Edition, 1969, p. 299, he gives the symbol for closed mouth [bocca chiusa] as:

Symbol

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  • Would most people recognize this symbol?
    – Edward
    Mar 3 at 16:18
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    @Edward I am a trained choral conductor (albeit with limited experience in the sort of music where one is likely to encounter novel symbols of this kind), and I don't recall ever having seen it. Using m would be a much more efficient way of communicating with readers of the score.
    – phoog
    Mar 3 at 18:52

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