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I'm a programmer and in programming a code can be bad or good. It is easy to see by the way the structure is built and how blocks of code are arranged, what functions and procedures are used, and how everything is organised.

In music as a composer I'm finding it hard to understand whether a score is notated well (whether it corresponds to a professional music notation style guide or rules of notation) or badly. This is probably because I'm not so good at sight-reading music myself, since I have little practice and haven't seen a lot of professional scores (I can't make a comparison to my scores). Anyway, I compose in Guitar Pro 7 (notate using this software) and I always ask myself, "Is the score I am notating good? Is it correctly done? Does is correspond to rules or style guides? Won't a sight-reader have problems playing the score?"

What makes a score well notated, let's say for piano for instance?

Edit: Someone might have misunderstood the question so I'll add what I mean by bad or good:

Is this a piece of score that is badly notated? Well, I definitely think it's a very badly notated score (I did it this way on purpose, to describe what I personally think is a badly notated score). enter image description here

My point of view is that here the notes are improperly durated and tied to each other. The rests aren't optimised for readability. The key signature is missing, although we can see that the piece is written in a key with sharps or flats. The accidentals are a mess, which makes reading harder. Articulation is missing whereupon we can't say how the piece is to be played and what dynamics are used.

A lot of scores I find on the Internet are really badly notated in my opinion. I think this is a very problematic topic. i think that making the score look nice, easily readable and non-problematic for conductors or musicians is a very difficult task in fact.

Another Edit: Is it required to include dynamics and articulation in a score? Is it necessary to include fingering?

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    There are a whole bunch of random smaller note and rest values in this score segment that should be combined for readability. E.g., you should never have five eighth note rests followed by two sixteenth note rests. That should be replaced with a half rest followed by a quarter rest. Double flats and double sharps can probably be replaced with enharmonic equivalents. Sharps and flats should be consistent and there is almost certainly a key signature that could be applied to replace a lot of accidentals to make it easier to read. – Todd Wilcox Jan 18 '18 at 9:17
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    Seems like in this case, you made a score badly written. :-) Seriously, though. It seems like you intentionally created a badly written score, which means you must have known the hallmarks of a bad score so you could incorporate them. Don't do those things. – Todd Wilcox Jan 18 '18 at 10:14
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    It might be helpful to slightly reword the question: how does one know if a score is well-notated? – Thom Smith Jan 18 '18 at 14:26
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    Well, the problem with good typography is that you don't see it. Musical typography has a lot of small hidden rules that help with legibility of the score. At the same time, the musical typography is a branch of art on itself, and in art there's rarely one correct answer. – yo' Jan 18 '18 at 14:42
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    @SovereignSun - wanted to echo Thom Smith - in the world of composition there is a distinct difference between "written" and "notated". "Written" refers to the quality of the content itself. "Notated" refers to how it is presented. There are MANY resources for the latter: Kurt Stone's guide, Elaine Gould's Behind Bars, Gardner Reed's Music Notation as well as websites and associations, such as MOLA (look 'em up!) You're wanting to asking about how to decide if a piece is well-notated = clear to the performer. Does it exactly convey the idea with the least amount of information / effort? – jjmusicnotes Jan 18 '18 at 16:18
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I consider a score to be well notated if it efficiently communicates a musical idea to a performer. A great musical idea that is badly communicated is a bad score. So, how do you communicate effectively? Some thoughts:

  • Choose the most conventional way of doing things. This pretty much encompasses every other point here. Unless there is a good reason, notate in the same way as other scores. There are standard ways to write certain rhythms and use accidentals. There are standard score order layouts. Use them. Why? Experience has conditioned me (and every other musician) to expect certain norms to be followed. If you follow them, then we're going to understand each other quicker and better. The less time I spend trying to find the bassoon part because you've put it next to the tuba, the better. Exception: convention is just convention. If there is a better way of expressing your idea, you should do it. The trick is knowing whether it is better. I'd suggest trying to understand why the convention exists, so that you understand when you can break it.
  • Notate rhythms consistently, and make them as easy to read as possible. This is connected to convention. Can I look at the rhythm, and figure out how to count it? Would it be better if I split some notes? Combined them? Changed the time signature? Used a triplet? Is there a standard way of writing this? A good rule of thumb is asking whether you can easily see where the strong beats fall in the bar.
  • Use key signatures and accidentals appropriately. For a start, use the right key signature. Use the accidentals that would be expected. In C# Major, don't write a Db. Why? Because I have to think about it more, which reduces the effectiveness of your communication. Don't use the more obscure accidentals (double flats and sharps) unless it makes the music clearer. Don't switch between Gb and F# in the same bar/phrase/piece. The more time I spend thinking about accidentals, the less time I think about expression and emotion.
  • Make sure the notes you expect an instrument to play are actually playable. Real instruments have physical limitations. If you can't ask a player, there are many inexpensive or free resources that can tell you what you should do here. Real flutes will struggle to a low C at fortissimo. Real saxophones may not be able to hit a low Bb at pianissimo.
  • Choose the right clef. For example, if you write tenor sax music in bass clef, your idea will not be well communicated, and the music will suffer. If you are writing a score for a conductor, you can use concert pitch, or transposed pitches. Either is usually ok, but if you can ask the conductor, do so. Don't use a mix of the two, though. And be aware that concert pitch music for instruments like bass clarinet may need to be written in bass clef, whilst transposed is written in treble. Here's more good points in another answer.
  • Are dynamics required? Depends on what you are trying to achieve. If you have an idea that requires specific dynamics (and most do), then you should include them. But you should be aware that they are relative levels. A big band forte is different to a concert band forte. Even within the same piece, I'll interpret forte differently depending on the part I have, and the 'feel' of the piece. Lack of dynamic markings does not mean that we won't play dynamics. We'll just choose them ourselves. Even if you do mark them, they will often be adjusted via pencil markings anyway.
  • You should use articulations where the player would not automatically do what you want. That's pretty vague. What I mean is that, for example, in a jazz big band, players are naturally going to articulate rhythms in a certain way that is idiomatic to that genre. If you want to change that, add articulations. But be a little cautious of unnecessarily articulating when a player would do that anyway. Point number two. Articulations mean different things in different genres (e.g., classical staccato vs big band staccato). Be aware of what you are communicating with each symbol. Same letters, different language. Point number three. Be careful of just adding articulations to make the computer playback sound right. Real musicians will get annoyed. If you must, add them, but hide them from the printed parts. Sibelius can do this easily, so I assume the rest probably can as well.
  • Fingering depends on the audience. If you put trumpet fingering on a Grade 5 Concert Band chart, people will think you don't know what you are doing. Why? Because you're communicating too much information. They already know that. No need to repeat it. However, if it's a piece for a beginner, maybe you should print fingering on the harder notes. Fingering on every note should be reserved for technical exercises or when teaching a specific concept. Otherwise it's just redundant.
  • Know your (musician) audience Simple example. I have a score of Silent Night notated in 6/4. It always causes problems with the junior band. If it was written in 3/4, it would fit their expectations more, and they would find it easier to play. Now, 3/4 is actually 'incorrect', because it's not a compound time signature. But I know from experience that it would communicate the musical idea better than 6/4 or 6/8 (my preferred option), or anything else.
  • Score navigation is a big deal. Don't use a complicated sequence of codas and repeat lines if a few extra bars will suffice. Put page turns in logical places, if at all possible. You can almost never have too many rehearsal markings (those numbers/letters that you can use to refer to a specific section). I prefer bar numbers to letters, but either is much better than none. If you are using a computer program, why not add those little bar numbers at the start of every line? Again, Sibelius does this by default. Every second we spend hunting for a bar is a second we don't rehearse your music.
  • The typography and design can be significant. Handwritten is ok as long as we don't end up having a fifteen minute discussion over whether that crotchet is a C or a B because we can't read it properly. There's a whole art form in typesetting a score, and I'm useless in that area, but other people have already answered on that topic. To be honest, I personally care less about this point that many of the others. Opinions may differ. My argument is that a score with bad spacing can still clearly communicate the idea adequately. Sure, it would be improved by proper typesetting, but you might not have the time or budget for that. Don't spend all your time on this, and get all the rest wrong.

This has become much longer than I intended. My main point is that score writing is about communicating a musical idea. A good score communicates clearly.

  • Interesting point about clefs: some scores are written entirely in concert pitch; others as shifted for the instrumentalists' parts. My impression is that conductors tend to prefer concert pitch, making it easier for them to see the harmonies & chords. – Carl Witthoft Jan 18 '18 at 13:01
  • I'm upvoting this answer, mostly because I think that "Choose the most conventional way of doing things" pretty well encapsulates any answer I would write. It seems that the most enduring principles of good writing point us to how to best write rhythms, spacing, line weights, etc. Only two questions: 1. Would you say that it's legitimate to add, "...until an unconventional way proves clearer"? (I think of syncopation with an eighth and quarters rather than eighths tied everywhere.) 2. Would Bach's scores be poorly written? Or is that an example of personal vs production/professional? – Neal Jan 18 '18 at 15:21
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    @CarlWitthoft That's interesting. My experience (concert band) is generally that they prefer transposed, so that they can easily talk to each section without sight transposing. In my case, I often know the conductor I'm writing for, so I just ask them. – endorph Jan 19 '18 at 2:15
  • @Neal 1) Definitely. I didn't want to put too much qualification on every statement, but convention is only convention. If there is a clearer way, it should be used. 2) I kind of ignored the whole typesetting thing. I guess 'fit for purpose' is relevant (scratching down an idea vs. publishing a $500 score). Perhaps also availability of technology? It's harder to excuse an illegible scrawl when there are so many notation programs easily available (even if they can make questionable typesetting decisions). But again, if it communicates clearly to the intended audience, it's fine. – endorph Jan 19 '18 at 2:20
  • @endorph 1) Please remove "Silent night would be easier If it was written in 3/4". This is probably true, but 3/4 and 6/8 are totally different time signatures, thus the song would be another song then. A proper change of time signature would be to 2/4. – tommsch Jan 20 '18 at 15:28
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It's extremely obvious that your score is not optimally spaced. I would also add that the choices of rests and tied notes make the rhythms needlessly difficult to read.

These days, scores are usually typeset by computer rather than by hand. Computer programs, such as , have algorithms that evaluate the beauty and readability of various alternative layouts.

Here are some examples of decisions that the programmers have implemented:

LilyPond 1.4 output for Bach sarabande, annotated with aesthetic faults

  • there is too much space before the time signature
  • the stems of the beamed notes are too long
  • the second and fourth measures are too narrow
  • the slur is awkward-looking
  • the trill marks are too big
  • the stems are too thin

There are readability issues that the LilyPond developers have identified in other software:

Finale doesn’t adjust the positions of interlocking note heads, which makes the music extremely difficult to read when the upper and lower voices exchange positions temporarily:

Good and bad layouts of interlocking note heads

They even criticize scores from professional publishers for looking too rigid and mechanical, since all the notes and bar lines are too regularly aligned.

In summary, yes, it is possible to evaluate scores for beauty and readability. For the details, you can read the source code of LilyPond. =)

  • +1 for citing LilyPond, whose designers have put a lot of effort (including research into the typography of printed music) into making LilyPond produce scores with good typography. The results are clear to see if output from Lilypond is compared to output from Finale or any other app which produces music scores. – Rosie F Jun 5 '18 at 7:43
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Edit: OP's edit has made clear that I misunderstood the original question. I would edit my response, but I think endorph's answer is already terrific. Nevertheless, I'll leave this answer here, unless it's asked to be deleted.


I think it depends on whether or not these scores will be played by humans or be computer-generated. If it's computer-generated, I think this question is mostly opinion-based. Since problems of technique, acoustics, etc. can be rectified digitally, any opinion of the score seems to be mostly subjective.

But if the scores will be played by humans, there are definitely some things to consider:

Physical Considerations

In terms of the piano, there are some things that a single human simply cannot do. With (usually) only 5 fingers on each hand and a limited range within a single hand, a well-written score needs to be physically playable by a human body. Other instruments have other limitations, especially concerning range: you wouldn't write a violin below the bass clef, for instance.

Technical Considerations

Related to the above, even if something is physically possible, that doesn't mean it's practical. Some passages can be too technically demanding, and although they're possible in theory, they aren't possible in practice. Wacky intervals that bounce around the piano in 32nd notes for 6 minutes straight might sound cool, but pretty much every pianist will just scoff at it once they see the score. Similarly, brass players can't articulate leaping staccato sixteenth notes at 200 bpm, nor can they hold an uninterrupted drone for minutes on end like a string player could (circular breathing notwithstanding).

You also need to know who you're writing for. The technical limitations for an 8th-grade symphonic band are very different than those for the Tokyo Kosei Wind Orchestra.

Acoustical/Textural Considerations

Especially with the advent of notation software, inexperienced composers often don't realize just how differently their piece will sound in real life compared to the notation program. A well-written score will always account for nuances in acoustics and texture. You wouldn't put a clarinet solo in its throat-tone (ie, quiet) register while a quartet of trumpets plays forte in the same register. As I see it, this is the only limitation that computer-generated music can't always get out of, but it still usually can.

  • To elaborate on Richard’s answer, something else we talk about is not whether a piece is “good” or “bad” but whether or not it’s “effective”; is it doing what you want it to do? If it does, great, if it goes beyond that, then you’ve created something larger than yourself and those are typically the pieces that stay with us. – jjmusicnotes Jan 18 '18 at 5:36
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    I don't think this is what the OP was asking. I interpreted his question as "how to typeset a score so the conductor can most easily read and interpret it." Your comments are quite useful for composing , though. – Carl Witthoft Jan 18 '18 at 13:00
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    @CarlWitthoft I agree; OP's edit made their intention more clear, and I'll be editing my answer accordingly within an hour or two. – Richard Jan 18 '18 at 13:03
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    Gentleman I think the OP may have some confusion with vocabulary. – jjmusicnotes Jan 18 '18 at 16:13
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    @SovereignSun the awareness of distinction was precisely my point. Did you see my comment in your question? There I outline the difference and it should hopefully be clearer. Hats off to you - your English is light years beyond my Russian, which is non-existant. – jjmusicnotes Jan 19 '18 at 11:54
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I'll fill this in with things that endorph misses.

Ledger Lines, Clefs, and Ottava Lines

All three of these are often used to notate notes that are not in the most-often-used range of the instrument. But some of them are more unreadable than others. For example, having five or more ledger lines for a single note is often a sign of badly written sheet music, as that many ledger lines are hard to read. They're usually a sign that you need to switch clefs or use an ottava line (whether octave above or octave below).

Regarding clefs, some clefs are not used for some instruments, so don't use them for those instruments. For example, alto clefs are virtually never used in piano music, so alto clefs in piano music are signs that the sheet music is badly written. Likewise, bass clarinet music ironically does not use bass clefs, so don't use them in bass clarinet sheet music if you don't want that music to be badly written.

Also, changing clefs more than twice in a single measure makes music hard to read and therefore is a sign that the sheet music is either badly written or has an awkwardly enormous range. Consider using ottava lines or ledger lines in those cases.

Don't overuse ottava lines, though. I recommend that if you can use 3 or fewer ledger lines instead of an ottava line, use the ledger lines. Otherwise, people may wonder why you're misusing those ottava lines.

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