Lots of times I'm asked to play songs from printed notation which has been typeset to minimise the number of printed pages. It's OK when the musical structure is relatively straightforward, and the music contains just 1st and 2nd time bars and maybe a DS or DC and a Coda.

But - often the structure is much more complex than that - so the 1st time bar might be played on the 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 5th times through, and there's also 4th and 6th time bars, sometimes there a DS and a DC. I find I cannot navigate this at speed - I need to spend several minutes mentally threading though the music, rehearsing the jumps. And even then it's often ambiguous what's intended. Often I resort to write a sort of meta-notation, e.g. V1 V2 Chorus V3 bridge Chorus Chorus. But that means I have to try and read my structure notes and the actual printed notation at the same time so my eyes are darting round the page. Not good.

My question is - is existing musical notation the best way to describe the macro structure of music, with lots of repeats, cuts, jumps and so on? If it's not, what's a better way of notating structure? Or is it that existing notation really is good, but it's being used poorly? Are there any conventions to notate the macro structure of music as unambiguously as possible? Things to avoid?

  • I'm with you! Number of times after a band call,I've semi-ignored the charts and 'played by ear', listening incredibly carefully. A couple of drummers I know do the same regularly, and mostly get away with it. If there's time, first thing is to get out highlighters, and mark accordingly. With more time, I've occasionally re-printed sheets so they can be read straight through, but that's rare. I think what we've got is what there is -a compromise - and there aren't any other options. Even better when the artiste says 'by the way, after that third repeat, it says go to D, but I don't sing that'!
    – Tim
    Dec 26, 2018 at 14:53

1 Answer 1


For a recording session, where expert musicians perform after little or no rehearsal, repeats, coda jumps etc are NEVER used. It's all 'written out'.

For a sheet music copy of a pop song, which is unlikely to be sight-read in performance, it's acceptable to save paper with a convoluted repeat structure. (If it takes TOO many sheets of paper, it will be priced so high that no-one's ever going to see it anyway :-)

When preparing a score, we need to balance these two extremes to suit the content and expected use of our score.

And yes, as a pianist who, in this imperfect world, often gets thrown less-than-optimal dots to sight-read, I have my own methods of doing a quick mark-up, which I don't suppose are a lot different to @Brian THOMAS's. Don't kvetch too much. It's partly because we can cope with these things that we GOT the job.

  • Corollary: Depending on how nice the customer is for a session, you may need to fire up your fave notation software and type stuff out to untangle it, or write it out by hand. I'm an extreme noob and I'm with you on that: complex paper-saving repeat structure is not OK for performance. Feb 24, 2019 at 21:45

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